‘I had no real interest in politics, until this’ – ireland’s accidental abortion activists world news the guardian database kernel

In September 1983, article 40.3.3 – the eighth amendment – was voted into the Irish constitution. It equated the life of the “unborn” with that of the mother. It gave rise to a ban on abortion in all circumstances from the moment of conception. It also led to a grave national silence, whereby abortion was outsourced to neighbouring jurisdictions, with Britain becoming a place of medical refuge for at least 168,703 Irish women.

Now, just less than 35 years later, a grassroots mobilisation of doctors, lawyers, parents, grandparents, tech professionals, psychologists, fashion designers, artists, midwives, nurses and more has led to an unstoppable revolution and a referendum on 25 May, which may well result in the amendment finally being removed from the Irish constitution. Siobhan Donohue is one such accidental activist.

“I never in my wildest dreams thought I would be sitting here talking about my abortion,” says Donohue. “I never put my head up about anything. I was the kid who never talked in class. I did everything by the book. I had no real interest in politics, until this, until I felt this sense of outrage.”

On 1 October 2011, the GP and mother of three children delivered her baby boy, TJ, in Liverpool Women’s hospital. After her 20-week scan, Donohue and her husband were told that their much-wanted baby had a fatal foetal abnormality (FFA) and would not survive after birth. However, because of the eighth amendment, she would have to either carry her son to full term while grieving her loss, as he still had a heartbeat, or travel to another jurisdiction to access abortion care.

Donohue and her partner decided to travel to the UK for a “compassionate induction”. In 2017, 61 terminations were provided by Liverpool Women’s for Irish women with complex medical or foetal issues. Many couples who have received this diagnosis are now speaking publicly to highlight the fact that abortion occurs in a plethora of circumstances.

“The bit that’s hard to get over is the travel – moving through an airport, being on a plane with a hen party on one side of you and businessmen on the other,” Donohue says. However, the final punch for the couple was being told that they would need to arrange for an undertaker to meet them, and the remains of baby TJ, when they landed in Dublin. “First to be shooed from your country and then supervised on your return? We opted for a cremation and left him behind,” Donohue adds, not wanting to be “supervised” on her return having committed an act that in her home country can carry a 14-year prison sentence. “As the plane took off on the tarmac, I remember looking back over Merseyside and whispering ‘goodbye’ to him.”

Another significant voice that has emerged in the debate is that of Evie Nevin, who founded Disabled People for Choice. “In my last pregnancy, I was in a wheelchair from five weeks as my pelvis kept dislocating,” Nevin says. “It was also unsafe for me to keep taking my painkillers, so I would lie in bed screaming in agony. I thought to myself I couldn’t go through with this again. My role as a wife and a mother to my two existing children is too important to risk.

Other grassroots groups have played a vital role in shifting the abortion narrative in Ireland, such as Parents for Choice. “We get a lot of, ‘But you’re a parent and you’re pro-choice?’. But we are the people who have gone through the maternity services in this country and have seen how the eighth amendment has affected pregnancies,” says Helen Guinane, co-founder of the activist group.

There have been several cases of women who have had their medical treatment suspended – while pregnant, for example, in case it damaged the foetus. The late Michelle Harte, a former nurse and mother of one who was terminally ill with cancer, is one such example. Harte became pregnant in 2010 while suffering from a malignant melanoma. Her medical treatment was stopped and she was refused a termination in Ireland as there was no immediate risk to her life. Harte ended up travelling to Britain for an abortion, by which stage she was severely ill. She died in November 2011, shortly after receiving “substantial” compensation from the Irish state.

A more recent voice to emerge is that of older people. Grandparents for Repeal was set up by Carol Hunter, who was born and grew up in London, but has been settled with her family in Ireland since the mid-80s. She believes that the generation she is speaking to is a particularly important one – brought up in a society informed by a deep Catholic ethos, which is against abortion in all circumstances.

“It has become more and more obvious how important this demographic is because it is the 65-plus age group that is most wary of the whole idea of introducing abortion,” says Hunter. “For them, this is life, they have always done what they were told to. They have lived within the parameters of church teaching. It takes a lot to abandon something that has literally cocooned you from birth.”

These voices aside, two other things have become important mobilising tools for the campaign to repeal the eighth amendment. They include a black jumper with the word “repeal” written on it in white block capitals, launched by activist Anna Cosgrave in July 2016, and a Maser Art mural – a red heart with the word “repeal” inscribed on top.

Andrea Horan, who owns Dublin nail bar Tropical Popical, commissioned the mural from street artist Maser in July 2016. The mural, on the Project Art Centre in Dublin’s Temple Bar neighbourhood, was painted over last month, with the Charities Regulator saying the centre was involved in “political activity” and therefore in breach of its charitable status. It prompted Irish taoiseach Leo Varadkar to declare: “While you can paint over a mural, you certainly can’t paint over an issue.”

The heart-shaped icon has since found its way on to badges, jackets, necklaces, doughnuts, bumper stickers, nails and T-shirts. Horan has shipped more than 15,000 T-shirts and jumpers, carrying the emblem, around Ireland. Meanwhile, Cosgrave’s jumpers have been worn in the House of Commons and by people as diverse as Jo Brand, Vivienne Westwood, Bernie Sanders and Graham Linehan. Earlier this year, Irish fashion designer Richard Malone was pictured wearing a “repeal” badge on his lapel when he met the Queen.

When Malone took the fight to the windows of Selfridge’s, however – he wrote “Repeal the Eighth” and “women’s rights are human rights” on the window pane in red marker, as part of the store’s Anatomy of Luxury Campaign – his “unauthorised political statement” was removed. The store “is a politically neutral safe space for everyone,” read a statement from Selfridges.

Unsurprisingly, plenty of activity has been occurring online, including the spread of false information by foreign groups via Twitter and Facebook, which recently moved to block foreign spending on ads relating to the referendum. To counteract many of the myths being peddled and the heightened degree of tension, a group of six strangers came together to form Repeal Shield. Aidan O’Brien, one of the members, explained that their concept is “low-tech” and works off an app called Block Together. Twitter users can enter their handle into a bar on the Repeal Shield website and instantly block 8,000 accounts that have been deemed abusive or to have posted “extreme graphic imagery” on the subject. When it comes to Facebook ads, an impartial group called the Transparency Referendum Initiative (TRI) was set up.

“We came together to highlight and counter the complete lack of transparency around the targeting of voters through social media ads during political campaigns,” says TRI co-founder Craig Dwyer. The group publishes an open database of these ads on its website.

Perhaps the most trusted voice amid all the noise is Doctors for Choice, which has hundreds of registered doctors among its membership. It was founded 16 years ago by Dr Mary Favier, who campaigned against the amendment in 1983. “I went around houses handing out leaflets and had a dog set on me,” she says. “I had no idea how problematic it was that we lost [the 1983 abortion referendum] or the harm that it would cause.” And while the pro-choice voice is louder and more mainstream this time, it wouldn’t be without the work of Favier and grassroots activists like her, now hoping for what could be a historic victory.