A referendum to repeal or retain the controversial Eighth Amendment of the Constitution is no longer a matter of if, but when. What happens between now and the yet to be decided referendum date, is a long campaign by all sides in the argument to win the hearts and minds of voters.
To the forefront of the campaign in Galway city and county, will be the Galway Coalition to Repeal the 8th. Founded in January, and formally launched yesterday evening at a meeting in The Harbour Hotel, the coalition includes Parents for Choice, Galway Pro-Choice, Galway East for Choice, Knocknacarra Repeal 8 Network, Doctors for Choice, I Can't Keep Quiet Choir, Galway Feminist Collective, NUIG SU, NUIG Feminist Society, Medical Students for Choice, Trade Union Campaign for Repeal, People Before Profit, Social Democrats, Solidarity/Socialist Party, Socialist Workers Party, Labour, Sinn Féin, the Green Party, Amnesty Galway, Galway African Diaspora, Galway Anti Racism Network, AMACH LGBT Galway, and Bi+ Ireland - with more groupings expected to join.
“There were various groups, doing things independently, and we thought if there was one group, co-ordinating everybody, it would be much more powerful,” explains Parents for Choice’s Jenni Owen-Thomas, of the rationale behind the coalition’s foundation. “Some groups have money or know how to fundraise; others have passion; others have expert knowledge; a coalition like this allows us to pool our resources and expertise.”
The referendum is likely to take place either May 25 or June 8, and Hayley Little, another member of the coalition, says its broad nature will help reach out to various voter bases, ages, social groups, and points of view. Adds Jenni: “We hope to have canvassing training, to get outside the city centre, and into the suburbs and into the county. We want to leaflet every house, knock on as many doors as we can; hold public meetings, have stalls, hold coffee mornings, hold fundraisers, and raise awareness.”
Is the momentum with Repeal?
Polls have consistently shown a majority favours liberalising Ireland’s abortion laws. In February 2016, an Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll found 64 per cent in favour of repealing the Eighth. That rose to 67 per cent in July, and jumped to 76 per cent in October. In May 2017, a Behaviour and Attitudes Poll on abortion conducted by The Sunday Times revealed 75 per cent believed abortion should be permitted in cases fatal foetal anomaly; 73 per cent supported abortion where pregnancy is the result of rape; and 77 per cent believed abortion should be allowed where there is a risk to the woman’s health.
A further boost to the Repeal campaign came from An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, when, during a BBC interview he said he would campaign for the laws to be “changed and to be liberalised”; and from Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, who said the Eighth “prevents us from responding in a humane way in order to help women in the most traumatic situations”.
It would appear the Repeal movement is facing an open goal and is on course to succeed in its aim, although given how divisive and emotive abortion is, nothing can be taken for granted. “We don’t think we have this won,” says Jenni, “but we feel we have a good chance. We feel we can definitely do this, but we are well aware it could become a dirty campaign."
"We’ve seen it already in the exploitation of images of children with Down Syndrome by pro-life groups,” says Hayley, “even though they were asked not to by Down Syndrome Ireland.”
A major change between the referenda of 1983 and 2002, and the upcoming vote this year, is that the focus of the debate has shifted from the unborn foetus, and towards the rights of the already alive, pregnant, woman. “People realise, when they put the woman at the centre of the debate, they also put themselves in her shoes,” says Jenni, “and realise, with compassion, that it’s not an easy decision to make, but that for some women, it is the right decision. When the facts are presented clearly to people, they become pro-choice. The personal stories, the experiences of real people, when those stories are told, they change minds.”
The case of Savita Halappanavar was also a turing point. “We saw after Savita that there was a big demand for change,” says Dette McLoughlin of Galway Pro-Choice. “From that we got the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, but that wasn’t perfect. The burden of proof was still on the woman to prove she was suicidal, and there was still the issue of the criminalisation of women and doctors.”
Jenni also points out how, it is often not realised that the Eighth Amendment affects, not only women who do not wish to continue with pregnancy, but also those who do. “Every person in Ireland, as soon as they get pregnant, they do not have the right to consent to, or refuse procedures and treatments, such as Caesarian section, or breaking of the waters,” she says. “These can be done without the mother’s consent.”
A united front
In the coming weeks, the Government will introduce a referendum bill, which will contain the exact wording of the referendum question. If the Eighth is repealed, new laws will have to be introduced. As a result, the Cabinet has formally started the process for the Eighth's potential replacement with an enabling provision designating the Oireachtas as the authority to legislate for abortion. The detail of what legislation is being proposed will be addressed in the separate health bill. The health bill is currently being drafted by the Department of Health, and focuses specifically on a potential new law allowing unrestricted access to abortion up to the 12th week of pregnancy.
What form the wording will have is still an issue of concern. “We want it to be very clear and comprehensible,” says Dette. “It needs to be worded clearly so people know exactly what they are voting for.” Once the above issues are known, they will be discussed vigorously during the campaign. However, the central thrust of the Galway Coalition to Repeal the 8th, is to do exactly that - remove the Eighth from the Constitution.
Dette acknowledges that within the coalition there will be different views as to how far things should go after that - some will be satisfied with abortion up to 12 weeks within a range of certain circumstances; others will still campaign for more advanced, more liberalised laws - but, as she points out: “We are united in wanting to get rid of the Eighth and of a foetus having the same right to life as a living, breathing, sentient woman, because before we go anywhere else, the Eighth has to be removed. Any bills introduced in the Dáil regarding fatal foetal abnormalities or rape get nowhere because the Eighth prevents it, makes it unconstitutional. The coalition’s work will be done after the Eighth is repealed.”
“As a mother of two children, I’m terrified to be pregnant again,” says Jenni. “I was terrified on my second pregnancy and that I would leave my already born child without a mum. Only with the Eighth removed can I be sure that my life is the priority, and many women feel like that.”