I’m 23 years old and I grew up in a particularly rural and conservative part of Ireland.
The only time I ever heard the word ‘abortion’ mentioned in school was when we were doing a play in the Irish language. There was a scene where the characters were discussing abortion. I remember asking the teacher what the word translated as. She replied, “It means murder”.
I know now that if you break the translation down it would be similar to the word for a fetus. It doesn’t literally translate as murder. But that was how it was explained it to us.
I studied reproductive biology at university and did my dissertation project in an abortion clinic in 2017. This involved interviewing doctors and nurses working in the clinic in Edinburgh about their relationship with their patients. I saw how the patients were talked about with such respect and compassion. It really brought home the stark contrast of how women in Ireland were treated.
This spurred me into action. I decided to go home and help with the Yes campaign, ahead of the 2018 referendum. Legislation is how social change is made and how rights are created.
It was exciting to be part of a big campaign. My colleagues have been in this fight for decades, but they’d never had a national referendum like this before. For the first time ever, they said it felt like everything was to play for.
The pressure was immense because it felt like every woman in Ireland, both past and present generations, was counting on us to get this right.
My role involved researching policy briefs or answering questions for journalists, such as abortion rates in Switzerland and Portugal after their referendums. I was also answering the phone to women ringing the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA) in floods of tears, saying, “I’m pregnant and I don’t know what to do”.
For decades, every single day, women experiencing an unintended or crisis pregnancy have been ringing the IFPA to access information and counselling. Trying to calm each woman, telling her what we could do, hearing her relief and hoping I’d made a bit of difference to her just made it all incredibly real for me.
Many people found the No campaign posters distressing due to their incredibly negative and violent language, for example, ‘a license to kill’. I think that negativity backfired for the No campaign, as I think the Yes campaign was seen as more sensible.
I think recent scandals in the Catholic church played a role too because the No campaign was using messaging like, “Oh yes, the 8th Amendment has led to an island where we really treasure our children”. This felt tone deaf in a country where there have been so many child abuse scandals in recent years.
I also think it drove people away from the No campaign because it clearly wasn’t based on the reality of the Ireland we’ve all been living in. No campaigners displayed a kind of moral snobbery which felt like preaching. It might have worked on the Ireland of another lifetime, but not now.
On the other end of the spectrum, the vote Yes posters appeared in rural communities for the first time, which I think was very powerful for people who might have felt quite isolated or just hadn’t talked to anyone in their community about abortion before.
In the final weeks leading up to the vote, the most important conversations were happening at the school gates or at kitchen tables over cups of tea.
It still feels like a dream that we won. It wasn’t until they called out the two tally boxes from my home village and I heard Yes passed there by 57% that I realized what was truly happening. That’s when I knew it wasn’t just Dublin and the cities. The whole country was behind us. This realisation made me cry. It made me very proud to be from rural Ireland.
I went to Dublin castle to celebrate. At one point, the crowd spontaneously started chanting Savita’s name. Even in a moment of celebration, we all remembered her death, and that felt very emotional.
I recall watching some kids playing, and their mothers were standing hands on hips just watching them, and they were all wearing repeal jumpers. One of them was pregnant and there were two men there with their child too. For me that was such a beautiful symbolic image of how far Ireland has come.
For me, abortion is about motherhood at the end of the day. It’s about allowing us the right to be the best mothers we can be, if and only when we decide to do so.
Read other personal experiences like Áine’s on the Irish referendum.
As of January 2019, the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA) provides early medical abortion up to 9 weeks of pregnancy. Abortion care is free for women living in the Republic of Ireland.