In this episode, we are joined by Dr. Claire Pierson, a lecturer in Gender and Comparative Politics at the University of Liverpool, to discuss Ireland’s groundbreaking eighth amendment referendum to legalize abortion and lessons for the international community.
Transcript: Ireland’s Abortion Referendum: A Conversation with Claire Pierson
STEPHANIE OLSZEWSKI: Welcome to "That's Illegal!" a podcast about international law in the age of nationalism. This podcast is produced by the Global Justice Center or GJC. The Global Justice Center is a legal, human rights non-profit based in New York City. Our work focuses on moving international humanitarian laws from paper to practice. Our staff consists of lawyers with international law expertise who work regularly with partners at the EU and the UN.
LIZ OLSON: Today, we’re joined by Dr. Claire Pierson, a lecturer in Gender and Comparative Politics at the University of Liverpool and the co-founder of Reproductive Health Law and Policy Advisory Group. We’ll be discussing Ireland’s groundbreaking eighth amendment referendum to legalize abortion, the context leading up to the decision, and lessons for the international community.
Hello! Thank you so much for joining us. To get started, can you tell me about what restrictions were placed on Irish women as a result of eighth amendment?
CLAIRE PIERSON: The eighth amendment was voted on in 1983 by the majority of the Irish people. Two out of three people voted for it. It put into the constitution the equation between the life of a woman and the life of a fetus. It affects all pregnancies—both wanted and unwanted. It means that doctors can veto treatment that women want during pregnancy because they can say that they are protecting the life of the fetus. It affects unwanted pregnancies because women cannot access abortion. There is virtually zero access to abortion.
That does not mean that Irish women don’t have abortions. It means that the majority of these women is travelling to England or further afield. At the moment, there are approximately five thousand women travelling to England per year. We also know that women tend to access the abortion pill online illegally—through organizations such as Women Help Women or Women on Web. Those are reputable sources for the abortion pill. But they’ve been seized at customs. It also means that women don’t access pre or after care for abortions because of that illegality. It’s a huge problem.
LIZ OLSON: How did the eight amendment referendum come about in the first place? Was there some sort of popular push for it? Was it more of a top-down activity?
CLAIRE PIERSON: There were few things that came together around the same time. We know that international human rights organizations were putting pressure on the Irish government for a while. Because of the constitutional aspect of the law, you need the people’s will. The Irish government convened the Citizens’ Assembly, where members of the Irish population came together over a series of weekends and heard expert evidence, international human rights bodies, international researchers, health care practitioners, academics, lived experiences, and women’s stories.
It’s a really excellent example of how when people hear actual evidence about abortion—factual evidence, not mythology, religious, or moral arguments—they tend to vote in favor of liberalizing abortion laws. At the end of that process, they wanted to see a referendum on the eighth amendment. The legislature they voted for was abortion on request up until 12 weeks. After 12 weeks, it would be limited to cases of fetal abnormalities.
This preempted the eighth amendment referendum. It also started to break down the stigma around abortion in the Irish society. The majority of Irish people know a woman who’s had an abortion. They may not realize that because women don’t talk about this. It’s silenced. But as we got closer to the referendum, more and more women came out. Particularly, some women in the media said, “I’ve had an abortion, and this is my experience. I’m your sister, mother, daughter, friend, neighbor, or colleague.” It started to break down that stigma in the society.
LIZ OLSON: I can see how that’d be really powerful. You spoke a little bit about international pressure. Do you think that the 2016 Universal Periodic Review of Ireland—where 15 out of 16 countries made recommendations on Ireland’s abortion laws—had any influence on the 2018 referendum?
CLAIRE PIERSON: The international pressure formed by 2013 and onward. Ireland had been pressured to change its abortion laws. The problem is that in the Irish context, it comes down to the people. The Irish government can’t just implement law to change abortion; it has to be done by referendum. That is people’s will. I think that the pressure is really important for the government. It needed to be accompanied by some mechanism to check what the Irish population’s views were on this.
We would get into this stage culturally where people started to talk about abortion, and it was becoming more normalized. That was the right time to have a referendum. Normal people don’t necessarily know about the Universal Periodic Review mechanisms. They’re more likely to listen to individual stories.
LIZ OLSON: Did the 2018 referendum have any impact on Northern Ireland?
CLAIRE PIERSON: Northern Ireland still operates under the 1861 Offences against the Person Act. The 1967 British Abortion Act was never adopted in Northern Ireland. That means that abortion is virtually inaccessible. In the 1930s case law, if a woman were to become a mental or a physical wreck as a result of a pregnancy, she can access abortion. Obviously, that language has really little attraction with health care practitioners. How do you decide if someone is going be a physical or a mental wreck? It’s difficult to clarify. Also, policy with regard to abortion in Northern Ireland created by political parties has been restrictive. It put a chill factor on health care providers. For example, in one piece of the policy from 2013, if anyone in a healthcare facility thought an abortion was taking place illegally, they had to report it to the police. This means that health care practitioners didn’t want to perform abortions—even if it could’ve been legal.
More than a thousand of Northern Irish women travelled to England. We know that others access the abortion pill online but we don’t know how many that is. We do know that women have been prosecuted in Northern Ireland for accessing the abortion pill. One 21 year-old woman who was prosecuted got a three month suspended sentence. With regard to the 1967 Act, I have a colleague at University of Bath, Jennifer Thomson, who’s done a lot of archival research on the 1967 Act. She’s found that it was forgotten about. Someone at the meeting made a comment that it won’t apply to Northern Ireland, and that was drafted in to the law. It appears that it’s been forgotten about. That’s symptomatic of Britain’s ignorance about Northern Irish society and politics in general.
There is an idea that we’re part of the UK legally but we’re different. Because of the history of violent conflict, people don’t really want to get in the issues of Northern Ireland politics and law. Any time there’s been a move to extend the 1967 Act to Northern Ireland, politicians from Northern Ireland and religious authorities have said that this might damage the peace process. I’m not sure how women and abortion damage the peace process. No government in Westminster wants to be the government who starts violent conflict in Northern Ireland again. It’s a successful argument that they use.
LIZ OLSON: That’s really interesting. I would assume that when it wasn’t implemented in Northern Ireland to begin with in 1967, then that would have been a big debate at the time.
CLAIRE PIERSON: It was never brought up in the parliament. This was only a draft in the law.
LIZ OLSON: What’s been the impact of the eighth amendment referendum on Northern Ireland’s abortion debate? Has this undermined the argument that Ireland doesn’t want liberal abortion laws?
CLAIRE PIERSON: The day after the referendum took place, a hashtag started on twitter #theNorthisNext (referring to Northern Ireland). Women in Northern Ireland supported the women in the republic in the referendum. We hope that those women will support us in changing our law. The idea that the people of Ireland don’t want abortion legislation is a complete myth. We know in Northern Ireland from repeated reports that people do want to see women being able to access abortion. They also don’t support the criminalization of women accessing abortion. The difficult area is where simply a woman doesn’t want to be pregnant. We don’t see as much public support for that.
That is really symptomatic of the mythology we have around abortion. Ireland, based on religious perspectives that are taught in schools, has this idea that women accessing abortion are reckless. There are irresponsible young women—potentially not using contraception or having a one night stand. Whereas, actual evidence shows that the majority of women who access abortion are in their 30s who are already married. They already have children; they simply don’t want any more children. That mythology is really powerful.
LIZ OLSON: You’ve talked about how important it is to understand the discourse about abortion and the ways that people seeking abortion are viewed and talked about. How has a human rights argument on abortion been translated into the local level in Ireland? What sorts of arguments have been persuasive or not?
CLAIRE PIERSON: In Northern Ireland, human rights are a very complex issue. Human rights were written into the peace agreement and have been a big part of policing and legal reforms. There has been a discourse in Northern Ireland that they are associated with one community. That’s the nationalist community—i.e. those who support the reunification of Ireland. Human rights don’t apply equally to every woman. This is a false argument. It does mean that it’s harder to use a human rights-based argument in Northern Ireland—if you want to unify everyone.
The other issue is that sometimes the arguments around bodily autonomy don’t necessarily resonate with people. They don’t show us the full experience. People tend to respond much better to a real life experience. For example, someone they know has had an abortion, and this is their experience.
The problem with human rights arguments is that they’re used in more extreme cases of women who had fatal fetal anomalies and had to travel to England. It’s been very hard circumstance when someone has been a victim of sexual crime. There are cases where the police have travelled with a young person, hoping they can collect evidence to test. These are really emotive, hard cases. They invoke issues like inhumane and degrading treatment. The problem is that these are not the majority of women’s abortion experiences. Most women simply access abortion because they cannot be pregnant anymore. They have enough children already. They don’t have money to have more children. It’s harder to invoke human rights arguments in those everyday experiences.
LIZ OLSON: It makes a lot of sense that individual stories and lived experiences are very persuasive in terms of public opinion. In your opinion, what would the role of a human rights-based argument be in increasing abortion access? What role does human rights framework has to play in these debates?
CLAIRE PIERSON: Human rights give us a minimum international baseline for what women should be able to access. It means that internationally we can learn from each other. It gives us that framework to start making arguments. I do think that there is work there to make it resonate with people.
Human rights haven’t been completely effective in Ireland or Northern Ireland. Recently, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission took a case, which argued that Northern Ireland’s abortion laws were incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. That case, for example, went to the Northern Ireland High Court and was unsuccessful. Northern Ireland Court of Appeal was unsuccessful. At the UK Supreme Court level, it was decided that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission didn’t stand in to bring the case. In that case, the first judgment was in 2015.
It’s a long process. That makes people frustrated with law. There are women who have been part of this case. Not bringing the case themselves but who have given evidence time and time again to the media and the court. They’re not seeing the change. People are starting to think that will a human rights argument get us where we need to go? That’s the problem. Sometimes these processes take such a long time. One of the other problems with human rights is understanding rights. They are complex. It’s very easy to co-op them.
What we have in Northern Ireland is politicians arguing that abortion in cases of fetal anomalies would convene the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It’s easy for it to become a complicated argument where people aren’t sure what rights they have. We talk about bodily autonomy but we also talk about being free from inhumane and degrading treatment. That complexity makes it very easy to construct the fate of the unborn child. We start to put women against children. That’s what makes human rights complicated to argue.
LIZ OLSON: You’ve spent a lot of time studying this issue from an academic perspective. Can we talk about what the relationship is between activism and academia? Where they intersect? How your academic research and publications (and of your peers) have informed the dialogue around abortion in Ireland?
CLAIRE PIERSON: The line between academia and activism is definitely blurred. We do this research to provide evidence for social and legal change. That’s the key thing that we do. We can provide factual evidence in a debate that is so highly mythologized. We have these articles that go around and link abortion to breast cancer or the idea that women who have abortions end up abusing their children.
We see that the academia can provide factual evidence—the idea that the majority of women who are accessing abortion are young women. They’re not women in their late twenties or thirties. There are women who already have children. Sometimes it’s the idea that abortion is for women who don’t want to be mothers. Many women do; they just don’t want to be mothers to hundreds of children. They want to have a family size and control the amount of children they have. That’s one of the key things that the academia can bring. We can provide a platform for breaking down stigma around abortion. We can provide platforms for women to tell stories and to talk about their experiences. We can provide activists with the tools to do the work that they do very well.
LIZ OLSON: Watching the referendum from afar, especially in our political climate, we were very excited and impressed to see progress internationally on access to reproductive rights and health. What lessons do you have for the US and other countries that are still struggling to gain and protect access to legal abortions? What worked to help change opinions and pass the referendum with such staggering numbers?
CLAIRE PIERSON: The referendum passed in 1983 was two to one supporting. It passed in 2018 with two to three supporting. It’s a complete change in opinion. I think that it comes down to the fact that one in three women will have an abortion in their lifetime. It’s not abnormal. It’s not unusual. I think it’s this normalization and showing that it’s part of healthcare are really important. This is a normal healthcare procedure that’s part of a greater idea of reproduction. In the Irish context, we were able to connect that.
Ireland has a problematic history with maternal health. Connecting the dots between those issues and that abortion is a part of reproductive life cycle is really important. Allowing people to tell those stories in a safe environment is also significant. There was one project called In Her Shoes. Through Facebook and Twitter, people were able to tell their stories, so they didn’t have to actually get up in front of their communities. If you tell your story in the newspaper or the radio, your friends, family, and colleagues are going to know. Having spaces where people can tell their stories anonymously is also very important.
Those stories did influence people. When they heard or read about those stories, they realized that this is a normal thing. But they’re making it traumatic through the law and how they treat women. Stigma is incredibly important. No matter how much we use the human rights arguments, if people, for whatever reason, are anti-abortion, it’s very hard to effect change. It’s very easy for political parties and politicians to say that they are anti-abortion because there is a huge anti-abortion lobby. They have power and money. People who are fighting for reproductive rights tend not to.
LIZ OLSON: Do you have any final thoughts to wrap up our conversation today?
CLAIRE PIERSON: I think for me, being in the US shows that women’s rights and reproductive rights are a constant battle. We don’t win rights and then have them forever. We can’t forget about them. It’s back and forth. That’s why human rights are really important. We can use that as a global tool to learn from each other. It’s a constant conversation that we need to have. Even in the Irish context, if the law changes, then we need to ensure that women have access to abortion. We know that in some countries the law is liberal but women don’t have access. We need to constantly break down stigma. We need to change how health care providers, for example, think about abortion. It’s a constant cycle of progression here and somewhere else. That’s why human rights give us a framework that we can use to argue with each other.
LIZ OLSON: Thank you so much for joining us. If you enjoyed this podcast, please share it with a friend or rate us on iTunes. To learn more about the work of the Global Justice Center, visit our website www.globaljusticecenter.net