Lessons must be learnt from previous 8th Amendment referendum, say 1983 campaigners

Source: Hot Press 5th Oct. 2017 Peter McGoran

Leaders from the 1983 abortion referendum campaign have today (05.10.17) shared their key lessons for those in favour of repeal of the Eighth Amendment.

In a statement, some of the leaders said this:

The upcoming referendum must avoid the bitter and divisive discourse of the past; highlight real-life stories; and ensure the campaign is inclusive.

34-Year Anniversary of the Eighth Amendment

This weekend marks 34 years since the Eighth Amendment was inserted into the Constitution and, to mark the anniversary, the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment brought together a dozen high-profile campaigners from 1983 for a roundtable discussion on the lessons of most relevance to today’s campaign. Speakers at the event included:

– Peter Ward SC;

– Ursula Barry, Head of Women’s Studies at UCD;

– Noreen Byrne, who worked in Well Woman from 1980 to 1985;

– Eddie Conlon, academic and long-time social activist;

– Pauline Conroy, social policy analyst and lecturer;

– Catherine Forde, barrister and former chairperson of the Irish Family Planning Association; and

– Gráinne Healy, social activist and co-director of the 2015 Yes Equality campaign.

Speaking at the event, Ailbhe Smyth, Convenor of the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment and also a veteran of 1983, said: “One striking difference between today’s debate and the situation 34 years ago is that, back then, you heard little or nothing about real people affected by abortion.

“Women couldn’t speak up, and I don’t recall hearing any real-life stories discussed in public. Instead, what we had was an almost purely theoretical debate.

“The debate became entangled in complicated legal and medical issues, and there was little or no space for the experiences and opinions of ordinary, everyday people. But times have changed, and over the past few years, more and more women have come forward to tell their stories of how the Eighth Amendment shattered their lives.

“Ireland today is a far more open and compassionate place. Women are no longer prepared to stay silent and we have fought for and won many rights and freedoms over the past three decades. It is time now to remove from our Constitution a clause that has caused such real suffering and misery and to provide women with the reproductive healthcare services they need.”

Veteran Voices

All of those who spoke at today’s event recalled how difficult the campaign had been in 1983.

Orla O’Connor, Director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland, one of the organisations that actively opposed the insertion of the Eighth Amendment into the Constitution 34 years ago, said: “We are determined that this referendum on the Eighth Amendment will be a respectful and inclusive conversation that allows for the voices and experiences of women, couples, families and doctors to be heard. To do this, we must challenge the adversarial nature of the current debate and approach this personal matter in a respectful and open-minded way. What we want and need are conversations, not arguments.”

Barristers Peter Ward and Catherine Forde both highlighted the legal quagmire that resulted from the introduction of the Eighth Amendment.

“We did not fully understand the far-reaching consequences of the Eighth Amendment in 1983, and we still do not. There is no space for health regulation in a Constitution; the only option is to delete the Eighth Amendment and acknowledge that it should never have been inserted,” said Ms. Forde.

Mr. Ward said: “In 1983, we argued that it is impossible to regulate the issue of abortion within the narrow confines of a constitutional provision. Since then, we have been proven correct again and again.

“It is for the Oireachtas to do the job for which its members were elected and legislate in detail on the circumstances in which abortion shall be lawful in this country. In order to allow members of the Oireachtas to pass the laws that are necessary and long overdue, the Eighth Amendment must be repealed.”

Gráinne Healy, 1983 campaigner and Co-Director of the 2015 Yes Equality campaign said: “A lesson to take into the Repeal the Eighth Amendment campaign is that, back then, we really thought it was all about winning arguments. What we know now is that winning referendums is about winning hearts and minds, and capturing the votes of the million in the middle.”

Noreen Byrne, 1983 campaigner and former head of the Well Woman Centre, said: “The Eighth Amendment has to be removed from the Constitution. It has led to much suffering and solved nothing.”

Further information about today’s event is available at www.repealeight.ie.