In this episode of How The Yes Was Won, we cover the rising campaign to demand a referendum to Repeal the 8th from 2012 onwards, and some of the changes that took place in Irish society that helped pave the way for this. More and more Pro-Choice groups were forming around the country, and momentum was building. Links to additional resources are below.
We spoke with Sarah Monaghan, Anita Byrne, Cathie Shiels, Alison Spillane and Emily Waszak for this episode.
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Strike for Repeal
The Murder That Created The Dublin Pride Parade
The Citizens' Assembly
Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution
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
Licensed via Soundstripe
Support the show (https://www.asn.org.uk/donate/)
Interviewer Aisling [00:00:00] : Can you just say testing 1, 2 into the microphone for me?
Cathie: testing 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 10.
**Intro plays from here until Sarah speaks**
Narrator Aisling [00:00:08] : Welcome back to How the Yes Was Won, a podcast about the Eighth Amendment.
In the last episode, we heard from activists about the impact the death of Savita Halappanavar had on Irish society and the introduction of the 2014 Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act or PLDPA.
More and more, we were hearing about real women whose lives and deaths were impacted by the Eighth Amendment. Here's Sarah Monaghan, former convener of the Abortion Rights Campaign, or ARC, talking about the impact this had on her.
Sarah: So the reason I actually got involved in the campaign was in 2014... So I remember Savita dying very clearly, but it wasn't actually what pushed me to get involved. That happened two years later when the case of Miss Y happened. So, you know, just something about that case. I mean, obviously, there was something about that case that just broke my heart. It was probably the most barbaric, horrific thing I had ever heard. I absolutely could not believe that this had just happened. I also couldn't believe that more people weren't talking about it. I was struck by the awareness that if this had happened in a different country, we would be saying “God, the things that they do there”. And here we are in Western, apparently socially liberal Ireland. And this is is going on and no one cares.
I was also really struck by the fact that this would never happen to me as a middle-class white Irish woman. You know, this wasn't going to be my story ever. And, you know, the injustice of that just floored me a bit. So I so I went and got involved or go to that rally and then went to an open meeting for the Abortion Rights Campaign.
Narrator Aisling [00:01:43] : This is Anita Byrne speaking to us on behalf of Tipperary for Choice, sharing her story,
Anita: The real catalyst for me to get involved with the pro-choice movement in Ireland was the disgusting way that Miss P was treated. She was the woman who was brain dead but was kept alive and literally used as an incubator as she was 15 weeks pregnant. So I just couldn't believe that this was happening in Ireland in the 21st century, that it was so disgusting and barbaric. And that was the point where I said I really had to do something and get involved.
Narrator Aisling [00:02:14] : This experience was almost universal for young women. In 2014, frustration with the Eighth Amendment was building and people were mobilising. ARC were putting together their plan to bring attention to the need for abortion access in Ireland and to empower pro-choice people with the language, information and tools needed to change people's minds.
Sarah: The main strategy when I joined was around education and stigma reduction. So it was, you know, it was a battle in itself just to keep getting the word 'abortion' out there, just to to keep getting this talked about. Like at the time, like the media didn't want to look at us, politicians definitely didn't want to look at us. So it was just making ourselves seen, being really loud, having marches and showing that there was “a critical mass”, as they say, behind this, and that this is what people wanted. We were representing the views of real women and real people. So we did a lot of stigma reduction workshops around that time, we used to travel around Ireland, and we used a model that was from IPAS, the International Pregnancy Advisory Service, as well as an American organisation called Catholics for Choice, who operate all across the world in countries that have restrictive reproductive rights regimes.
And so we adopted this values clarification training is what it was called at the time, and it was essentially about examining your own values, examining your own biases and examining your own stigma. And really the whole idea of it was, as activists to get you in a room and and make you be honest and fess up about the things that that make you uncomfortable about abortion, things that because we all have biases, you know, we all hold stigma. We've all grown up with it. And I suppose you can't really move forward and be...be the people demanding that other people don't have those biases if you just actually are holding them all yourself. So, you know, we used to do these trainings and say, ok, you know, just leave your best feminist hat at door like no one cares. You know, you're here to say, say it out, what makes you uncomfortable? What is it like? Is it late term abortion? Is that it? You know, let's talk it out.
So we used to do this exercise called One Abortion, where you'd be given a sheet of paper basically with ten little case studies on us and you'd be told, ok, for one day only in Ireland, abortion's legal, who gets it? So it was like horrific.. you’d be looking at people in the room like, “oh, I can't believe you're making us do this”, and we're like “yeah cool, don't care. Like, you know, let's let's pick this apart. So who do you think deserves it more than somebody else?” And, you know, you get a lot of protest votes or whatever, like "Nobody, we're just going to storm the government” like, “no, it's not an option". The point of this exercise is to just delve into how we think about this, because if we're still thinking about it like this, you can be damn sure that middle Ireland is thinking about it like this, too. So, you know, it's really fantastic training.
Narrator Aisling[00:04:59] : Here's Cathie Shiels also from ARC.
Cathie: I remember doing the values clarification once with sort of like a young.. young crowd and this young woman. “I don't understand why we have to do this. We already know all the answers”. And I was like, “yeah, but you might know the language to chat to like your granny about it. Maybe this will help you try and bring the conversation up with her in a way that that might lead to like a nice outcome for you and your granny” or whatever.
I suppose there was lots of instances where, ARC, as an organisation, sort of like learnt sometimes like sometimes hard lessons about, you know, preconceived ideas or things like that. So even like it… In one of the very early meetings we were picking, the name the “Abortion Rights Campaign”, a lot of people were like, you know, “Trust women. It must be “Trust women." You know "That's that's definitely the name of the group”. And like somebody down the back of the room was like, “It's not always women that need to have abortions. It would be great if you weren't called Trust Women”. And so, you know, because people have sort of stuck their own hand over the parapet I suppose, we've had the opportunity to learn.
And so, for example, ARC, have a pro-decriminalisation position with regards to sex work and the Nordic model. And so there have been instances in.. in different regional groups where people might disagree about that. But ARC took that decision and that is the position that ARC has. So if you want to be involved with a pro-choice organisation who are pro-Nordic model, you'll have to go somewhere else.
So yes, but unfortunately, sometimes those lessons are come.. at a great personal cost to the people who have to teach us the lessons, you know, so it's not it's not like we were born with, like perfect politics, but I suppose we can just, just keep trying, you know. So it's things like that, sometimes when there are disagreements, it's an opportunity to learn.
Narrator Aisling [00:06:52] : While ARC were preparing for their campaign, another historic referendum was taking place. And for once, it wasn't about abortion. It was marriage equality.
In 2015, Ireland made history by becoming the first country in the world to legalise marriage equality by referendum. LGBTQI+ organisations rallied together under the banner “YesEquality” and campaigned across Ireland to win this historic victory. In the lead up to this, people all over the country began to show their support for the cause by wearing badges and t-shirts with YesEquality printed on them. You could see them everywhere, and it helped people to start having conversations about the issue. People who had never engaged in political campaigning before, suddenly saw an issue that they cared about enough to fight for, and took to the streets to canvas.
Anita: Well, I've been pro-choice my whole life and interested in human rights as well, but I only became an activist during the Marriage Referendum. So as part of the equality campaign in South Tipperary, I manage their social media, including Facebook and Twitter, I leafleted and canvassed. I also gave a speech at one of their public meetings.
Narrator Aisling [00:08:01]: It's worth noting that in Ireland, the LGBTQI+ activists and women's rights activists have always been allies of each other. In March 1983, Ireland had its first Pride march in response to the brutal murder of a young gay man named Declan Flynn. One of the only groups to march with the LGBTQI + community that day was the women from the Rape Crisis Centre, some of whom would become involved in the Anti-Amendment Campaign later that year. The banner they all marched under read “Stop Violence Against Women and Gays”.
In May 2015, marriage equality was passed in Ireland by a vote of 62%. The effect that this had on Irish society was not only to allow marriage between two people regardless of gender; it also showed us that change was possible.
Sarah: The YesEquality referendum happened and like it felt like everything changed. There was suddenly.. it was like the spotlight just shifted. So we would have open meetings where you might like on a good day, have 30 people there. You probably knew 15 of them. And then the first meeting we had after Marriage Equality, there was like a hundred people in the room. We were like going around getting chairs and like freaking out. We were like “What has happened?” And it was just like at that moment of, “all right, ok, we’re up!” like that.. “This is it now. We're.. we're next. So we better get organised!”. So we had like a number of strategy days after that, and it was just massive consensus of we need to organise across the country. This won't be won or lost in Dublin. This.. this will be won or lost in towns and villages across Ireland. And so at that time, there were four pro-choice groups outside of Dublin. There was Alliance for Choice Belfast, Alliance for Choice Derry and there was Galway Pro-Choice. And at the time there were Cork Women's Movement for Change, I think.. which became Cork ARC.
So we set about looking at how do we build those networks like, a regional infrastructure of groups. So my role at the time was Partnerships and Outreach Rep. So Partnerships and Outreach was the working group in ARC, that dealt with all of our regional groups and members, as well as all of our kind of alliances and networks, other organisations that we worked with. So I got to.. to work and we started contacting just anyone we knew, anywhere. And saying if they might want to set up a pro-choice group, in a pretty like you know, embarrassing way most of the time I'd be Facebooking people I didn't really know being like “Hey, how’s it going? Do you know what you want to do? [Laughs] Set up a pro-choice group in Offaly!” And then people start contacting us as well, so it happened, like, you know, both ways, people were just... that.. that momentum was just building after Marriage Equality. And we knew this was.. this was getting closer.
Now, people started contacting and often there'd be one person who lived in Tipperary. They didn't know if there's a group here already. Probably not, but what can I do? And so we like.. I wrote it like a regional toolkit, which was everything from like, how do you hold a meeting? You know, how do you how do you go about getting a room somewhere? Where can you get rooms usually. Up to like stuff like how do you manage your finances, you know, on a local level or, you know, how to set up a bank account like that kind of stuff.
And then we kind of travelled around a bit and tried to go to first meetings with people. So if there are one person somewhere and a small little town, you know, massively intimidating to hold your first open meeting, like .These are incredible people that we owe the world to. So we try to just travel around a bit and support them through that if we could, and then started travelling around giving trainings and so extending the value clarification piece, doing some media training with different groups and stuff like that. So by the time we hit 2018, we'd gone from having four groups outside of Dublin to having 36 outside of Dublin, which was like.. that was the backbone of the Together for Yes national network. So yeah, it was definitely the right strategic decision that we made.. then was to build it up and yeah. Build an army.
Narrator Aisling [00:11:53]: All over the country, people started to put the work in. Here's Anita again telling us how Tipp for Choice mobilised.
Anita: So Tipp for Choice is the only pro-choice group in the entire county of Tipperary. We work with the Abortion Rights Campaign. Some of our members are ARC members, other members aren't - we're sort of a hybrid group. So we work.. It works very well for us, being that, in rural Ireland and especially in Tipperary, things might be done a little bit differently. We might have to tweak things for it to work.
It was officially formed in 2016 and the March for Choice 2016 was one of our first actions as an organised group. Some of our members had marched in previous years with Tipp for Choice banners, but we weren't actually officially a group at that stage. Some of our members in North Tipperary were part of the Midwest Campaign for Choice, which was formed in 2012. It was formed by myself, Emma Burns, Maeve Ryan and Rebecca O'Donovan, basically because there was no one fighting for rights for pregnant women and pregnant people in Tipperary. We knew a referendum was on the way after the Marriage Referendum. We know that it was the next thing that had to be changed. A pro-choice movement was growing. There was more emphasis on it in the media. And as a conservative county with a very vocal anti-choice TD, we wanted to have a group set up and ready to go when the referendum was called.
So most of our original members had been part of the Marriage Equality campaign or else were already involved in pro-choice activism or feminist groups. Our founding members all met via Twitter, before that we didn't know each other. We’re from different parts of the county and we got to know each other and our individual strengths online, and we became part of a national network of rural and regional grassroots pro-choice groups, who could all communicate with each other. So as far as we're concerned, social media is really the backbone of any decent campaign. We then reached out into our communities as far back as 2016 we were holding information stalls in towns around the country were handing out leaflets and also holding public talks. A lot of that was with the help of the training that we got from ARC. We were sending out press releases to the local media about Abortion Rights Campaign marches. Lateral thinking is essential in helping to grow movement and shouldn't be underestimated. As we gained new members, we were adding to our database, sending out newsletters and inviting people to our public talks. That all helps raise awareness. It got to the stage that producers of radio stations knew who we were and were contacting us for quotes and comments.
This is one of our prouder moments. In September 2017, we had a direct action protest, and we dropped a huge handmade “Repeal” banner at the Rock of Cashel. Four of our members stood holding the banner in front of the rock, while another member took a photograph. We then tweeted it out and we got a huge amount of publicity from us. It resulted in us getting into the local papers and being invited onto local radio stations
Narrator Aisling [00:14:40] : While regional groups were coming together to address the specific requirements from their locations, other activists also began organising around specific groups or messages. Emily Waszak told us about MERJ
Emily: MERJ is Migrants and Ethnic Minorities for Reproductive Justice. And we are a group of migrant and ethnic minority women, trans and non-binary folks, who are fighting for reproductive justice! But we define reproductive justice very broadly. So reproductive justice obviously includes abortion access, but it also includes all manner of sexual and reproductive health care. It includes child care. It includes employment, just labour, generally paid and unpaid labour, reproductive labour specifically, housing and anti-racism, obviously. So, yes, it's very broad.
I had been involved with Abortion Rights Campaign since I moved back to Ireland, so I had been through the Abortion Rights Campaign going to Coalition to Repeal the 8th meetings. And that's where I met Claudia for the first time. And she had been working with AkiDwA at that stage. And we were always the only women of colour present in any of those meetings. And we had to fight all the time for sort of migrant representation.. not even migrant representation in terms of actual bodies in the room, but just in terms of migrant issues, because the narrative at that stage was “women have to travel. It's unjust that women have to travel”. But there is almost no discussion about people who couldn't travel and specifically people who couldn't travel because they're undocumented, because they have visa restrictions, because they're asylum seekers for any number of reasons. So we had talked for years about, oh, no, we definitely need a migrant group that can talk about these issues, because when it's just us, it gets lost a bit and it's easier to kind of dismiss our individual voices. But we, we really need a group. So, of course, we're very busy doing loads of other stuff. We had worked together on other things as well. But finally, the summer before the referendum. So it was right after Strike4Repeal
Narrator Aisling [00:16:58] : Strike4Repeal was a demonstration on International Women's Day in 2017, demanding a referendum on repeal. Around 10,000 people left their workplaces to take over O'Connell Bridge in Dublin city centre, stopping traffic. Similar events took place in many towns and cities, in Ireland and the UK.
Emily: Claudia and I got together and decided, no, we need to do this. And we had been talking to other people as well that we would just know from different campaigns and just our mates. So we ended up deciding, OK, we're going to form MERJ. And then we kind of had a lull because, you know, we're tired from all the different campaigns we're working on. But then we got asked or I got asked to speak at the March for Choice that year, and I felt really... pretty uncomfortable with that idea. So I thought, well, if we're speaking as a group, it'll make me feel a lot better because I don't want to be some, like, one individual talking about a thing. So, yeah, we first started.. we, again, we got in contact with people we knew and then kind of came up with some sort of basic like what is MERJ? And we realised that we wanted to create a platform for migrant and people of colour and traveller voices to be heard in the campaign because they really hadn't been up until then. And we wanted it to be self-organised. We didn't want to be like a token. We didn't want to be given a platform. We wanted to create a platform, and to amplify voices that weren't already heard.
So we actually started organising by mobilising around the March for Choice. So we had a migrant and ethnic minority bloc for the March for Choice and we had like a poster making session. And to be honest, like it was people.. some of the people like we knew, but then there are people there who I never met before who seemed really excited. I learnt all sorts of new stuff the first night. People were talking just naturally talking about, you know, what abortion laws look like in their countries of origin, and really realising that, you know, we'd been saying for ages like migrants have really important experiences and analysis to contribute to the discussion, but not realising how much that was true until we actually just all got into a room together. And it's the thing that, you know, there were people working on the campaign, but it was being in that room altogether that really created that space for us to create something that felt more like a concrete narrative, like messaging that we could build a campaign around, or at least we could insert into a larger campaign rather than, again, like it being individual voices.
So our strategy really was kind of twofold. One thing is the mainstream abortion rights groups were not really reaching migrants, and really not thinking about migrants in terms of their strategy. So we know.. we knew that, you know 120,000 naturalised citizens, migrants were able to vote and that is not a small number. And that they needed to be reached because you can guarantee that the right, that the Church was going to be reaching out to them. And so we decided to do some education around the Eighth Amendment because, you know, depending on when people arrived in Ireland, they may or may not know, just like I didn't know before I arrived that abortion was illegal. So we did some education workshops around that, and we wanted to educate people around the law, but we also wanted to give people some tools for being able to talk about it. And specifically, we wanted to come together as migrants, as ethnic minorities and create some messaging that spoke to us. Right. So that was one strand of the strategy. And then the other strand was kind of running interventions. So interventions with the kind of mainstream campaign. So, you know, if they're not thinking about migrants - which they definitely were not - we need to make sure that they know and we need to be there forcing the conversation. And a lot of what we did or definitely what I did was run interference. I mean, that continues to be the work of MERJ, a lot of it, because we have access to different communities. So a lot of what we do is kind of like run interference, keep some of the other organisations.. kind of open up a space and then allow more migrant voices to come in. So, yeah, we kind of take a hit for the team often, and that kind of opens up a conversation whereby people who aren't in MERJ necessarily even, can hopefully benefit from a larger conversation.
Narrator Aisling [00:21:57] : With all of these groups forming, pressure was building on politicians, but instead of the government deciding anything for themselves, they created a Citizen's Assembly.
A Citizens Assembly is a group of 100 randomly selected citizens who meet over five sessions to review presentations from various expert groups on particular issues that politicians are afraid to address directly. There had been one prior to the Marriage Equality referendum in 2015, and it acts as kind of a get out of jail free card to politicians who want to be able to say that they brought in change while also claiming that their hand was forced when questioned by conservatives. The Citizens Assembly ran from October 2016 to April 2017. Allison's Spillane had just started working at the IFPA and told us about engaging with the Assembly process.
Alison: Yeah, I started just after the 2016 general election. So obviously we had that kind of vague commitment for a Citizens Assembly, which, you know, pretty sure was dreamed up on the back of an envelope to make the abortion questions go away like. There was no substance to it. No one knew if it was going to be any use. I think we're all very cynical about it, within the pro-choice community. But I suppose like having spoken earlier about the different strategies used, I think one strategy was always that, OK, well, if the State's going to set up some process, we should engage with it. You know, it's not the only thing we'll do and we won't do it exclusively, but the IFPA would have made a really extensive written submission to the Citizens Assembly, and then our medical director was invited to present.
And obviously we were like, it's funny to be like, so we're like the advocacy groups. And you're on the panel with some of these just anti-abortion people who, you know, they just it's just it's difficult when it's like, you know, it's like our CEO and our medical director who have literally decades of experience in delivering reproductive health care of like caring for women. And you’re put... There's an equivalency with literally Imelda down the road who just really hates abortion like, you know, anyway. But, yeah, we.. I'm glad that we participated in that because, like, the Citizens were really impressive in that process. Like and I think they really like.. again, it's a thing we're talking about earlier in terms of conversations like when you give people that space, like they really engaged with all the material and they were always like pushing to kind of explore more issues. And I think they didn't have the space, the time to really explore everything they wanted to like. Definitely the issue of online access to abortion pills they didn't really get to to address and stuff. But I think they were really, you know, intelligently like drawing the dots between access to contraception and poor sexuality education and all this kind of stuff, and just taking that real, like, holistic approach to like reproductive health and rights that had been like, you know, kind of absent from like political discourse.
Narrator Aisling [00:24:33] : Amongst many other findings and recommendations, the Citizens Assembly recommended that article 40.3.3 of the Constitution, also known as the Eighth Amendment, should not be retained in full. The Assembly's final report and recommendations were then considered by a joint committee of both houses of the Oireachtas, which met between September and December 2017. The joint committee recommended the repeal of the Eighth Amendment, in order to allow abortion access to be legislated for. Following over 30 years of activism four delay referenda, stalling tactics, political gaslighting and too many people affected by cruel and barbaric law, there was finally going to be a referendum to ask the people of Ireland to Repeal the 8th.
So how did people feel?
Emily: Tired, to be honest. I was really tired when the referendum was called, because at that stage we had a Citizens Assembly, we had a Strike for Repeal. We had how many Marches for Choice. And then we had, you know, Savita, we had Miss Y, we had all these cases. So, yeah, to be honest. It was a long time coming and it was kind of anticlimactic, especially because it was for me, it was wrapped up in the Citizens Assembly recommendations, which I just thought were not that great. But people were so surprised by them that people were celebrating.
And so it was it's always really hard in this moment where you want to take a moment to celebrate, you know, for some catharsis, you know, because you're exhausted. But you still know it's actually not good enough. And we knew straight away, at least some of us knew straight away like this is going to be bad. Like, again, it's going to be fine for the people who it was already.. not fine for, but like who could already travel, but people wanted… I mean, on one hand, like, yeah, we knew it wasn't good, or we knew it wasn't perfect. But on the other hand, in some ways it was way more than we actually expected. So, yeah, it's kind of bittersweet, to be honest. The whole referendum was a bit bittersweet. So I was excited, as most people were, but also like, oh, “God, this means... more work..”
** Outro plays until the end of the episode*
Narrator Aisling [00:26:47] : A lot more work. We had a referendum to win. That's next episode.
Narrator Emma [00:26:54] Many thanks to Sarah Monaghan, Anita Byrne Cathie Shields, Alison Spillane and Emily Waszak for speaking to us for this episode.
Special thanks to Anita for travelling to us in Dublin, to carry out the interview with us in person, we really appreciated it.
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How The Yes Was Won was researched, produced and edited by Aisling Dolan, Emma Callaghan- that’s me! Davy Quinlivan, Tara Lonji, and Deirdre Kelly. Additional recording support from Fin Dwyer. See you next time!