Photograph: Author's own
Tens of thousands of people demonstrated through the streets of central Dublin on Saturday 30 September as part of the sixth March for Choice to demand access to abortion services in the Republic of Ireland, which was organised and funded by the Abortion Rights Campaign.
Students and youths comprised the overwhelming majority of the demonstrators, with bold placards and voices shouting 'vulva la resistance' and 'keep your rosaries off our ovaries.' One protestor marched in the red and white uniforms forced upon 'fertile women' in The Handmaid's Tale, evoking a powerful contrast between Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel (recently dramatized by Bruce Miller) and Ireland's restrictive abortion laws that are deeply rooted in Catholicism. Make no mistake, the political statement made by the marching handmaid was not out of proportion: Ireland's restrictive abortion laws can be viewed in a historical and religious narrative of control over women's sexuality, bodies and reproduction exemplified by the notorious 'Magdalene laundries' for so-called "fallen women" (including women pregnant outside of wedlock).
Ireland's abortion laws are among the strictest in Europe. Article 40.3.3, inserted into the Irish Constitution by its Eighth Amendment, formalises in law the equal right to life of a woman and the embryo or fetus she carries. This law is born from the union between 'church and state' in Ireland. The only exception that would warrant a "legal" abortion is if the pregnant woman's health and life is deemed (by medical professionals) to be in immediate danger. The definition of 'danger' is in reality left to the interpretation of clinicians. This legal provision, which in theory is meant to be lifesaving, cannot be called upon to safeguard the lives of women and has resulted in tragic deaths, such as Savita Halappanavar who died in 2012 after her request to terminate a non-viable pregnancy was refused even though she was in the process of miscarrying and feared the risk of sepsis. In 2010 the European Court of Human Rights challenged the uncertainty surrounding this legal exemption, noting how it has a 'significant chilling' effect on women and medical professionals (having or helping somebody to obtain an abortion "illegally" in Ireland is a criminal offence).
Photograph: Author's own
Consequently it is estimated that eight women per day leave Ireland at their own expense to access abortion services abroad, away from the emotional support from family and friends that can be so important to a woman's health and wellbeing following the decision to end a pregnancy. Any change to Ireland's restrictive abortion laws would require a referendum to repeal or change current legislation, which has recently been scheduled for 2018. However, a specific date or question outlining the proposed change to Ireland's abortion law is yet to be made public.
The 2016 Brexit Referendum demonstrated how seemingly simple questions put to the public ("Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?") are baseless without proposing an optimal alternative to the status quo that has real potential to benefit citizens and improve their health, prosperity and security. Moreover, yes/no answers can produce remarkably different patterns of results across generations: youth voters were more likely to vote 'remain,' but voters over the age of 45 were more likely to vote Brexit and are likely to have constituted a higher proportion of the voting population on the day.
There are political differences between UK and Irish referendums, and it is important not to gloss over the complexities of the Brexit Referendum result. But from Brexit it's clear that successfully changing Ireland's restrictive abortion laws in the 2018 Referendum will depend firstly on the question framed and the alternative arrangement posed to the public. Secondly the Brexit result does tell us that empowering the youth vote and turn out could sway the 2018 Referendum in Ireland in favour of access to abortion.
A decisive youth vote performed a key role in the successful outcome of Ireland's 2015 Referendum on same-sex civil marriage rights ("Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex"). Yet abortion legislation can take a multitude of forms (as global variation in abortion laws demonstrate), so the basis of the 2018 Referendum question will be quite different to the 2015 question. The terms of the 2018 question will therefore be key to the outcome.
The youth vote in the 2018 Referendum should also not be taken for granted as one homogenous block that will be in favour of repealing or changing current abortion legislation. Despite the assertive presence and forceful demands of the youth and student protestors at the sixth March for Choice, youths also formed the few 'pro-life' counter-protestors observed on the day. Running with the view that youth are more likely than older generations to vote in favour of having access to abortion services, a successful result could be secured by enabling and empowering them to have difficult yet vital conversations with their peers, parents and grandparents about the importance of making abortion services in Ireland free, safe and legal.
Whilst the 2015 Referendum brought same-sex civil marriage rights to Ireland, the outcome of the 2018 Referendum will need to be understood in its own specific context of Ireland's social, political and religious obsession with women's bodies and bodily autonomy. Vulva la resistance will depend on a united social movement that presents free, safe and legal access to abortion in Ireland as -- fundamentally -- a human right that all Irish men and women, of all ages, should aspire to see and vote for.