Staff writer Sophie Elizabeth Black writes on the abortion referendum in Ireland and feminist politics worldwide
Standing as one of the strongest examples of a self-identified Catholic state in the world, Ireland has long struggled with tension between the demands of the liberal minority and the conservative doctrine promoted by the Church. However, in the past decade the Irish people have passed several progressive reforms in line with growing international norms, including becoming the first nation worldwide to legalise same-sex marriage via popular vote in 2015. In a historic referendum this May, it went one step further in overturning a centuries old law that restricted access to abortion only in cases where the pregnancy endangered the mother’s life.
Yet, the pro-choice victory was no mean feat. In the lead up to the referendum, Christian far-right groups employed shock tactics in street campaigns; pedestrians were exposed to large billboards displaying an image of a foetus captioned “one of us”, encouraging the public to ‘love both’ the mother and the child by upholding the abortion ban. The debate reached international concern, with American anti-abortion groups such as ‘The Leadership Institute’ having travelled to leaflet in Dublin in the month lead up to the vote. Certainly, the right to abortion is a hot topic for many.
Arguments often used by anti-abortion groups tweak at heartstrings, and it can be tempting for those easily persuaded to believe the legalisation of such a procedure will cause the murder of hundreds of innocent lives. Yet, such emotional rhetoric rests on the key assumption that a human’s life begins at conception; even if the ‘baby’ is only a few cells big. If we consider the statistic that the vast majority of abortions in the United Kingdom are in the first trimester, this poses the question of who the government values the welfare of more, the woman or her conception.
A woman’s right to abortion is imperative to achieving gender equality in any nation. As seen in Least Developed Countries (LEDCs) such as Ethiopia, Cameroon, and Mozambique, a lack of access to contraception and family planning hinders education and employment prospects of women, and thus exacerbates their non-inclusion in political and economic society. The need for legal abortion does not lessen with the wealth of a country; as seen before the Roe vs. Wade ruling in 1973, thousands of American women either travelled to states where the procedure was legal or sought dangerous to procure an abortion. Half a century might have passed since then, but like in the United States, Irish women are still in dire need of safe and affordable access to reproductive healthcare.
The recent Irish ruling represents hope for feminists worldwide that reproductive care will soon become widely available. Perhaps in a reactionary liberalism to the Kavanaugh controversy seen by the US Supreme Court, it seems a greater emphasis is being put on women’s issues in both the politics and popular media; Netflix releases such as Feminists: What Were They Thinking? and Reversing Roe have reignited revolutionary fervour which transcends nationality to fight for female-focused constitutional rights, such as legalised abortion and equal pay.
Indeed, the turning of popular sentiment to support such feminist measures was exhibited last month in Northern Ireland, when British MP’s voted to overturn a notoriously strict law dating back to the Victorian Era forbidding all abortions; even in the case of rape, incest, or fatal foetal abnormality. Although no bill concerning the issue has been passed yet, it is hoped that the symbolic gesture will pass through parliament and into law. As well as advancing the human rights regime and gender equality, by passing this legislation Northern Ireland will act to stop the flow of desperate women travelling to the mainland United Kingdom at their own expense to obtain abortions from the UK’s National Health Service.
Yet, this issue lies in the hands of the ever-complex relationship between a devolved Northern Ireland and Westminster. Although Theresa May announced she will not intervene in the matter, the Northern Ireland Assembly has been adjourned since entering a deadlock in January last year, leaving the country without an executive to address the vote. While the Conservatives have the pressing matter of Brexit negotiations to deal with, with her party’s loose coalition with the strongly anti-abortionist Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), it is unlikely that the Northern Irish debate will go unnoticed by Ms. May.
To summarise, feminist politics has come a long way since the suffragette movement of the 1920s. Men and women worldwide are banding together to demand the constitutional right of reproductive freedom as the latest step towards achieving gender equality. Although the Irish referendum was hailed as a success for the global pro-choice movement, much is left to be achieved, as only a minority of countries (mostly Western, industrialised nations) have legislated abortion as a woman’s right. Yet, modern media’s influence on popular sentiment shows the tide is turning; the fight for women’s rights has become legitimised.