Abortion and the referendum in Ireland
Alison Spillane, Policy Officer, IFPA
Former Political Coordinator for the Together for Yes campaign
The Together for Yes campaign was a coming together of a range of different civil society organizations that have been working on this issue for many years. I worked with parliamentarians across the political spectrum; it was my job to bring everyone around the table, ensuring they understood the campaign messaging, campaign activities, working collectively and coordinating our efforts effectively to secure that Yes vote. The IFPA had pre-existing relationships with a lot of these political parties due to our role as Secretariat to the All-Party Interest Group on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, which was established in 2000. That was a huge benefit.
It was important to engage politicians because the party in Government which called this referendum is a centre-right party, and they have historically never been a champion on this issue. It was essential we engaged with them and helped build their understanding of abortion and unintended pregnancy. Allies on the left also deserve huge credit for consistently being the ones raising this on the floor of Parliament year after year when for a long time they were the lone voices. But at the end of the day for a referendum you need the support of 51 percent of the people who turn out and vote, and 51 percent of the electorate in Ireland are not voting for the left parties.
In early October, the Minister for Health introduced legislation with the hope of passing it quite quickly, with abortion service provision beginning in January next year. We're in a space now that even six months ago I didn't think we would be in. I never thought the victory would be so emphatic.
If the win had been by a narrow margin, we would now be going into a serious battle in parliament over the content of the legislation, but because the majority was so significant - over two-thirds of voters voted Yes - it’s made it very difficult for politicians who oppose abortion to reject that democratic mandate. Even those politicians who are anti-abortion feel they need to allow this legislation to go through, rather than actively seeking to undermine it or to block it.
The draft legislation was published before the referendum and I don't think it adequately reflects the strength of that support - the Irish public very clearly voted to allow women access to abortion when they need it. The new law is not good enough, but there will be an opportunity to review it in three years and assess whether it meets women’s needs.
The Government is also looking at reforming sexuality education. This is the first time abortion has been positioned in public discourse as a health issue, the first-time politicians and the public really understood the entire relationship between contraception, sexuality education and abortion services.