How did Irish society move from a ban on abortion to a victory for women’s rights? What can be learned from this experience for the current feminist protests in Poland? Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat talks to Ailbhe Smyth, feminist activist who played a central role in successful political campaigns on women’s and LGBT rights in Ireland.
Ailbhe Smyth co-founded the Coalition to Repeal the 8th Amendment in 2013, a broad civil society platform to fight for the removal of the near-total ban on abortion inserted in the Irish Constitution in 1983. The Coalition went on to become one of the three pillars of Together for Yes initiative which led the national referendum campaign for repeal of the 8th amendment and the right to abortion, which was carried out in 2018. The referendum was carried by a large 67% majority in one of the highest ever referendum turnouts in Ireland. Ailbhe also played a central role in the victorious referendum campaign for lesbian and gay marriage equality in 2015. She was a senior academic at University College Dublin, where Ailbhe was founding head of Women’s Studies. She has been published widely on feminism, politics, and culture.
Smyth was one of the guests in our webinar Our Bodies – Our Choice – Our Decisions, 4 March 2021
Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat: You have been active in the women’s rights movement for nearly forty years…
Ailbhe Smyth: I became active in the late 1970s. It was a very difficult time for women in Ireland: on one hand, we were going through economic recession, on the other, we experienced a backlash, from the side of the Church, to the early activities of the women’s liberation movement. At that time, the Catholic Church was campaigning to establish a total ban on abortion and to include such an amendment in the constitution. In fact, this campaign proved successful in 1981 – and my first campaign as an activist was the one against the amendment. So it was very, very difficult!
Only at the end of the 1960s, Irish women were granted the right to study in secondary schools. When I gave birth to my daughter in the 1970s, I was not married to her father, which meant that she was automatically registered as an illegitimate child. It was a huge scandal, and my daughter, as long as this law was in force, would not have been even entitled to a pension in case I died.
I got married in 1973. The university where I was employed informed me that I would no longer be able to work full time. The regulations simply did not allow married women to work in state institutions. Fortunately, in the same year a new law came into force and the ban was lifted. Until the mid-1990s, there was a ban on divorce, and free access to contraception was made available not long before. My marriage, which broke up after six months, was not formally dissolved until the law changed in the middle of the nineties.
Abortion, we need to remember, was illegal even before the introduction of constitutional guarantees for the protection of the "unborn". It was punished with a life sentence.
Like for a murder …
Absolutely! Both the woman who terminated her pregnancy, and the doctor – anybody who helped her could have been punished like that! And we need to know that even under current Irish laws, which are of course incomparably better, aiding in abortion is a criminal offence – unless very narrow terms of the law are met.
Let us go back for a moment to your personal history – it’s the 1970s, you are raising your daughter on your own, while still working at the university …
… as one of the very few women who even worked after giving birth. I even had to explain this to my daughter saying that it was great, because thanks to this I earn money for us. Single mothers were horribly stigmatized by society at that time. And the brutal truth about how unmarried pregnant girls were locked up in institutions run by nuns and forced into slave labor were revealed only years later. The state and the Church went hand in hand in this matter.
Ireland was just beginning to change. We joined the European Union. Our economic situation, very difficult in previous decades, has slowly started to improve. The Irish began to leave the country not to work – they went on holiday and could see themselves that life was different elsewhere. And those who did not go, they watched television.
In 1983, the Church gets what it wants. The 8th amendment to the Irish constitution equated the right of the unborn to life with that of the woman. It was adopted in a referendum by a majority of 67% of the votes. This means that at least some women also supported the law …
Ireland, although it began to change, was still a deeply Catholic country. The Church had a great influence in schools and in healthcare. For thousands of people, it had not ceased to be an ultimate authority on sexuality. So yes, a lot of women actually voted in this referendum against the right to terminate pregnancy. However, I am convinced that if such a referendum had been held twenty years earlier, the amendment would not have been accepted with 67 percent, but over 80 percent votes in favour. The fact that over one third of the voters opposed the Church was a proof to great changes going on in our society.
The 8th Amendment was in force for almost forty years. It was canceled in a referendum in 2018.
Throughout this time, the women’s liberation movement was active, visible, fighting and winning. In 1990, we elected a woman, Mary Robinson, a lawyer and supporter of the right to abortion and equal rights for LGBT community, as a President of the Republic. These two movements, women and LGBT, grew, fought and matured together in Ireland.
Another referendum on abortion was held in 1992. Sadly, the cause of its organisation was a human tragedy – a 14-year-old girl was raped by a family friend, and she was prevented from going to Great Britain to make herself an abortion. Eventually, she went there, but suffered a miscarriage. In the referendum, we answered to three questions: should a woman be entitled to information about the possibility of abortion abroad, should it be possible to travel freely if the reason was abortion, and whether the risk of a woman committing suicide constitutes a threat to the mother’s health (and so justifies abortion). And the answer was yes.
It was a change of great importance. It was admitted officially that abortions existed and were being carried out despite the ban.
There was no such awareness before? No abortion underground?
Not really. Long ago, in the 1920s and 1930s, in the backs of stores or pharmacies, women could unofficially buy various "remedies" that were supposed to lead to a miscarriage. In 1967, the British Abortion Act went into force. In the 1970s, women who wanted to terminate their pregnancies went there. Of course, not everyone could: they had no money, no one to leave their children with, while she was gone… They gave births and tried to raise her children the best way they could. There is a great silence above these women, silence that would never be filled.
Another factor contributed to a shift in thinking: our Irish neoliberalism. People began to care more about consumption, got more materialistic. The old belief that God looks upon us and is in charge of everything was gone. Society became secularized, and at the same time the Church committed a kind of harakiri – a whole series of scandals regarding the sexual abuse of children by priests came to light. They exposed priest after priest, after priest… It was a great shock. The Church was no longer able to impose its authority.
In Poland, it is also the Church, hand in hand with obedient politicians, that enforces the legal ban for abortion. In public discourse in Poland, we often hear comparisons to Ireland, often formulated with hope: since the omnipotence of the Catholic Church has finally collapsed there, we too can make it happen. We will repeat this path and build an open society.
Well, if you examine closer the trajectory of women’s movements in both countries, you can see more differences than similarities. When Polish women go out into the street, they fight for the rights that their mothers and grandmothers actually had. We demanded a right that we never had. The Catholic Church in Poland has taken its present position, filling the void after the fall of real socialism. Not only does it not fall, but it managed to fill this void with its own concepts. It still has obedient allies – far-right politicians.
The fighting will be harder for us?
It may be, but it may be not. The most important thing is not to give up. Women cannot leave the streets. They have to be constantly visible and repeat over and over again: we are staying here until you go! Mass movement is the only force that can actually win something. European Parliament speaks up and says the right things, but it doesn’t have real power. European Commission? It is neither brave nor genuinely interested in matters of sexuality or gender equality.
In Ireland, in the 2000s, we were convinced as a society: we need to revoke the 8th Amendment. Unfortunately, before such legal changes were implemented, another tragedy occurred …
In 2012, Savita Halappanavar, 31, died of sepsis. If she had not been denied an abortion, she would have been alive.
This case was a shock to Ireland. A woman who came to live and work with us, who, if she stayed in her native India, could have terminated her pregnancy, died. Our laws killed her. It was a great shame.
At the same time, we were running a campaign in Ireland for equal marriage. I was working on this campaign and I said then: if we win equal marriage, we will also win the right to abortion.
This is probably another difference between Poland and Ireland, if it was easier to claim the rights of LGBT people than women’s rights.
But it was so! While fighting for the right for marriage, lesbian and gay couples were saying to the heterosexual majority: we want to be like you! Let us not be different! We fought for something that was widely accepted. Not legal, but hyper-legal. We talked about love, the need for stability, child care, security.
When the right to abortion is fought for, the situation is different. It involves a talk not about beautiful and pleasant things, but about things that people do not want to think about. Men do not like talking about abortion at all. And women… they understand that it happens that you are pregnant, but you cannot or do not want to give birth – but they do not want to think about it neither. Then there is this whole phraseology created by the Church: abortion = murder, destruction of life … So the topic was so difficult for us that even some activists participating in the campaign before the referendum that finally abolished the 8th Amendment said: I am for the right to abortion for everybody but I don’t like it! We had to show great caution and think carefully about the language used. So had to the radical left-wing part of the movement. After all, it was not about winning some ideological debate or talking to those who were already convinced, but about starting a great social change.
We started from personal experience, looking for what could connect us. We kept repeating: we fight for all, some for their personal rights, others for our daughters, granddaughters or simply women who might be in need. We emphasized: abortion is a matter of justice and human rights. We said: by giving women the right to make decisions, the state proves that it cares about equality, but also shows that it want to be human, decent state.
The Church in Poland, even discredited by a chain of scandals, fights against the women’s movement and uses really aggressive words towards opponents. Was it the same in Ireland?
The Church fought to ban abortion in the 1980s, then ran campaigns before the 1992 referendum and in 2002. In 2018, they gave up. The bishops did not speak. Instead, there were anti-abortion organisations that claimed abortion was simply evil. The Church understood that people no longer listened to it, but decide for themselves. As with contraception, which is also a sin, and nevertheless is used by both Irish and Polish women. In 2018, the Church in Ireland was no longer a political force. In Poland, I have the impression that it still is. This, however, does not automatically mean that Polish women will fight for their rights for a long time. In Argentina, the Church did not collapse as it did in Ireland, yet it has not been able to stop the introduction of a law legalizing abortion. The most important thing is that the women’s movement should not give up, that it will return to the streets, stand up for new rights and for those that have already been won once. These rights are not given forever and can be revoked.
In my opinion, the fight of Polish women has one more dimension. This is a challenge to the far-right, a right-wing government whose actions are being watched and inspire the right in other countries. Men and women who make it clear that they do not accept the right-wing vision do not allow this vision to be internationally successful. Polish women deserve international solidarity, and a government that sends brutal police against their marches or tolerates localities where ‘LGBT people are not welcome’ should be condemned. And if the government ignores the voice of the street, women should answer: we will ignore your law. We will find a way to make fun of your laws. We will fight at every possible level.
It is already happening. Abortional Dream Team works, activists who help organise trips abroad for the procedure. There are groups that help obtaining the funds necessary for a pharmacological abortion. It was as if women felt that only self-organizing and solidarity would save us, because the government did not intend to enter into any dialogue with the protesters, even when there were hundreds of thousands on the streets, and in the polls 70 percent of the respondents sided with women.
And these women’s initiatives are wonderful things. At the same time, the topic must be still raised in a loud manner. A discussion about abortion on a pan-European scale should be linked to a discussion about our democracy. The right to terminate pregnancy is about who has the right to control woman’s life – whether a woman has the right to decide or there are certain groups that get the right to control them.
The fight for abortion is not a fight for morality, because the Church is one of the most immoral, amoral and hypocritical institutions. It is a struggle for establishing an authoritarian society.
Do you also have the impression that the authoritarian right is only gaining from the pandemic, while the left is constantly in the defensive? It is the right that harvests social anxiety, and the left is at best saying "time to come up with an alternative to neoliberal capitalism" – if at all it is brave enough to demand the challenge of capitalist rules. We are not moving from inventing to acting as the right reaches out for new followers.
Definitely! In Ireland, far-right movements are still low in numbers, but they are gaining new support – the pandemic and the wave of unemployment it has caused has made people more anxious, more depressed and willing to listen to their proposals. This is one of the reasons why I am currently involved in the creation of Le Cheile – a platform created by the left to counter the progress of the far right. However, I know that blocking is not enough. People need to know our concepts, our alternatives and they need to hear: what the right is proposing are out-of-life slogans, they won’t solve your problems with their extremist ideas, we know how to save jobs. We need to be smarter and more determined on the left and we need to know how to talk to people who are suffering from a crisis. The struggle for women’s rights is intertwined with this struggle: after all, the crisis is destroying entire sectors in which women and young people worked – retail, gastronomy and tourism.
You said in one of the interviews that you dream of a world based on truly egalitarian structures, that you are proud to describe yourself as an "activist". What is the key to make our – as I could subscribe to this dream – activism fruitful?
It is difficult to give universal recipes, I think it is even a little bit counterproductive if I had something to advise from the perspective of my Irish experience to fighting women in Poland! However, I am sure of a few things. I am very deeply rooted in the feminist tradition, I come from it, but I argue that you should not be an activist if you lose sight of global meanings and connections. Because there are always many problems to be solved that are not detached from each other. In my case, there is something to fight for in Ireland – there is a case of scandalous treatment of refugees who come to the island. The neglected housing question. The situation of older people – and here I am speaking in my own name too – who have been virtually abandoned under the pandemic.
At the same time, you must also talk to people in such a way that they know that what you are saying is authentic, has to do with your and their lives. During the campaign, we tried to communicate in that way: what will you do, we were talking to the undecided, if your daughter did not have access to an abortion? If your grandson turns out to be gay and won’t be able to get married? We encouraged people to think about themselves, encouraging them to turn them into understanding and solidarity for others.
Activism is a work on the ground. With people, in the street. Social media are great, but they are like a piece of paper and a pen! They help to organise, but the most important are big, mass movements. Social media can be a tool for us, but it is the crowds of people who go to parliament that make governments tremble and yield to the will of the people.
Do you believe that we will create this more egalitarian world and save the planet and ourselves from destruction?
I do not know. But it would be cowardly and irresponsible not to fight for it. I know that I will not convince everyone and change the nature of all people… but personally, I would not be able to see that there are systems and structures that lead to death and destruction and not to oppose it. As much as I can. There is too much at stake.
Originally published at the website of Strajk.eu