In our first episode of How The Yes Was Won, we give context to the introduction of the 8th Amendment by delving in to what was happening in Irish Feminism in the late 70s and early 80s, and the backlash from it. There are links to some additional resources you may be interested in just below.
We spoke with Anne Connolly, Mary Gordon, Dr Ursula Barry, with additional research assistance from Mary McAuliffe.
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Frank Crummy speaking at Dublin Castle on the day of the Referendum count
Dublin Well Woman Centre picket (1978) - Come Here To Me
1983 Eighth Amendment referendum and the Workers Party [wig snatch pic at 4:22]
Mairtin Mac Cormaic: My interview with Fine Gaeler may have sparked original amendment, 5/05/2013
Gene Kerrigan, The Moral Civil War, 31/081983
Linda Connolly - From Revolution to Devolution: A Social Movements Analysis of the Contemporary Womens Movement in Ireland (pdf) (1997)
Written and edited by Deirdre Kelly and Aisling Dolan. Narrated by Aisling Dolan. Produced by Deirdre Kelly, Aisling Dolan, Emma Callaghan, Tara Lonij, Davy Quinlivan
Music: A Dream
Written By Jessie Marie Villa, Matthew Wigton
Performed By Jessie Villa
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Logo: designed by Fintan Wall, featuring Maser's Repeal heart
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Announcer: Votes in favour of the proposal: 1,429,981 *Crowd cheers*
Narrator Aisling [00:00:12]: In May 2018, Ireland held a referendum to Repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. This Amendment was one of the strictest bans on abortion in the world and had been in place for 35 years. This podcast is the story of the campaigners and activists who made Repeal happen.
Repeal was a moment of change in Irish society, a moment of atonement. Ireland has been a cruel place for women since the foundation of the State. In 2018, a lot of historical wrongs were acknowledged for the first time, and Repealing the eighth was about more than changing the Constitution. It was changing the conversation.
My name is Aisling and I'm one of the members of the team behind this podcast. The five of us met during the campaign in 2018. And since that campaign, we saw how the story of Repeal has been rewritten and reframed as a quiet revolution in the media.
We disagreed and we worked together to produce a show that would tell the true story of the struggle against the Eighth Amendment. We want to tell the real story from the people who actually did it.
Throughout 2019, we interviewed activists and organisers who were part of the pro-choice movement from the 1970s onwards. We borrowed a microphone and we went to houses, hotels and offices to collect the story firsthand from the people who lived it.
We spoke with people who opposed the introduction of the Eighth Amendment in 1983 and those who worked outside of the law to provide information and services to pregnant people all the way up to 2018. We met with politicians and anarchists and everyone in between, right up to those who are continuing the fight for reproductive freedom in Ireland today. We took a break in 2020 to deal with the global pandemic, but we're back now releasing the podcast on the third anniversary of the historic Yes vote.
This show is for everyone to better understand the history of the Eighth Amendment, but also to understand that progress in reproductive rights is hard won and must be protected, because any gains will be countered by opposing forces and reproductive rights will always be used as a political tool.
We had all canvassed around the country in 2018 and we knew how important it was to remove the Eighth Amendment from the Constitution. We were all too familiar with the stories of people affected by the Eighth, but we didn't really know much about its origins. Why did Ireland need to have a constitutional ban on abortion when it was already illegal here? We knew Ireland to be a Catholic country, but was this amendment something that the majority of people in Ireland were actually asking for?
Let's take a moment to recap what the Eighth Amendment actually was in layperson's terms. The Eighth Amendment gave equal right to life to a pregnant person and the foetus. This meant that abortion was banned under all circumstances: rape, incest, foetal foetal abnormality or risk to life of the mother were not grounds for abortion.
In practice, this led to countless people travelling to the UK and other countries to access basic health care and forced pregnancy for those who couldn't travel. In later years, people faced 14 years in prison for illegally ordering abortion pills online. In 1992, the State attempted to prevent a 14 year old from travelling to access abortion after she was abused. In 2012 a woman was refused an abortion while she was miscarrying, and she died. In 2014 a brain dead pregnant woman was kept on life support for four weeks against her family's wishes, due to the legal uncertainty around her unborn child. And these are just some of the stories that we know of. There are many others.
To start this story, we need to set the scene for how Ireland viewed and treated women in the 1970s. It was not great. There was some systematic progress for women's rights in the 1970s, but it was slow and could hardly be described as radical or progressive. A marriage bar in the Civil Service meant that up until 1973, women had to retire from their jobs once they got married. Up until the 1970s, the Civil Service also paid women 20% less than married men for the same role. Rape within marriage was legal and would remain so until 1990.
The special relationship between the State and the Catholic Church led to a culture of shame and subjugation for women in particular. The Catholic Church worked with the state to run a network of Magdalene laundries and Mother and Baby Homes around the country to deal with the moral crisis of women who became pregnant outside of marriage, or women who just seemed to be scandalous by their standards for any reason.
Women were kept in these institutions against their will and endured massive human rights violations. They were forced to do backbreaking physical labour from dawn to dusk, and they were often forced to give up their children. The discovery of mass infant graves at many of these sites tells its own grim story. The Magdalene Laundry on Sean McDermott Street in Dublin was the last to close in 1996. And for reference, that's the same year that Spice Girls released Wannabe.
It's important to remember that this was the Ireland for White Settled cis heterosexual women. There was only increased levels of systemic oppression for women from the Travelling community, women of colour, and it was a general shit show for LGBTQIA+ people of all genders.
Starting out the research for this podcast. We were familiar with this story of 1970s Ireland, but we found it was not the full story. Yes, Ireland was conservative and yes, the Catholic Church still held huge power over people. But amidst all this, a group of young women were meeting in the basement of a clinic on Eccles Street in Dublin trying to change the world.
Ursula: My name is Ursula Barry and I'm from Dublin. I'm a feminist, academic and activist. And I run a gender studies programme in UCD.
Interviewer Tara: What issues were Irish feminists concerned with in the late 70s and early 80s?
Ursula: Well, the main issue, it was an issue of reproductive rights. But at that time it was contraception and the right to access contraception that dominated most of the 70s.
And it was successful in the end of the 70s. We did get contraception legalised. But it was partial legalisation and it took time to get it fully legalised. But what's interesting in the way the whole battle over reproductive rights has developed in Ireland is in 1973, two things happened. One is the Roe versus Wade case in America, which created legal access to abortion via the Supreme Court.
And the second thing is in Ireland, there was also a Supreme Court case, the McGee case in 1973, which created access for married couples to contraception.
So one of the reasons why there was a build up on the conservative right in Ireland, the Catholic fundamentalist organisations, one of the things they wanted to do was create a constitutional prohibition on abortion because they had seen how contraception was eventually legalised in the Republic. And they'd also see what happened in America. And America was very influential on the anti-abortion organisations in Ireland.
So in that sense, once contraception was legalised in 1980, within a year, the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign was launched with the specific aim of getting an abortion prohibition into the Constitution.
Narrator Aisling [00:07:07]: The McGee case was a landmark case to allow contraceptives to be made legal in Ireland based on the right to marital privacy as opposed to just the right to access them. But this led to an increasing availability of contraceptives on the black market. Those in the know knew where to get them.
Ursula: There was lots of kind of very imaginative activism right through the 70s that women engaged in an organisation called Irish Women United was set up in 1975 that launched a contraception action campaign. And they would go out to different communities around Dublin and Cork to to set up stalls, to gather petitions and signatures and also to sell contraceptives, which was also prohibited under the law.
And at times we would go to women's groups or community groups and give talks around contraception, contraception access. Well, there was one occasion that a friend of mine, Pauline Conroy and I were out in Ballymun in the towers, and we had organised a meeting to talk about contraception and we had got a suitcase from one of the family planning services are all kinds of different examples of different kind of contraceptives. We were supposed to show them and talk about them and all the rest. And then in the middle of the meeting, myself and Pauline picked up this item from the suitcase and we're looking at it. We were talking about how it worked and we couldn't.. we thought it was a condom. We couldn't open it up. And we were trying to show how condom work to the to the working class women of Ballymun. And one of the women at the back of the room said “That's not a condom. That's a diaphragm!”
So here we were. We were so clueless half the time, and we thought we were all kind of knowledgeable. We were so young and talking to experienced women that have been around for for decades.
Narrator Aisling [00:08:48]: Another place that people could go and get condoms if they needed to was the Well Woman Centre in Dublin. We spoke with Anne Connolly, who was the founder of the Well Woman Centre, to find out more about this rollout and the nature of women's health care and reproductive health care at the time.
Anne: My name is Anne Connolly and I'm from Dublin.
The late 70s, the mid 70s, I suppose by by the time the Woman Centre opened in Leeson Street in January 1978, there was already four clinics in fact, in operation. The Family Planning Association, Family Planning Services, Galway had started up in a sort of small way, and then Cork had. And then the Well Woman opened in January '78.
The Marie Stopes Clinic in the UK, which was an international organisation, had approached me about setting up the Well Woman and I had had a lot of reservations about them as an organisation, which I continue to have, but took a decision that it was better to go with an organisation that could fast track the establishment. They were able to provide initial funding and some expertise so I was able to get some training in London.
But when we.. when I began in March 77 to go about making this happen, finding a premises, beginning to find staff, working out how you could get supplies, how you would operate the whole clinic, the first difficulty was finding a landlord who was prepared to give you a premises. And most of the auctioneers wouldn't really countenance a conversation with you, with two noble exceptions. And in the end, we just happened to come across an individual who owned a house on Leeson Street. He had a day job and he was looking to rent the basement and really didn't care what we did in the basement and in fact, was quite supportive about it. So but it took a lot of work before we could even find a premises.
And then it took even more work trying to find staff willing to to work with us. So at that stage, thanks to the Family Planning Association, they were running training courses for doctors and nurses in family planning. So, nurses.. It was easy to get really excellent nurses. And there were some wonderful nurses we had straight from the start. But finding doctors willing to work with us proved very difficult. And two of those who had 'volunteered' as it were, they were paid posts, but they were willing to take the risk of working with us - had to advise us two days before we formally opened that they had been advised by their Prof in the Mater hospital Prof De Valera that they could choose between a career in medicine and hospital based medicine or in the Well Woman.
So we... Had our formal launch without any doctors and no clear pathway to finding them either, but we went ahead with the launch and got zero press coverage, which was surprising in a sense because Marie Stopes, most people would have known it was an organisation that, amongst other services, offered pregnancy counselling and referrals for abortion.
And from the very beginning, we were very clear that that was an integral part of our service provision. So while we provided the full range of contraceptive services, including vasectomy, we also offered non-directive pregnancy counselling, and were very clear that should the woman choose to terminate the pregnancy, we would prefer her to the UK. But despite that, there was no coverage till that afternoon when SPUC, the Society for Protection of the Unborn Child, they mounted a picket outside the door.
And we called the Evening Press, Evening Herald and the rest was history. We got front page that evening. I think front page in most of the papers the following day, but certainly extensive media coverage and the the clients began to come in in significant numbers from the very start.
An anecdote that I'm very fond of telling regarding the the Cork Family Planning Clinic. You can imagine that in a in a smaller city, you were even braver putting your head above the parapet in setting up a clinic. And the people behind it, again, quite typically a gynaecologist from the teaching hospital and a committee of very good people, took the risk, rented a premises in Tuckey Street in Cork, but were very nervous about anybody knowing about them, given that they couldn't advertise or promote. And the Sunday before they opened, the bishop issued a statement to be read out at every mass by every priest in the diocese, advising those parishioners that it was a sin for them to go to the clinic that was opening on number 4 Tuckey Street, Cork the following week. And that was all the promotion they needed. So it was one of those wonderful moments.
Interviewer Tara: How did women tend to feel in their attendance to the Well Woman Centre?
Anne: Well, I think the women who came to us had very mixed feelings about coming to us in the first place. And the more they came, the more confident they became. But certainly some would have been very, very apprehensive of just even going in that gate of the basement area and being seen to come down it.
And that was true for a lot of the men who came to buy their condoms as well. So there was for for many that would have been a big embarrassment. I think I'm fairly confident we put them at their ease very, very quickly.
And you could certainly see over the years that that changed quite a lot as a younger generation of women were more and more confident about this being right and a service that they wished to avail of. So you could see it change.
Narrator Aisling [00:15:13]: So despite the best efforts of the church, the Well Woman Centre and other pregnancy counselling services were in huge demand. At one stage, the Well Woman Centre had 100 beds pre-booked every weekend in the UK for Irish women travelling for abortion services. There were an estimated 4,500 people travelling each year at this point, and that number only includes those who gave Irish addresses.
In this context, it was clear that Ireland badly needed abortion services at home. At the same time, a pro-life group called the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child or SPUC, were protesting pro-choice spaces. A group of women got together to start the right to choose group to promote a pro-choice viewpoint. Anne Connolly and Ursula Barry were, of course involved, along with Mary Gordon, who you'll hear from now.
Mary Gordon: When I was a student in college, I developed a very strong feminist ideas. I saw myself as a feminist. I was a feminist. I was very confident about my feminist views and they would have included the right to choose. So I suppose I was I was a feminist, I was a socialist. And I and I felt very strongly that abortion was a really important issue in terms of the ideology of feminism, that it was it was clearly a kind of a slightly uncomfortable issue, for a lot of people. But apart from the fact that it was a very radical kind of position to be pro-choice, but I also felt that there was a really good reason why being pro-choice was a necessary part of being a feminist, that it was a it was necessary for women to achieve liberation and for women's capacity to have children not to be used against us, but to be an actual benefit, a positive thing. It had to be something we had choice and control over. And for that reason, I thought it was kind of almost like the ultimate feminist issue that had to be argued for, so I was really interested in it as an ideological concept.
But the Right to Choose group, I don't know how much you know about the ins and outs of the group, but it was set up, as I said, by Anne Connolly, because basically the the Well Woman Clinic, was doing a lot of pregnancy counselling at the time and abortion referral, and they were very upfront about it. And they were you know, they didn't deny it for a second, but they actually had difficulty accommodating the demand.
And so the Right to Choose group was being set up in order to set up another counselling centre or service, which was called the Irish Pregnancy Counselling Centre. That was set up in, what was the name of the street?.. near near Mountjoy Square. We had a centre there and the group used to meet there, I can't.. I think probably once a week, but I'm not completely sure about that. And I was there because I was really wanted to, you know, to be promoting choice and to look at ways in which that might be done. So thinking about public meetings and writing and, I don't know, getting out to the media or whatever.
But in in effect, most of what we were doing in the Right to Choose group was trying to manage the Irish Pregnancy Counselling Centre, which, although it was busy, wasn't paying it’s way that we I think we were charging very little or we were charging women with no money, nothing, you know, to attend or for whatever for whatever reason. It was always in, in dire difficulty. So the irony was there we were providing a service, but the service really didn't pay its way. So that was always the kind of the crisis for the group.
We had a conference, a one day conference in Liberty Hall in the basement of Liberty Hall, which I remember well. And it was kind of famous because it Loreta Brown from SPUC attended with a wig, and her wig was ,was taken off at one point and she was exposed and she was never seen again.
Narrator Aisling [00:18:55] That's right. An actual wig snatch.
Mary Gordon: There were a few public meetings and that was one really famous one. Again, famous maybe only in some circles, but it was chaired by Mary McAleese, who was a lecturer in Law at the time, and Trinity, and she chaired this meeting.
Narrator Aisling [00:19:09]: Mary McAleese later went on to become the second female president of Ireland.
Mary Gordon: again in the basement. And Liberty Hall and Mary Holland spoke and June Levine spoke, and Jill Tweedie, she was a journalist in in Britain, but SPUC attended. They came along and attended and they they shouted things at people who were speaking.
So they told Mary Holland, who had to leave early because she was going to a children's birthday party, that there was a child missing from that party because Mary had told people that she had had an abortion, extremely bravely. And they were basically pretty horrible. And they stood at the end of the meeting, they stood on the stairs all the way up. So if you were passing out, you had to pass between two rows of them leaning against the walls with their placards and so on. So that was that was pretty hair-raising.
Narrator Aisling [00:20:01]: The Right to Choose group aimed to highlight the need for abortion services in Ireland and to make the issue more public.
At this time, prior to the introduction of the Eighth Amendment, abortion was illegal in Ireland under the Offences Against the Person Act from 1861. But as Ursula mentioned earlier, the Catholic far right wanted to insert a pro-life amendment into the Constitution to copper-fasten the law against any future provision of the service abortion.
Anne: Abortion at that stage was really a non-discussable issue in a way which is probably difficult to comprehend, that it wasn't even just that people were very clearly anti-abortion, it just wasn't on the radar screen and it was the non-discussable ability of it, which I suppose we wanted to challenge and to bring out the extent to which abortion was a fact of Irish life. At that stage, the numbers were high. There was about four and a half, 4600, 4800 - it varied each year - of women going to the UK for abortions, according to the statistics of the UK organisations that provided abortions.
So a very small group of us, you know, there was 10 of us, 12, 15 of us on a very, very good day. And we began to meet to look at how we might take the issue more public. And in that sense, it's surprising in some way that a group created itself in opposition to us, which became PLAC - the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign - which sought to have an amendment to the Constitution.
Now, it's also interesting to remember that the actual trigger in some ways was in Fine Gael, a vice president of Fine Gael at the time, a very young woman who'd been promoted from their youth wing to their executive, had proposed at their annual conference some liberal position on abortion. Maria Stack, I think her name was. And that caused controversy, huge controversy within Fine Gael as they all rushed to show how clearly they were an anti-abortion party, as all the others were too.
Interviewer Tara: Mary Gordon from my understanding.
Anne: Yes, that's right. Mary
Interviewer Tara: that she described this. Her memory was really like 5 of ye’s meeting up in a basement.
Anne: That's right. The 5 of us met originally in my office in the Well Woman. And I think at our maximum strength in those in those very early days, we were about 15. But there was certainly a very small cohort
Interviewer Tara: Mary Gordon just made it sound like the 5 of ye’s huddled in some basement
Anne : That's right. And this was the basement in the Well Woman. Yeah!
Interviewer Tara: PLAC is going…
Anne: That's right. Suddenly there there's a national.. there's a national threat.
Mary Gordon : So we started in 1980 and the SPUC came to Ireland in 1981, the following year, and they immediately started lobbying along with what became the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign for an amendment to the Constitution, arguing that there was a necessity to put some protection in the Constitution because there was a demand for abortion rights in Ireland. So that was us, our tiny little group who were worrying about paying for the service we were trying to provide. And we were the excuse that they produced for why there was a need to do something in the Constitution.
And I know I mean, some of my colleagues in the in the Right to Choose group are still worried to this day about whether or not that wasn't the case and therefore that we should never have existed - we facilitated the amendment. But I kinda suspect they would have come to Ireland anyway and they would have found a way of making the argument that they made.
Narrator Aisling [00:23:43]: So to sum up, Irish feminists saw themselves very much in line with the development of feminism in other countries.
*Theme music plays over the rest of the following text*
Reproductive health care was the key issue and they were working to ensure that people could access that health care if they needed it. The Catholic far right saw this and immediately reacted to stamp it out. As Mary mentioned, there were some on the left that felt that this small bit of activism on their end was the cause of this backlash and that they somehow bear some responsibility for what was to come. But if the only way you could prevent the Eighth Amendment was by not providing access to abortion in the first place, then they have you either way.
On our next episode, we'll move on to the 1983 referendum and the campaign which attempted to prevent the introduction of the Eighth Amendment. We'll be bringing you interviews with those involved in the Anti-Amendment Campaign who canvassed around the country for a No vote. See you then.
Narrator Deirdre [00:24:37] Many thanks to Dr. Ursula Barry, Anne Connolly and Mary Gordon for speaking to us for this episode.
Special thanks to Dr Mary McAuliffe for assisting us in the research for this episode.
If you'd like to this podcast, we'd love it if you could share it with some of your friends. Subscribe to us wherever you get your podcasts and follow us on the Socials @HowTheYesWasWon.
If you enjoyed listening, please consider donating to Abortion Support Network if you can. The Abortion Support Network provides advice and financial assistance to people resident in Ireland, Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man, Malta, Gibraltar and Poland who need to travel abroad for abortions. Covid has added extra complications and costs to an already complicated process. They need more support now, to meet the increased demands for their services. There's a link in the show notes where you can donate to support their clients or go to ASN.org.uk
How The Yes Was Won was researched, produced and edited by Aisling Dolan, Emma Callaghan, Davy Quinlivan, Tara Lonji, and me Deirdre Kelly. Additional recording support from Fin Dwyer.
Thanks for listening. Slán go fóill