Alison’s story - Abortion and the referendum in Ireland

Alison Spillane
Policy Officer, IFPA
Former Political Coordinator for the Together for Yes campaign

The Together for Yes campaign was a coming together of a range of different civil society organizations that have been working on this issue for many years. I worked with parliamentarians across the political spectrum; it was my job to bring everyone around the table, ensuring they understood the campaign messaging, campaign activities, working collectively and coordinating our efforts effectively to secure that Yes vote. The IFPA had pre-existing relationships with a lot of these political parties due to our role as Secretariat to the All-Party Interest Group on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, which was established in 2000. That was a huge benefit.

It was important to engage politicians because the party in Government which called this referendum is a centre-right party, and they have historically never been a champion on this issue. It was essential we engaged with them and helped build their understanding of abortion and unintended pregnancy. Allies on the left also deserve huge credit for consistently being the ones raising this on the floor of Parliament year after year when for a long time they were the lone voices. But at the end of the day for a referendum you need the support of 51 percent of the people who turn out and vote, and 51 percent of the electorate in Ireland are not voting for the left parties.

In early October, the Minister for Health introduced legislation with the hope of passing it quite quickly, with abortion service provision beginning in January next year. We're in a space now that even six months ago I didn't think we would be in. I never thought the victory would be so emphatic.

If the win had been by a narrow margin, we would now be going into a serious battle in parliament over the content of the legislation, but because the majority was so significant - over two-thirds of voters voted Yes - it’s made it very difficult for politicians who oppose abortion to reject that democratic mandate. Even those politicians who are anti-abortion feel they need to allow this legislation to go through, rather than actively seeking to undermine it or to block it.

The draft legislation was published before the referendum and I don't think it adequately reflects the strength of that support - the Irish public very clearly voted to allow women access to abortion when they need it. The new law is not good enough, but there will be an opportunity to review it in three years and assess whether it meets women’s needs.

The Government is also looking at reforming sexuality education. This is the first time abortion has been positioned in public discourse as a health issue, the first-time politicians and the public really understood the entire relationship between contraception, sexuality education and abortion services.

I think there is a role for Ireland to step up as a country, a country that is traditionally quite conservative, having now in three years passed two very progressive referendums – one on abortion and one on same sex marriage.

For many years Ireland has built a reputation internationally as a champion around issues of human rights and gender equality. Not fully embracing sexual and reproductive health and rights as agreed in multiple international treaties has, I believe, held us back.

I feel that Ireland has a strong international voice now, particularly with conservative countries like Malta and Poland who see a similarity in terms of culture, particularly religion. I think there is a role for Ireland to step up as a country, a country that is traditionally quite conservative, having now in three years passed two very progressive referendums – one on abortion and one on same sex marriage.

The very nature of reproductive rights means those rights are always at risk. They interact with very personal and intimate aspects of people's lives and because of that they're always going to be contentious. The global environment, particularly with the role of the US administration and the reintroduction and expansion of the Global Gag Rule, is quite hostile. We're seeing in Europe, particularly Eastern Europe, a backlash at the political level with the rise of anti-gender movements.

But there's fantastic work being done by activists across the globe. In Argentina we saw a recent legislative defeat, but the mobilization [by the women’s movement] was incredible and it's not going away. I think the next time [abortion legislation is] before the Senate it will be very difficult politically for it to be defeated.

So many women put so much on the line for this campaign, putting the most intimate details of their personal lives out in the public domain for public consumption and analysis. If those stories had then been rejected by the public, if they were told ‘actually your story isn't legitimate enough, you do not deserve access to this reproductive health care when you need it’. That would have been extremely damaging for the country and extremely damaging to a lot of Irish women.

The Yes vote felt like an apology to all of those women, a recognition that it was wrong for Ireland to turn its back on them. That it was wrong for them to feel this culture of shame and stigma and silence. We recognized that on the 25th of May. I always knew that we were on the right side of history.

To find out more about Irish Family Planning Association please visit

Repealed the 8th: Ireland’s Abortion Referendum

from the Center for Reproductive Rights