The overwhelming ‘Yes’ vote in the Republic of Ireland which was announced on Saturday 26th May was a huge step forward for the rights of women in Ireland. The overwhelming majority with which the ‘Yes’ vote was won was inspirational and moving; a point of pride for the women of Ireland. The secretary of state Simon Harris and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar have made it clear they are keen to move the legislation on abortion through Parliament as quickly as possible.
The majority with which the “Yes” campaign won provided the women of Ireland with a sense of solidarity from both other women and Irish men. When broken down the ‘Yes’ vote crossed gender, generation and socio-economic boundaries. Young, old, men, women, people from all backgrounds voted ‘Yes’. The most significant statistic from this referendum, I believe, is the most popular reason ‘Yes’ voters gave for voting to repeal the Eighth Amendment. In an exit poll carried out by RTE, 84% of yes voters said they chose to vote this way in order to give women choice (62% of voters overall). In short, the people of Ireland voted to trust women and ensure that each woman had the freedom to choose for herself.
This victory for the rights of women has brought attention to the fact that Northern Ireland is now the only area of the UK and Ireland where a near blanket ban on abortion continues to exist. Calls have been made by British MPs, from both the Conservative and Labour parties, to repeal the Offences Against the Person Act in Northern Ireland which would allow the process of decriminalising abortion to begin. Those who oppose abortion in Northern Ireland have claimed that Westminster has no business making this decision for Northern Ireland.
Trusting women is a lesson yet to be learned from some political leaders in Northern Ireland. Most notably members of the DUP. When asked about abortion, these DUP members continually justify their anti-choice stance by presenting the incredibly weak and factually incorrect ‘floodgates’ argument. Not only is this idea that the number of abortions will rise dramatically once abortion is decriminalised easily disproven, but it fails to address the fact that Northern Irish women already access abortion in the UK. As many as 3 women a day travel to Great Britain to have an abortion or take abortion pills at home. In addition to this, this weak argument also ignores the fact that the decriminalisation of abortion is about choice. The decision whether a woman decides to carry a pregnancy to term or not is her decision, and hers alone.
The decision of the Irish people in the Republic to give women choice highlights that the old idea of pro-life versus pro-choice is an oversimplification and inaccurate understanding of the abortion debate. The pro-choice and pro-life perspectives are not mutually exclusive. It is not impossible to personally feel that abortion is not a choice you would make but recognise that other women have different circumstances and therefore will make different choices. To argue that you don’t personally agree with abortion and therefore it should be illegal is not simply pro-life, it is anti-choice.
Presenting a personal moral opposition to abortion as a reason to maintain the criminalisation of abortion is simply not good enough. The women of Northern Ireland deserve better.
On Friday the 25th May the people of the Republic of Ireland didn’t simply choose to repeal the Eighth Amendment, they choose to provide women with the healthcare they deserve, they chose to give women bodily autonomy, to give women choice and dignity. The Republic of Ireland has chosen to trust women and it is time Northern Ireland does too.
By Aoife Clements (Edited)
If you would like to get involved in the campaign to decriminalise reproductive healthcare in Northern Ireland please contact Alliance For Choice or if you would like to financially support access to abortion please contact Abortion Support Network.
WRDA understands and recognises that abortion is a healthcare issue that impacts trans men and non binary people as well as cis gender women. We advocate for the reproductive rights of all pregnant people.