25 May this year was a historic day for Ireland. It was the day thousands of us had been hoping for. It was the day Ireland voted to repeal the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, which had banned abortion in all circumstances except where a pregnant woman might die.
I’ll never forget the moment the referendum result was announced.
Thousands of campaigners, families, women, men and children were gathered at Dublin Castle, waiting to hear whether Ireland had voted ‘yes’ to repeal, or whether this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to amend the restrictive abortion law had been missed. It was beyond nerve-wrecking when the votes were being counted.
And then it was called: 66.4% of people had voted yes. The tears, hugs and joy were overwhelming.
But what I remember most about that moment was when the crowd started chanting ‘Savita’ and ‘never again’.
Savita Halappanavar was a woman who tragically died in 2012 because she was denied an abortion following a septic miscarriage. The law had stated that the act of abortion, where there was no real and substantial threat to the woman’s life to continue the pregnancy, was a criminal offence punishable by life imprisonment. For Savita, the law proved fatal.
Her family had bravely spoken out following her death, and again during the referendum campaign, where they called for the people of Ireland to vote ‘yes’.
Savita became a symbol of the struggle, and the chanting of her name at Dublin Castle was in recognition of her and the countless others who have suffered under the Eighth Amendment. So many people had come forward to publicly share their personal abortion stories during the campaign. It was these stories, and the women that told them, that changed Ireland.
Before the referendum campaign, very few people around the world – even in Ireland – realised just how restrictive our country’s abortion law really was. Even though I had supported access to abortion in Ireland and called for a change to our laws from very early on in my life, it wasn’t until I started working as a campaigner for Amnesty International on sexual and reproductive rights that I truly saw and understood the impact of Ireland’s abortion laws on women and girls.
Amnesty’s report, ‘She is not a criminal’, documented first-hand the mental and physical anguish caused by Ireland’s abortion laws. As a campaigner, I spoke with women who shared their stories of bleeding in airports following their abortion; far from home and loved ones. We heard from women who were too worried to go to their doctors for post-abortion care for fear the police would be called on them. And from women who told of their lonely journeys in search of healthcare – they spoke of how, following a diagnosis of fatal foetal impairment, they were forced to travel to another country for an abortion and then had to use courier services to get their much wanted baby’s remains home so they could have a dignified burial.
These stories depicted so clearly why access to abortion is a human right, and why there was such an urgent need for change in Ireland. And they help explain why that day was such a huge moment for us.
The campaign to change Ireland’s abortion law has been long and relentless - decades of hard work, of legal advocacy and campaigning and knocking on doors around the country. It had taken such a heavy toll on everyone involved. But it was worth it, and I’m so proud of Ireland and everyone who played a part in bringing about this change.
Now, at last, Ireland is free to create a legal and medical framework for abortion access that respects human rights. I have been working with partners on the draft legislation that will legalise abortion in certain circumstances Ireland. The law is not all we had hoped for, but it is a massive step forward for Ireland. From 1 January, we will have abortion services in Ireland. Women and girls will finally be looked after by their own country.
The vote also sent a message to others around the world that change is still possible. To activists in countries like Argentina, Poland and El Salvador who are still struggling for abortion rights - your time will come.
And, of course, we cannot forget the struggle still being fought in Northern Ireland. There, women and girls are still subject to one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world. From January, women from Northern Ireland will be able to travel to Ireland to have abortions but will still be denied their rights at home. It’s almost unbelievable that women from Northern Ireland are being criminalised for accessing a service freely available to all other women in the UK.
Ireland said ‘yes’ this year, and I’m so incredibly proud. Let’s make 2019 the year when other countries say ‘yes’ to women’s sexual and reproductive rights. It’s time.
Sorcha Tunney is campaign coordinator of Amnesty International Ireland’s It’s Time campaign