25th of May, 2018 will be remembered as a historic moment for women´s reproductive rights: Ireland has voted to repeal the eighth amendment of its constitution, which bans abortion in almost all circumstances. It has been a triumph for abortion reformers, with a two-thirds majority: 66.4% yes to 33.6% no.
One of the women at the forefront of feminist activism in Ireland is Ailbhe Smyth. For the past 40 years she has fought for women´s rights in Ireland, where she is the head of the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment.
Ailbhe Smyth started engaging in the women´s rights movement during the 70s, as she was a college student. She dedicated her life to activism, engaging herself even more when she became mother and then grandmother, recognizing the importance of fighting also for the following generations, to guarantee their reproductive autonomy. She has lectured and written extensively on feminist issues while she was head of women’s studies at University College Dublin from 1990-2006. She is the founding director of the Women’s Education, Research and Resource Centre (WERRC), Convenor of the Feminist Open Forum, a board member of ERA (Equality and Rights Alliance), an organiser for Action for Choice and she is the former Chair of the National Lesbian and Gay Federation.
Despite her radical activist opinions, Smyth says she believes these changes need time and patience: “I think that it doesn’t change overnight, but I do believe on the other hand that the changes that we can make in our social movements do contribute hugely to changing the kind of society we live in. So, we don’t always get an overnight victory, but we are nonetheless out there helping people… encouraging people to open their minds to other ways of being in the world.”
Since 1983, when the eighth amendment was inserted into the Constitution after a referendum, Smyth has fought against it. The amendment effectively prohibits abortion, placing the rights of the unborn and the mother on equal footing. Since then, about 170,000 Irish women have travelled to other countries, especially to the UK, to obtain abortions. Five years ago, Smyth formed the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment, to strengthen the public debate on this issue and push for a referendum. And finally, in 2018 this long fight ended with a victory.
“It was personally incredibly satisfying for me as a feminist that we ran it as a feminist campaign,” Smyth said after the exit polls came through. “We were very particular to speak with people in ways that they would be able to engage with, but we were very clear that this was about women throughout and we didn’t give way on that, we absolutely didn’t. I think that’s the real revolution.”
Decades of struggles and activism carried by Smyth and many other Irish people have paid off, also thanks to the support of the younger campaigners and voters. An important step has been made in the protection of women´s reproductive rights, in Ireland and beyond.
By Elena Floriani, WAVE Intern