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Meet Two of the Activists Behind Ireland’s Historic Vote to Repeal a Ban on Nearly All Abortions

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“Free, safe and legal.” That was the slogan for the Abortion Rights Campaign launched by Irish women in 2012 that led to a historic, landslide vote Friday to liberalize the country’s highly restrictive abortion laws. Two-thirds of those who went to the polls voted yes on a referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment of Ireland’s constitution, which was added in 1983 to give equal rights to a woman and an unborn child. By voting yes, supporters also backed legislation, which must still be introduced, to allow women to seek an abortion during the first 12 weeks of their pregnancy. The referendum was sparked, in part, by the high-profile death of Indian dentist Savita Halappanavar, who suffered a miscarriage in an Irish hospital in 2012. Doctors refused her repeated requests for an abortion, because they could detect a fetal heartbeat, and she contracted a fatal infection. We go to Dublin, Ireland, where we speak with Grainne Griffin, co-director of the Together for Yes campaign and co-founder of the Abortion Rights Campaign. We also speak with Annie Hoey, the canvassing coordinator for Together for Yes and former Union of Students in Ireland president.

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Video squareStoryMay 29, 2018After Ireland’s Historic Abortion Vote, Calls Grow for Abortion Rights in Northern Ireland
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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: “Free, safe and legal.” That was the slogan for the Abortion Rights Campaign, launched by Irish women in 2012, that led to an historic, landslide vote Friday to liberalize the country’s highly restrictive abortion laws.

BARRY RYAN: Votes in favor of the proposal, 1,429,981.

AMY GOODMAN: Two-thirds of those who went to the polls voted yes on a referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment of Ireland’s constitution, which was added in 1983 and gave equal rights to a woman and her unborn child. Many celebrated Saturday outside Dublin Castle.

AOIFE RYAN: So overwhelming, but in the best way possible. Like, we never expected that it would be so much of a landslide that it’s seeming to be. And that just—it makes it feel so much better, because it’s the majority. It’s what the people of Ireland want. And that’s so heartwarming.

JANINE FRETWELL: For all women in Ireland, it is just momentous. And nobody has to travel anymore; they can be looked after in their own country. And I work in that profession, have done for 10 years, and I can’t tell you—it’s brought me to tears today that this has actually happened. It’s just incredible.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: By voting yes, supporters also backed legislation, which must still be introduced, to allow women to seek an abortion during the first 12 weeks of their pregnancy. Ireland is a Catholic-majority country. But the moral authority of the Catholic clergy, who oppose abortion, has been damaged by sexual abuse scandals and cruel treatment of unmarried pregnant women. On Monday, Bishop Kevin Doran, chairman of the Irish Bishops’ Conference Committee for Bioethics, said during an interview on RTÉ Radio 1 with Sean O’Rourke that voting yes was a sin.

BISHOP KEVIN DORAN: If you voted yes, knowing and intending that abortion would be the outcome, then you should consider coming to confession, where you would be received with the same compassion that is shown to any other penitent.

SEAN O’ROURKE: Are you saying that, Bishop Doran, that people who voted yes, knowing that it was going to lead to abortion—it couldn’t have been leading to anything else.

BISHOP KEVIN DORAN: Yeah.

SEAN O’ROURKE: That’s what this was all about. Are you saying that it was a sin to have voted yes last Friday?

BISHOP KEVIN DORAN: If they knew and intended abortion as the outcome, yes, I believe so.

AMY GOODMAN: But other church leaders interviewed on RTÉ Radio 1, Ireland’s public radio, had a different response to Friday’s vote. This is Father Brian D’Arcy, one of Ireland’s best-known priests, speaking Monday.

FATHER BRIAN D’ARCY: I wouldn’t like to attribute sin in this matter at all. I think, you know—I think it’s the wrong language for this, because this isn’t an issue about church law at all. This is an issue about how the state is attempting to treat all its people in an emerging way, in an emerging republic, in an emerging world, ever-changing world, in which many values have to be changed and looked at, in which medical science is changed and looked at, in which ethics are being changed and looked at differently. And each of us has to struggle. That’s exactly what a Christian conscience has to do, to struggle to find a way of accepting what is right for yourself, while also allowing what you couldn’t allow for yourself to be allowed for others who might view life and its ethics and morality in a different way.

AMY GOODMAN: Views on abortion in Ireland also changed after the high-profile death of Indian dentist Savita Halappanavar, who suffered a miscarriage in an Irish hospital in 2012. Doctors refused her repeated requests for an abortion, because they could detect a fetal heartbeat, and she contracted a fatal infection. Meanwhile, Friday’s vote will not change abortion access in British-ruled Northern Ireland, where 19th century laws barring the procedure remain in place.

For more, we go to Dublin, Ireland, where we’re joined by two guests. Grainne Griffin is co-director of Together for Yes campaign. She’s also the co-founder of the Abortion Rights Campaign. And Annie Hoey is the canvassing coordinator for Together for Yes. She’s former Union of Students in Ireland president.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Grainne Griffin, let’s begin with you. Explain exactly what took place this weekend and how historic it was.

GRAINNE GRIFFIN: Well, I think, on Friday, the country went to the polls, and what we saw when the votes were counted on Saturday was that Ireland revealed itself as very much a changed country to the world. And it was about much more, in the end, than abortion rights and access to safe reproductive healthcare. It was about women stepping forward, and particularly younger women, and being seen as equals in their own society. And for so many, who have worked for so long, for decades, and the weeks and the months coming up to this, this really was a validation of the place of women in our society and a sense that they have been accepted, and overwhelmingly accepted, by everyone who voted on Friday.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Annie Hoey, in terms of the role of young people, did you or any of the advocates of the—of removing this amendment to the constitution expect such a landslide vote? Especially, could you talk about the role of young people?

ANNIE HOEY: Well, young people have been involved in the issue of reproductive justice in Ireland for a really long time. Students’ unions were taken to court, and by the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child, because in the late ’80s we were the only ones who were giving out information about how to access abortions in the U.K. So, young people have been involved in this for decades now.

And I think when we saw 87 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds voted yes, 90 percent of women age 18 to 25 voted yes, and I think that shows a real validation that young people want to take control over their own futures. They saw the change that was possible. They saw, I think, the past of what Ireland was like, and they recognized that they didn’t want that for themselves. We didn’t want that for our futures. We wanted a better future for ourselves. We wanted one where care and compassion was kind of embroidered into the fabric of our society. And young people, I think, really stepped up to the plate.

So, while I think a lot of people were surprised maybe at the huge numbers—I’ve been working with young people for a long time, and we have been incredibly passionate about this issue. We have seen across the country students and young people coming out, having referendums on campuses, young people getting involved in setting up local Together for Yes groups and working with maybe some of the stalwarts of the campaigns from the 1983 referendum. And I just think this became a really exciting time for young people to be involved in a political movement. And I hope that we see that going forward.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to the Irish prime minister, who campaigned to repeal the laws, speaking Saturday.

PRIME MINISTER LEO VARADKAR: Today is a historic day for Ireland. A quiet revolution has taken place, and today is a great act of democracy. A hundred years since women gained the right to vote, today we, as a people, have spoken, and we say that we trust women and respect women to make their own decisions and their own choices. … For me, it’s also a day when we say, “No more”—no more to doctors telling their patients that there’s nothing can be done for them in their own country; no more lonely journeys across the Irish Sea; no more stigma, as the veil of secrecy is lifted; and no more isolation, as the burden of shame is gone.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Grainne Griffin, talk about the significance of his statement and also exactly how you organized. How long has this been going on? Who introduced the referendum? And how did you campaign?

GRAINNE GRIFFIN: Well, I think what Leo Varadkar spoke to there, in terms of the breaking down and the stigma and the silence and all of those pieces, that was incredibly significant, in terms of what we saw on Saturday. But in terms of his words about it being a quiet revolution, I think a lot of the women who have been organized would say that it actually hasn’t been that quiet, that people have been out loud and vocal on this for quite a number of years, and that what we discovered in the result we saw on Saturday was that people have been listening. There are many, many women and organizations who have been campaigning on this issue, going back over the decades, back as far as the ’83 referendum and before that.

But I think what we really saw in terms of the lead-up into this particular referendum was, since 2012 and since the really tragic death of Savita, we saw a really strong movement of younger women coming together and getting involved in very strategic and very tactical grassroots organizing all over the country, with a real aim to speak openly and honestly about what the reality of abortion and reproductive health services in Irish people’s lives looked like, because what we found was that there has just been such a huge silence on this issue over the years. And in fact, when we named ourselves the Abortion Rights Campaign, it was actually quite a controversial decision, because “abortion” was not a word that people liked saying in public. It was a difficult word. And I think if you look at how far we’ve come, from 2012 and that time to today, you can really see how much society has opened up and actually entered into a dialogue on this issue.

And so, I think, really, at the core of it was that kind of regional, local organizing for setting up things like speak-outs, where people told their stories of accessing abortion care abroad, coupled with then, of course, judicial advocacy, parliamentary advocacy, and really a very broad range of efforts and of tactics that were all leading towards a very coordinated and a very clear center, which was to repeal the Eighth Amendment and to bring in legislation that allowed for abortion access without the need to give a clear reason, because it was incredibly important that when we saw this change—and we always firmly believed that we would see this change—that it would be for everybody and that this would not be limited to smaller, particularly vulnerable groups of people who need reproductive rights services, like in the case of rape or fatal fetal anomaly, but this was something that needed to provide for all women who needed to seek care, for whatever reason, and to recognize that every reason is valid.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Grainne, could you talk about the role of the Catholic Church, clearly in opposition to the movement, and with the pope visiting Ireland in a couple of months? Your sense of the grip of the Catholic Church on the Irish consciousness?

GRAINNE GRIFFIN: I think probably the most striking thing about the referendum debate and the role of the Catholic Church was the fact that they—we weren’t speaking to them. Like, our campaign spoke firmly to the people and about the kind of Irish society that we wanted to see. And while the majority of Irish people do identify as Catholic and many of them are mass-going, what we saw was that people did not turn to the Catholic Church for their moral authority on this issue. They looked to themselves and to the kind of values and the kind of integrity and dignity and compassion that they wanted to show to the women of Ireland. And so, while I’m sure—while the church have their position, in the same way as Irish people have fanned their own moral compass on issues like contraception and divorce in the past, we found they took that same path here on Saturday.

AMY GOODMAN: And the sexual abuse scandal by priests in Ireland, can you talk about how that weakened the church? Do think that also played a role here?

GRAINNE GRIFFIN: I think, over the last number of decades, in particularly, we have seen the weakening of the moral authority of the Catholic Church—I mean, absolutely. And I think anybody watching, from any perspective, be it global or locally here, will have seen that. And the abuse scandals that have come out have certainly played a role in that, in addition to—in addition to the news of just how clearly and how badly the church has treated women over the years—the Magdalene laundries, tomb babies, the mother and baby homes. I mean, the list has gone on. And certainly the Catholic Church is not seen in Ireland to be in a position where it can really speak to anybody as to how to care for and treat, for the most vulnerable and for women in our society.

I mean, the Catholic Church do still play a very strong role in terms of their position on school boards, on hospital boards, and they’re very involved in the actual provision of social care in our society. And I think that’s something that everybody will be keeping a very close eye on now, as we look to the implementation of this legislation and the implementation of this healthcare in Irish hospitals, that it is indeed everything that the Irish people voted for.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, then come back to this discussion and talk about exactly what this means, now that the referendum has passed, repealing the 1983 law. Grainne Griffin is with Together for Yes, abortion rights campaign, and Annie Hoey, Together for Yes, former Union of Students in Ireland president. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back with them in Dublin in a moment.

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After Ireland’s Historic Abortion Vote, Calls Grow for Abortion Rights in Northern Ireland

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