In 2018, Ireland will vote on its current restrictive abortion law. Our author looks at the latest polls and pro-choice activism and asks: How can activists make sure that they campaign effectively?
What a difference two years can make. Since I last blogged about Ireland’s abortion laws, we have seen an assembly of Irish citizens (the Citizen’s Assembly) brought together by the government to discuss abortion vote in favour of providing abortion without restriction. The Irish government, newly helmed by our first openly gay Prime Minister, has promised a vote in 2018 on the 8th Amendment to the Constitution, which makes Irish abortion laws so restrictive.
A lot has changed with the potential for real progress on the horizon. But a lot also hasn’t including polls reflecting a stark difference in public opinion on the scenarios in which a person should be able to access abortion. According to an Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll published recently, the majority of the electorate would overwhelmingly vote for a repeal of the 8th but 57% of the Irish electorate would favour allowing abortion only in certain cases such as rape, fatal foetal abnormalities and when there is a real risk to a woman’s life. This recent poll also shows that only 24% of Irish voters would vote in favour of liberalising abortion without restriction. This isn’t the only recent poll but it is one of the most ominous for the pro-choice movement.
Controversy on campus
The political landscape is also heating up. Several high profile controversies and protests have taken place since last year: a ‘hunger strike’ by an anti-abortion activist which garnered contempt and support from both sides of the debate and the March for Choice in September attended by 10000s of people with solidarity events all over the world.
One interesting controversy is the impeaching of the Student Union President of University College Dublin for removing abortion information from a college handbook. The impeached president in question, Katie Ascoughhad been elected with a manifesto which promised that she would pass on any issues about abortion to other officers knowing that the Students Union had a pro-choice mandate. Many have painted the campaign to impeach her as a violation of free speech, while others simply see the impeachment as a necessity due to the loss of trust that accompanied the breaking of a campaign promise.
The controversy shows a number of things:
– abortion remains a contentious topic and anything linked to the subject can now become front page news in Ireland
– there is a generational divide between pro-choice and pro-life opinions
– the debate will play out on and in a multitude of different platforms and communities.
The Citizen’s Assembly was a huge win for the pro-choice movement, and a fascinating exercise in participative democracy. After all, it showed that with all the information from both sides laid out before people, the majority will choose to liberalise our laws. However, we must be realistic about how much information and conversation the average voter will be exposed to, and critically consider if the sources they will be confronted with are trustworthy.
Social media is where a big part of the debate is going on and where many voters are getting their information from. We must be wary of the lessons that can be learned from recent polarising votes like the US Presidential elections and Brexit. While I am loathed to tell other people how to express themselves or to police other people’s activism, I am afraid when I see well-meaning pro-choice supporters online bashing religion or the Catholic church and mentioning repeal in the same breath. While I keenly understand and can empathise with these sentiments which are not unwarranted in a country like Ireland which has been rocked by mass human rights violations in institutions controlled by the Catholic church, I am not entirely sure they are helpful in the lead up to a referendum with some of the polls looking the way they are.
How can activists make sure that they campaign effectively?
In my post from two years ago I stated that a referendum held too early without the right campaigning could fail, however there are many more obstacles that I didn’t think of but am now sadly waking up to since the US elections. I recently felt a jolt of panic when I heard about an apparent Repeal activist placing a Repeal jumper (which has now become the symbol of the pro-choice movement) in the shape of a cross on an altar in an Irish church, taking a photograph of it and posting it online only for it to be re-posted by the leader of the anti-choice movement on Twitter. While on the one hand, this can seem like harmless fun to some, on the other hand it could also serve to put people off the message behind Repeal.
The campaign has been led cleverly and valiantly by the Abortion Rights Campaign and the Repeal Coalition. They undoubtedly know what they are doing and have galvanised a vast and impressive network of committed activists. However, the repeal jumper on the altar case shows that the campaign cannot control how every activist expresses themselves nor should it. Much of the outcome of the referendum will depend on the effective individual activism of people in the pro-choice movement. Part of this is campaigning with a clear vision for how to persuade people – the ones who are undecided– to make up their minds in favour of liberalising our abortion laws.
Who is voting and how to reach them
To know how to persuade these people, we need to know who they are and one fact is clear, many of those people are Catholics. There is a way of communicating with these individuals and engaging them in healthy debate while also respecting their religious views, a balance that was quite well struck during the Marriage Equality Referendum. Much of that is about talking practically and honestly about where life and rights begin and how we balance them.
For many of the persuadables, these are difficult moral questions and no one should be belittled for grappling with them, otherwise they will keep their opinions to themselves out of fear, robbing us of a valuable opportunity to engage with them. Furthermore, many of the people who must be persuaded to vote are men who are routinely told that abortion is a women’s issue or, when asked, say that it is not up to them. While the final choice regarding pregnancy and a woman’s health should ultimately always be her own, many families and couples make choices together and access to abortion is one of the key components of effective family planning. It is a fact that men, as part of the Irish electorate, do have a say. Men must be engaged in the debate and empowered to vote and to express their views so that women can access the right to abortion and have choice.
The end of 2017 and 2018 will provide an opportunity that countless people have fought for since the last referendum on abortion. A useful question that we can all asks ourselves when engaging with someone either in person or online about abortion is: am I trying to understand who they are, where they are coming from and am I listening to them? If the answer is no, then ask yourself what the chances are that you are engaging with them in a way that is persuasive to them. We need to get our messaging right to ensure that not one more woman needs to travel abroad from Ireland to access abortion but also to ensure that this election does not divide Irish society in ways that are difficult to heal from.