Why The Irish Abortion Referendum Matters to Scotland

We speak to Irish and Northern Irish women living in Scotland about why the upcoming referendum is a Scottish issue as much as an Irish one

Feature by Katie Goh | 04 May 2018
  • Why the Abortion Referendum Matters to Scotland

“I can’t really pinpoint the moment when I became aware of the abortion laws in Ireland,” says Clíodhna, born in County Cavan, Ireland and now living in Glasgow. “I suppose it’s just a part of growing up. You hear about how some girl had to get the boat to England and you weren’t sure why, you just knew it was a shameful and secret thing to do […] it was when I was a little bit older that I realised that fear and shame shouldn’t have to be a fact of life or rite of passage growing up as a young woman in Ireland.”

Like Clíodhna, I can’t point to a particular moment when I realised just how restrictive Ireland and Northern Ireland’s abortion laws are. On both sides of the border, abortion is a criminal offense, including circumstances of rape and incest. Only if a woman’s life is in direct danger is abortion permitted. However, what constitutes 'direct danger' is disputable. In the Republic, six doctors are required to assess if a woman’s life is 'at risk enough' to permit an abortion under the eighth amendment (the Irish law prohibiting abortion). Under any other circumstances procuring an abortion is a criminal offense. This means that if a woman is raped, she is forced to carry her rapist’s baby or if a pregnant woman’s baby dies in the womb, she is forced to give birth to the dead fetus.

After decades of fighting legislators, Irish pro-choice campaigners have finally attained a short-term goal: a referendum will be held on 25 May that could repeal the eighth amendment and make abortion legal for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. It’s a historic, emotional and long fought victory for Irish pro-choice campaigners, but it’s only a drop in the ocean. While the Republic has a chance to overhaul the country’s restrictive amendment, there’s no similar movement to decriminalise abortion in the north, despite Northern Ireland being part of the UK where, for the most part, abortion has been legal for 51 years. While reproductive rights are seen as an Irish issue, they are just as much a British issue; the UN ruled in February that because of Northern Ireland’s restrictive laws, the UK is currently violating human rights.

Lucy* grew up in Belfast and is from a conservative Protestant family who are firmly anti-abortion. “I think when I was a teenager I would have said that I was pro-life and actually would have used that term until relatively recently,” she says. A pro-life stance is common in Northern Ireland, where the government and church rule hand-in-hand. It was when Lucy left Northern Ireland to go to university in England that her view changed. “As you do when you’re away from home for the first time, I questioned a lot of the stuff that I had just taken as received wisdom. I started thinking about pregnancy as a biological reality that happens in women’s bodies rather than a philosophical issue.”

Similarly for Ellen, who grew up in Cork – it was the material reality and consequences of abortion laws that made her firmly pro-choice. “The big one for me, and I think for many people, was in 2012 when Savita Halappanavar died because of the eighth amendment.” Halappanavar died aged 31 from a miscarriage after being denied an abortion. Ellen continues: “I was around 18 then and I don’t think you could say I was pro-choice or pro-life at the time but I also wasn’t aware that the laws were that bad. Before I thought it was an issue of someone having an abortion or not, I didn’t think it would be a life or death situation.” Despite the eighth amendment acknowledging “the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother,” what “due regard” means is subjective. Surely Savita’s death, and the deaths, suffering and shaming of thousands of women negates “right of life to the mother”?

When I was growing up in Northern Ireland, like all teenagers riding out the turbulent years of puberty, my friends and I would talk about sex. Gossip about who was doing what with whom would turn into serious and frightened ethical debates about what we would do if we found ourselves pregnant. Speaking to different Irish women, this seems to be a universal experience of growing up on the island. Cathy, from Cork and now living in Edinburgh, tells me that when she was growing up, “regardless if people had boyfriends or not, every girl’s biggest fear around that age is falling pregnant accidently. Would I go out of my way and spend a lot of money and experience a lot of misery travelling to the UK for an abortion or have the baby and have it completely alter my life?”

While not everyone in Scotland would describe themselves as pro-choice, abortion being a legal and safe healthcare procedure changes a country’s attitude. As Clíodhna says, “Abortion is still a stigmatised topic but I think living in Scotland has shown me that while people can have their own personal views, it doesn’t have to be such a divisive issue like it is in Ireland.”

Clíodhna is one of the founders of the Scottish Irish Abortion Rights Campaign (SIARC), a group of activists in Scotland who campaign for abortion rights. The group started as a way of showing solidarity for those in Ireland and to raise international awareness of the reproductive laws in Ireland. With the announcement of the referendum, the SIARC are focusing their attention on #HomeToVote. The campaign is to encourage as many eligible voters as possible to return to Ireland as there’s no postal vote – a point of frustration for Irish people abroad. Ellen is one of the many who are saving to travel home to cast their vote. “So many people are struggling to get home to vote and that really brought out to me that it’s such a class issue,” she says. “If I was in this position at home now it would mean I wouldn’t be able to travel abroad for an abortion.”

Here in Scotland, we should be just as concerned about Irish and Northern Irish abortion laws. The UK Department of Health reports that on average 11 women travel to Britain every day to have an abortion – that’s more than 4,000 women a year. As well as supporting Irish and Northern Irish women who are fighting for reproductive rights, British feminists should be concerned about how their laws could potentially affect those travelling for abortions. “If Brexit does end up being a hard border can Irish people still travel freely to the UK to get abortions?” asks Ellen. “No one’s discussing that and that’s what people abroad should be paying attention to.”

While the referendum is a once-in-a-generation chance for Ireland to put its trust in women to make their own choices about their bodies and futures, it’s also important to remember that no matter the outcome in May, there will still be no reproductive rights in the north of Ireland. There are many avenues through which British women can show support: by donating to the Republic’s Together for Yes campaign and Northern Ireland’s Alliance for Choice campaigns, attending rallies and fundraisers, and asking our MPs what they’re doing to fight for women’s reproductive rights.

While British feminists stand in solidarity with the Irish and Northern Irish people fighting for bodily autonomy, they should be mindful not only of individual privileges, but also that mainland Britain has only seen 50 years of reproductive rights. If the last few years have proven anything, it’s the fragility of social progress.

* Some names have been changed