On May 25, 2018, I traveled from Washington, D.C., to Dublin to vote in a referendum that would decide whether women in Ireland would have full access to their reproductive healthcare and rights. I was one of the 40,000 diaspora Irish who returned from different corners of the globe (only recent emigres were eligible) to be part of a feminist movement that would make history. When the repeal of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution was passed the next day with 66 percent voting in favor, the country heaved a collective sigh of relief.
In the lead-up to the referendum, women were forced to share previously untold stories of private ordeals and personal tragedies in order to persuade the Irish population that it could no longer export this problem to the United Kingdom. Women with diagnoses of fatal fetal abnormalities were not able to access abortions in Ireland. Neither were women who had been raped, who’d been the victims of incest, who’d been too young, or who didn’t want to become mothers.
As the Eighth Amendment gave equal constitutional status to a woman and her unborn child, this effectively banned abortion from taking place legally. Women were only permitted to receive information about terminations and how to travel to access one.
More than 170,000 women and girls have traveled to another country for an abortion since 1980. The vast majority went to Britain. Some 3,626 women traveled from Ireland to the United Kingdom for abortions in 2016, the latest year for which statistics are available. Irish females accounted for 68 percent of the non-resident abortions carried out in Britain that year.
This sea change was brought about by a number of factors shifting the social and cultural landscape over several decades. These include the loosening of the grip of the Catholic Church on Irish society; the development of a strong independent feminist movement; and the successful campaign for marriage equality in 2016.
Before Ireland voted for this epochal measure, it also began to own up to its shameful past on women’s rights, the treatment of children, and the role of the Church. In 1999, in the States of Fear documentary series, journalist Mary Raftery revealed physical and sexual abuse of children in industrial schools run by religious orders on behalf of the state. This led to the Ryan report and the setting up of a redress commission.
In 2004, the Justice for Magdalenes (JFM) advocacy group brought the abuses by the Irish State against women and girls incarcerated in Magdalene Laundries to the United Nations Human Rights Council and the U.N.’s Council Against Torture (UNCAT).
The Magdalene Laundries run by the state and the Church up until 1996 profited from the unpaid labor of women and girls. These women were labeled as “problem girls” by an unjust and hypocritical society. Their perceived “problems” were anything from being poor to being too pretty, being a victim of sexual abuse or incest, or being pregnant outside marriage. Stories of how these women’s children were taken from them and sent for adoption to the United States is well documented in films such as The Magdalene Sisters and Philomena.
UNCAT’s report recommended that Ireland establish a full statutory investigation into allegations of torture and degrading treatment against women and girls forced to work without pay, and for prosecution of those who tortured them. This led to the government setting up the Residential Institutions Redress Board and the implementation of a series of reparatory measures—as yet, not fully awarded.
This June, however, the president of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, held a series of events bringing together more than 220 survivors of the Magdalene Laundries, apologizing to them on behalf of the Irish state, stating that “Ireland failed you.” They came together to share experiences and views on how the Magdalene Laundries should be remembered by future generations. For many of the women who flew back to Ireland from the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom, this was their first time home since they left, under a cloud of stigma, shame, and silence.
One turning point in the battle for a more gender-equal society was the momentous landslide victory for the Marriage Equality campaign in 2016. Its success contributed to the confidence that the time was right to build a campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment.
The repeal referendum has changed Ireland, both in how it sees itself, and how it is seen internationally. It is a country that has listened to the voices of its women, and where women have won a greater sense of agency. As Orla O’Connor, Director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland, stated, “This was a campaign run by women across the country, led by women, for women. A remarkable mobilization for women’s health and equality on the ground and online, translated into a landslide win in the ballot box that no one predicted.”
However, history tells us that as quickly as women's rights are gained, they can be rolled back again. The United States has a long history of its political parties kicking women's reproductive rights around like a football. On President Trump’s second day in office, he signed the global gag rule, also known as the Mexico City policy, which disallowed any services or information on abortions to be provided to women's organizations receiving U.S. aid. With the resignation of Justice Anthony Kennedy, there is now a real and urgent fear that women in the United States will soon have their right to access legal abortions overturned with the appointment of a new Republican Supreme Court Justice.
It is a fitting that 100 years after some women in Ireland achieved suffrage (in 1918, women who owned land and were aged 30 or over were given the right to vote), Irish women won their reproductive rights. Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote in the United States. As the year of the Irish centenary saw a triumph for gender equality, the year of the American centenary could grimly signal the reverse.