'A historic victory for women's rights': how the world responded to Ireland's abortion referendum

Media from the UK to Argentina react to the results of Friday’s vote, laying the path to legislation for safe abortion services for Irish women.

Claire Provost author pic
Rocío Ros Rebollo Claire Provost
28 May 2018

Voters celebrate the referendum result in Dublin, on 26 May 2018.

Voters celebrate the referendum result in Dublin, on 26 May 2018. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Ireland made history on Friday when it voted overwhelmingly to repeal a controversial constitutional amendment which has prevented legislation on safe abortion. The pro-choice position took a landslide 66% of the vote.

The decision was described as a ‘monumental day for women,’ while anti-abortion groups warned that their fight is not over and attention turned quickly to Northern Ireland, where Victorian-era anti-choice laws still apply.

Ireland is now “a changed place for women,” said one commentator for the Irish state RTE broadcaster. “The people of Ireland didn’t just shout, they roared."

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar told reporters on Saturday that the result was “the culmination of a quiet revolution that has been taking place in Ireland over the last couple of decades.”

The landslide vote and its implications reverberated throughout the world’s press, which had closely followed the referendum campaigns that had been marred by concerns about foreign influence online and on the ground.

Last week, openDemocracy 50.50 revealed that Irish anti-abortion groups were accepting foreign donations online, against the law, and that Facebook ads could still be bought from abroad, despite the social media platform's ban on foreign advertising targeting Irish voters ahead of the referendum.

British and Irish parliamentarians called for major changes to unregulated social media campaigning following openDemocracy’s reporting, “to protect the integrity of referendums and elections around the world.”

But despite the use of controversial data-mining and targeting tactics and technologies from Brexit and the Trump presidential campaigns, anti-abortion activists failed to win Friday’s vote.

“The outcome was a historic victory for women’s rights,” said the Associated Press news agency, whose report was picked up by numerous media outlets internationally, several of which linked the referendum result to changes in Ireland’s religious landscape.

“The abortion vote has provided further evidence that the country is turning away from the Catholic Church, which historically enjoyed a firm grip upon Irish society,” said Al Jazeera’s report.

“The result looks set to be another hammer blow to the Roman Catholic Church’s authority in Ireland,” said the AFP agency.

The New York Times described it as a “rebuke to [the] Catholic Church.” CNN said it “completed a circle of sweeping social reforms… that fly in the face of the [church’s] traditional teachings.”

In India, the father of Savita Halappanavar, who died in Ireland after being refused an abortion in 2012, told the Hindustan Times that he had “no words to express his gratitude” for those who voted to change the country's laws.

In Italy, politician Laura Boldrini said the vote was historic “for all those who fight and believe in the affirmation of rights.” Last week also marked 40 years of legal abortion in Italy, though doctors’ widespread ‘conscientious objection’ continues to limit women's access to these services.

In Spain, El País linked the Irish referendum result to an “unstoppable” feminist movement and said a new generation was “taking the reins of the last bastion of Catholic conservatism.” Meanwhile, the conservative newspaper ABC said it “demonstrates the hunger of society for a radical change.”

In Latin America, the Clarín newspaper in Argentina said the vote challenged “the powerful influence of the Catholic Church on the Irish daily life and law.” Huffpost Brasil said it was “a milestone" for a country that "was one of the most conservative in Europe.” El Mostrador, from Chile, described it as a “severe conservative defeat in Ireland… the most Catholic country in the world.”

In the UK, the Guardian and SkyNews ran liveblogs as the votes were counted on Saturday.

“The reverberations of what is first and foremost an Irish victory for women’s reproductive rights will be felt across the world,” said the Observer, offering “hope to the 1.25 billion women globally who have no access to safe abortion.”

The result, it said, shows that "over the years it is possible to change people’s minds, to build a coalition, to use arguments framed in compassion and pragmatism to bring along those who lean towards social conservatism."

Over the weekend, there were tears on both sides of the Irish referendum campaigns.

Anti-abortion activists called the result a “mark of shame.” One campaigner with the European Life Network warned: “We are starting again now and we will make this vote a wake-up call… to renew our efforts consistently.”

In the months before the vote, hints of an anti-choice backup strategy became clear in meetings and some media reports which looked at Irish doctors’ and nurses’ rights to object to providing care that goes against their ‘conscience.’

Last week, the US anti-abortion group C-Fam said the Irish referendum would “have a powerful effect globally” including because of its “symbolic value.”

“Ireland was a bastion of Catholicism, arguably the world’s strongest force in opposition to abortion,” it said. “A vote for abortion would signal a new stage in Ireland’s progression to a more secularist and even anti-Catholic society.”

On the day of the referendum, 25 May, the Vatican News website reported that the Irish Church was urging voters “to reject abortion” and was “seeking to spread their message of the sacredness of all human life.”

Irish archbishop Eamon Martin said the vote would be a “watershed and historic moment,” and that anti-abortion “people of all faiths and none” had united in a broad coalition to oppose the repeal motion.

Pope Francis is set to visit Ireland in August for the World Meeting of Families.

Ireland has had one of the most restrictive abortion regimes in the world, with its eighth constitutional amendment, now repealed, enshrining equal ‘rights to life’ for women and unborn children.

Terminating a pregnancy in Ireland has been punishable with up to 14 years in prison, though Irish law has allowed women to travel abroad for abortions – at their own, significant cost.

Now, legislation to change this is expected to go through Irish parliament, to legalise abortion up to 12 weeks, and after that only in specific circumstances.

In Europe, most countries allow abortion on request up to 12 weeks. In the UK, two doctors must agree before a woman can access an abortion, up to 24 weeks; after that only if her life is at risk or there is a severe fetal abnormality.

Abortion is severely restricted in Poland and Cyprus. Malta has a total ban. Internationally, there are also blanket prohibitions on abortion in states including El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua.

Chile removed its complete ban on abortion last year, allowing terminations in limited cases including when the woman’s life is at risk. Since the 1970s, abortion was illegal in the South American country without exception.

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