How The Yes Was Won

Episode 4: Let Her Go

June 04, 2021 Aisling Dolan, Deirdre Kelly, Emma Callaghan, Tara Lonij, Davy Quinlivan Season 1 Episode 4
How The Yes Was Won
Episode 4: Let Her Go
Show Notes Transcript

Content Warning: This episode includes mentions of the sexual assault of a minor. We don't go into detail, but it may be distressing for some listeners, and listener discretion is advised.

On this episode of How The Yes Was Won, we cover The X Case, the first real challenge to the 8th Amendment. We cover how this case led to widespread public demonstrations, and culminated in the public voting in 3 additional referenda on the same day to increase access to abortion, and information on abortion services overseas. We also cover how in 2002, conservative politicians attempted to rollback on these referenda, despite the fact that none of it had been made practicable by legislation. Links to additional resources are below.

We spoke with Dr Ursula Barry, Mary Ryder, and Niall Behan for this episode.

If you would like to help increase access to abortion in Ireland and elsewhere, please consider donating to the Abortion Support Network.

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RTÉ report from the X case protest march 

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 

Produced ByJessie Villa

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Logo: designed by Fintan Wall,  featuring Maser's Repeal heart  

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Mary Ryder: It's just all of that, you realise.. the how women will always.. if you have women friends, you know, you will find a way around.

Intro music plays for a few seconds and then fades out*

Narrator Aisling [00:00:09]: Welcome back to How The Yes Was Won, a podcast about the 8th Amendment.

Before we get into the episode, just a content warning to let you know that this episode includes references to a case of child sexual assault, and may be distressing for some listeners. 

In the previous episode, we spoke with the people involved in campaigning and activism following the introduction of the 8th Amendment to the Irish Constitution. There was a Constitutional ban on abortion in Ireland, but people were still regularly travelling overseas. Women’s groups and students unions kept working to get the information out about abortion providers in the UK and other countries.

The phrase ‘to get the boat’ was becoming a common euphemism. If you had the details and you had the means, you could get information on where to travel. 

Abortion was still a very hush, hush topic. 

But the story of one young girl was about to bring the issue to national attention. She was called Miss X in the court records to protect her anonymity as she was a minor. Ursula Barry spoke to us about what would become known as the X case.  

Ursula: Well, the X case happened in 1992 and is concerned a young girl, she was 13 years of age at the time and she had been sexually abused by a neighbour and she was pregnant. And her parents were very supportive of her. And she was not in a good way. She was suicidal and she had been designated suicidal by her GP. And the parents were really worried. So they wanted to bring her to England in order to access abortion services. 

But they also knew that she'd been abused. So before they went, they went to the local police station, the Garda station and they asked the question as to whether when they brought their daughter to England, could they use the foetal remains as DNA evidence, as evidence in order to identify the sexual abuser. And from that enquiry at the desk, at the Garda Station, things went completely insane. 

What happened with the sergeant on duty and reported  itto the Phoenix Park, to the central Garda headquarters that this woman was asking about abortion and her daughter travelling to England and she going have an abortion. And the ‘83 amendment - like 'we have to we have a duty to stop it'. 

And they, in the Gardai station headquarters contacted the Attorney General. And the Attorney General brought a court case an injunction to stop the parents and the young girl traveling to England for an abortion. So the High Court granted an injunction and everything went public because it was in the High Court case and everything went public. 

And the following day, full page Irish Times, was a picture of the island of Ireland surrounded by barbed wire and in the middle of as a young girl with, with a teddy bear. And they said "Ireland introduces internment for 13 year old girls" was the headline. And that happened all over all the media was just nothing was being talked about other than this injunction that was stopping parents doing what they thought was right for their 13 year old girl. 

And there was massive demonstrations immediately all over the city. And everybody sat down. We were freedom to move. And everywhere in the country, there was massive demonstrations. 

So that suddenly created a situation where the 1983 amendment, which had put foetal rights and anti-abortion clause in the amendment, had suddenly become what we had said it could do when we were campaigning against that amendment - is create a situation where women would not be able to travel to England.  And women were travelling to England, thousands every year, 10 a day was kind of numbers that were commonly cited. And this was just one case. 

Narrator Aisling [00:04:03] :We asked Mary Ryder how she came to hear about the case. 

Mary Ryder: Essentially what happened was The Irish Times published... I still can see it on the page. Right. The Irish Times published the tiniest little article, you know, about this 13-year-old young woman who had been brought back from England, not having had having looked for, you know, a termination of pregnancy. And that was in there. And we at that stage were handing out the leaflet with 6794700. We were there on O'Connell Street every Saturday. When we saw this, we said we'll have a rally. So let's say this is that was our Saturday handing out. We said we'd have a rally on the Tuesday at the GPO, and we had a rally on the Tuesday or Wednesday. And there's about 100 people came to it, which was really good.  You know, and we shouted the number out and said, 'Let her go' or whatever. I think that was this or maybe that slogan came up later. But anyway, we did all of that and then we said, you know, we have to organise a march. 

So we said we'd organise it for the following Saturday. It's all in a very short period. Maybe it could have been two weeks in total. And so we literally got on to anybody we knew who had been involved in the Anti-Amendment Campaign. And this is all by dialing the numbers, one after the other, though we did have telephone trees, you see, we always had telephone trees. So that's obviously.. you only had to dial a certain number of numbers and everybody else until their seven. And you had seven numbers. Everybody had seven numbers so that, the telephone tree off it went. 

And during that week, Eamonn McCann, who was in Derry, his partner is Goretti Horgan, who was administrator of the Anti-Amendment Campaign, Eamonn put out a statement. And it couldn't have been.. because Hot Press around there, was some musical magazine because he wrote all the time on music and Sinéad O’Connor, who's a personal friend of his, picked it up. 

And Sinéad O’Connor went on the Gay Byrne show on Friday. So we were holding our march on Saturday and she went on the Gay Byrne show on Friday and said that women should have the right, that that let her go, that X, that young woman should be able to go. So we had expected at the march we were hoping for five, six hundred people. 20,000 turned up, it was extraordinary.. I mean just even now.. you can.. I can feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up!

And we had a van, we had an auld battered van with a ladder on the side of it. I think it was a painter-decorator friend of ours, and the ladder on the side and a little, you know, and a loudspeaker system on it. And we had a parked at the GPO and that's where we're going to come back to at the end of the march, whatever it was. And then, of course, everybody turned up cos Sinéad O'Connor was going to be on it and she announced it. And everybody was ringing in the Gay Byrne and saying "it was disgraceful he gave her the time", et cetera, et cetera. So it really built up. 

But in the meantime, as well, oh it must have been two weeks. In the meantime, we had from the previous Saturday, that was it. We decided to have a petition at the GPO and I still have some of those petitions... And we asked people to sign to say 'Let her go'. And young women came up, schoolgirl's and took the petitions and photocopied them and brought them into their schools. 

But it's just honestly, it's even now it is so moving. You see this handwriting of these 11, 12, 13 year olds, you know - "year 3"  ,"6th class"-  all of those saying 'let her go' with their names, address, their mammy's phone number. And they have 'Mammy's phone number' written on top of it. Like it's just heartbreaking stuff, but very, very moving that they, even they who supposedly knew nothing about abortion were actually saying 'let her go'. So they turned up in their school uniforms on this march. Lots of kids from schools in their uniforms as well. 

So 20,000 people turned up and everybody, of course, was fighting to get on the platform then to speak. That was the hard part. People who hadn't been around in any of the campaigns, haven't been handing out leaflets, hadn't been on that. And so there was Eddie, myself, Mary Gordon.. was about five or six of us who were really the people who had pulled it together, even though there was a bigger group. And I still remember beating people off the ladder. I was holding onto the ladder myself and Eddie, and we wouldn't let people up the ladder because they just wanted to climb up the ladder and make speech. Right. But the 20,000 was fantastic. And that was on the Saturday and the Supreme Court were meeting on the Wednesday to make a decision on, because the appeal had gone through.

Essentially, I made the final speech on the platform from the maybe it was the Right to Information. I don't know which group I was speaking on behalf of, but we had agreed on it. And what we did was we took the names of the judges. I still have the speech at home, actually, but we took the name of the judges. And so we said, I can't remember the names now, but let me let's just make up Joe Bloggs, right. "Supreme Court Judge Joe Bloggs, age 74. Fine Gael appointed" and of course, no women on the Supreme Court, and we named the man we named all of the boards that they had been on, some of them were members of the Knights of Columbanus, etc.. So we went through, you know, I went through all of this. 'Who are they to make those decisions? 'We wouldn't allow them make the decisions and it was 'let her go'. Right. 

So that was anyway, on Wednesday, the Supreme Court obviously got word from government - 'let her go' you know, 'agree that this appeal is going to win'. So she won the appeal and ended up going for a late abortion in Britain. 

She had already gone to Britain and had come back. So she probably was maybe 14 or 15 weeks or even more pregnant at that stage. So it was really horrendous, you know, but that was that march was absolutely huge. And, of course, it hit the headlines all around the world. There was the Martyn Turner cartoon, which is still the most famous cartoon of that period. It's fantastic one. It's a map of the whole of Ireland with barbed wire on the bor...all around the seafront, all the way around. And she's this tiny little girl with the teddy bear in the middle of it..

Ursula: The injunction that had been taken out by the High Court against the girl travelling, was appealed to the Supreme Court. 

So the Supreme Court produced a judgement that nobody was expecting, produced a judgement that said because the 1983 amendment gave a kind of right to life for the foetus, but also a right to life of the pregnant woman. And because the young woman was suicidal, there was a threat to her life that had been validated by the professions and that therefore she did have a right to travel because she had a right, and they had the right to protect and defend her life. So that meant that the injunction was lifted. 

Narrator Aisling [00:10:50]: The young girl at the centre of the X case was finally allowed to travel to the UK for her abortion. She later miscarried the pregnancy while waiting in an English hospital. 

Religious organisations who were opposed to the injunction being lifted were not going to take this judgement lying down.

Ursula: I suppose you know The Late Late Show in Ireland, one of the current affairs programme, The Late Late Show, because in the middle of this debate, had a whole programme devoted to the case and they had a whole audience of people and some of us who are in favour of the right to choose, etc., and a whole pile of anti-abortion people. And they had a panel of 'people' as well, be careful what I say... 

But there was one guy on the panel. He was a priest that was later found, that he had a housekeeper living with him, who he had got pregnant. So anyway, and he had two children. Anyway. 

He got up in the middle of the late Late Show and he said "This case was something that was thrown up into the debate by the pro-choice people, that they had made it up and there was no such thing. This girl, who was 13, she had a Spanish boyfriend. There was no sexual abuse that hadn't happened". And this and that the other. And he went and this audience came up, stood up and applauded from wall to wall as our people were sitting down there. 

And it was just the most horrendous thing to accuse the parents and the girl in this way. And as if he had inside knowledge of a real situation with all of which was completely false. And it was also completely shown to be false when later on, actually the neighbour that abused the child was convicted and everything. So that...sorry, that that all happened at a later date. So everything was vindicated, what the parents are doing. 

Narrator Aisling [00:12:38]: But even while religious organisations were holding on to their staunch views, public opinion was beginning to change. 

Mary Ryder: But I think after the X case march, they realised they weren't quite on the ground that they had been on previously. 

They thought and, you know, this was a good Catholic family and a law-abiding family. I think that was it. They were good people who had come back when the Guard said come back

It was when people began to say, “I'm not in favour of abortion except”. And that was the beginning, once you heard “except" you knew you were on, you know, it was the open, not the open door, but was the beginning of the open door. Made a massive change, massive change...  And people began raising funds for people to go for abortions, you know, locally, students, unions, things like that. They'd have funds, they'd have... All that happened after the X case. 

It was fantastic. It was it was really a huge I mean, it didn't feel like it, as you look back on it now and you realise all the things that came out of it. But at the time it was just the demonstration alone of 20,000 was massive by Irish standards. As you know, you'd be talking about a couple of million in Paris in terms of population. So it really was quite something. Yeah, and the issue of abortion was on the agenda. 

Narrator Aisling [00:13:58]: Abortion was indeed back on the agenda. The Supreme Court had ruled that a person had the right to end a pregnancy if there was a risk to life. The X case was an indication to people that the topic was more nuanced than they had thought. 

But it also showed the anti-abortion side that there was still more work to do, and they got to work. They began pushing for yet another referendum. In November 1992 there were three referenda on the same day, to address the issues raised by the case. 

Ursula: The anti-abortion people were absolutely furious. This was their nightmare scenario that the Supreme Court would in some way create access to abortion. 

And therefore they immediately went on the rampage, building up a campaign to have a new referendum, because they wanted to first of all, exclude suicide from a health...risk to the life of a woman to exclude suicide. And secondly, to.. they wanted to change the amendment to having it more rigid role, more rigid formulation that didn't allow for equal rights for the foetus and pregnant woman. So that's why they wanted to do. 

And that was a whole... because the amount of mobilisation around the X case was huge and it continued for, for a considerable amount of time. And that led up to a referendum, in the autumn, which had asked three questions. One about whether women had the right to travel. Second, whether they had the right to information, and thirdly, whether suicide should be included as a reason, as a risk to the life of a woman. So we were campaigning for a Yes for information and Yes for travel, but No to excluding suicide as a risk to the life of women. So that was difficult. We were campaigning for Yes, Yes. No. 

In the end of the day, we were successful. The right to travel was put down, the right to information was agreed, and then they clause that restricted suicide as a threat to women's life was rejected. I mean, we were clearly arguing we wanted that clause to be rejected for reasons of protecting women's right to life. And a threat to suicide is clearly a threat to a woman's life. So that's what we were arguing and that's what came through.

So Yes, Yes, No was the vote that we achieved in 1992, which is a really phenomenal achievement in the way because it was ten years after all of the court cases that happened against the student union and information and health clinics in the meantime. And 'abortion' was still a taboo word and in lots of ways. But we still managed to win. And that was on the back of the X case, that we managed to win that vote in the autumn of 1992.

Interviewer Tara: Did you do much door knocking during that?

Ursula: Lots of door knocking, lots of door knocking. And I mean, it was easier,  in lots of ways. There wasn't much hostility. And because of a sort of sympathy and because it was around a story, like we have spoken about, it was around a story of an individual woman. There was much more immediate sympathy for the case that we were trying to put forward, so that, that shifted it didn't shift it 100%, but it shifted significantly.

And you can see that as well from the polls that were out at the time, saying whether abortion should be legalised in certain circumstances or not. And those polls began to shift, where in the 70s it was No, and the 83 it was still No. By the time we got to 92, it was Yes, in particular circumstances. 

Narrator Aisling [00:17:29]: Campaigners from 1983 said that the low turnout of 53%  then was due to people being confused by the Amendment and that people didn’t know what the right thing to do was. Turnout in 1992 was 68%, perhaps because people had a better idea of what was right.

60% voted to allow the people in Ireland to access information about abortion services abroad. 62% voted to allow people to travel abroad for abortion services. 

However this was not a referral system. There was no communication between medical services here and the clinic abroad. A doctor would bring up a clinic’s website on their computer, and turn the screen around to you for you to take down the number. But they couldn’t tell you the number.

65% also voted to not exclude the risk of suicide as sufficient reason to access an abortion legally. That last one is a bit clunky, so essential 65% of people voted that an abortion would be allowed if the pregnant person was suicidal. However, this was completely ignored by a series of successive governments. In order for a referendum to be practicable, it needs to be legislated for. And the legislation for X wasn’t written into law until 2013. The will of the people was ignored for 21 years. But don't worry we’ll talk more about this in a later episode.

We know this is confusing, and it was confusing to service providers at the time. Nobody was sure what they could or couldn’t do or say in relation to abortions. There was no true clarity on who could access an abortion in Ireland until January 2019. 

So what happened in those intervening years? We spoke with Niall Behan, Chief Executive of the Irish Family Planning Association, to find out more about the movement after 1992 and how the anti-choice movement were still working hard.

Niall: Basically from, from 1992 to 2002, there was a real kind of sense of unfinished business. We had a lot of Oireachtas committees, we had an Oireachtas committee on the kind of review of the Constitution, and they were looking at the abortion issue, all the time. 

What was left kind of hanging was what they were going to do with the X case and the implementation of the X case judgement. They had tried to kind of roll back the X case to take out the provision for suicide in 1992, and that was rejected by the people.

In 2002, the government was under pressure to come to come up with a new proposal, to deal with the X case. What they proposed was actually unbelievable when you think back. What they proposed to do is, they proposal to write a very conservative law and take out the provision for suicide in the X case and right...put the whole legislation into the Constitution. 

So it wasn't just a clause in the Constitution, it was all the legislation would go into the Constitution. That means the law would not be able to be changed at all, or amended in any way, without a constitutional referendum. 

That proposal was kind of.. split progressive people, in that some people saw this as an opportunity to actually allow abortion in very limited, very tiny kind of limited circumstances, where a woman's life is at risk, when there’s a real.. a real substantial threat to the woman's life. So some people kind of voted Yes for for for that reason. But the vast majority of progressive people voted No, because it was a rolling back of the X case. And what they were looking for was more progress. They wanted the opportunity to improve and to vote on something that would improve access.

The anti choice organisations will tell you that they were split as well. The vast majority of anti-choice people voted yes. And there was a small group, mainly of a group called Youth Defence, who voted No because they didn't agree to any abortion, even to save the woman's life. 

So we ended up with this kind of .. this stalemate. I think there was a lot of people that were really kind of upset around this kind of process as well, that you would actually put legislation like this into the Constitution. So there was a feeling kind of really after there was that real kind of feeling of of a stalemate. 

Underlying everything was that this idea that there was a profound moral opposition among Irish people. It was a very confusing referendum. So some people were confused around kind of which which side was the progressive side. So you had Youth Defence and pro-choice activists both looking for a kind of a No vote. 

But it was deliberately done that... it was deliberately kind of done that way to kind of confuse and throw up smoke. And probably one of the reasons why people struggle to remember this is because the turnout was so low. 

Narrator Aisling [00:22:12] : So by 2002, Ireland had voted in five referenda about the right to choose and you still couldn't get an abortion. 

From next episode, we'll start to tell the story of repealing the 8th. But it's important to learn from this part of the story as well. 

Even though the anti-choice side had won in 1983, they kept fighting. Any time the dial was moved forward, they petitioned to move it back. They targeted clinics suspected of providing information. They accused a child of lying about being sexually assaulted on national television. They wanted zero tolerance for abortion in Ireland. And for the most part, they got it. 

It's important to remember this now because just because we're winning does not mean we have won. The anti-choice side won't stop until abortion is no longer allowed in Ireland under any circumstances. We need to keep going until abortion is available to everyone who needs it, whatever their circumstances are. 

Abortion legislation in Ireland is currently under review. At the moment there's a three day waiting period between requesting and receiving an abortion; there is no clinical reason for this. There's a 12 week term limit on abortion as well. We know the anti-choice side are petitioning to increase these restrictions and we need to fight to remove them. 

If you're based in Ireland, we encourage you to contact your TDs and tell them that you want the waiting period removed. We also need safe exclusion zones outside of GP's and hospitals. If you are outside of Ireland and would like to help increase access to abortion globally. Please donate to the Abortion Support Network, a charity which provides financial assistance to people who still need to travel for abortions today. 

Mary Ryder: Today, activism will change things. I don't care. As long as people are active in anything, just get active. That's all that matters. There's a generation now who think that you win everything. 

Interviewer Aisling: Mary McAuliffe said that to us as well! 

Mary Ryder: I mean, it was hilarious because they kept saying.. that the idea that we might not win the Repeal or the Marriage Referendum, this is, “of course we’re going to win!”. You know, it was like, "who are you to tell us we're not going to win? " And I'm thinking "I've lost a few things in my life." You know, I kind of don't really want to hope too much, you know? 

And then when you win by that much, then you can win anything.

David Quinn in the Sunday Independent, the day after the Repeal vote, wrote - his last line of his article was, it took.. let me see what's 83 to 2018 - 35. "It took them 35 years to get rid of the amendment. So we now have to look to 2052". 

That's what he said. And they are looking 2052 to or any time before that or whatever, and they're looking at Brazil and they're looking at Poland and they're looking at those places and saying, how on Earth did Ireland end up where we are today when everyone else is going the other way? 

**Outro music plays for 2 minute and then fades out after the credits*

Deirdre: Many thanks to Dr Ursula Barry, Mary Ryder, and Niall Behan for speaking to us for this podcast. 

And a special thanks to the IFPA for allowing us to record our interview with Niall there.

We’d love if you shared this podcast with your friends. Subscribe to us wherever you get your podcasts, and follow us on the socials, @ HowTheYesWasWon

Please do consider donating to the Abortion Support Network, if you can.

Abortion Support Network provides advice and financial assistance to people who need to travelling 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 

How The Yes Was Won was researched, produced and edited by Aisling Dolan, Emma Callaghan, Davy Quinlivan, Tara Lonji, and me Deirdre Kelly. 

Thanks for listening. Slán go fóill