This May, a referendum will be held in Ireland asking whether the 8th Amendment to the constitution should be repealed. The amendment equates the right to life of the unborn child with that of its mother, effectively prohibiting people from terminating pregnancies unless in extraordinary circumstances. As a result, between January 1980 and December 2016, at least 170,216 women and girls have travelled from Ireland to access abortion services abroad. The Pro-Choice movement has become a significant political force in lobbying the government to hold the referendum. However, it has come under fire for its intolerance of more moderate opinions. What’s really fascinating, regardless of your stance on abortion, is to see how impactful a movement led by young people can be.
Most British politicians seem resistant to changing abortion legislation, or even engaging in a dialogue about the current system. In America, Republicans are seeking to limit access to abortions. It may be surprising to those outside of Ireland that the referendum is happening in this political climate. But in 2013, Ireland became the first country to legalise same-sex marriage via referendum. The ‘Yes Equality’ campaign was vibrant. It was a campaign run on positivity, about a topic that is undeniably more palatable than abortion, so the similarities can be overestimated. Importantly, the result of the marriage equality referendum showed the Catholic Church’s influence had significantly weakened.
The Repeal Campaign is the most active, passionate movement I’ve ever seen. This vigour is thanks, in part, to the student activists who are vital to the progression of the campaign. You can’t walk down a street in Dublin without seeing at least one young person wearing a sweatshirt with the word ‘Repeal’ emblazoned across it. Pundits believe that, generally, the vote will be split along the lines of age. As of yet, the precise wording of the referendum hasn’t been revealed, which is a source of concern.
The Pro-Choice movement may risk alienating some of the voters who have reservations about the legalisation of free abortions on demand. The campaign is particularly active on social media, with campaigns like the ‘Stories of the 8th’ Facebook page, on which women describe their experiences of travelling to the UK to access abortions. This fails to reach voters who don’t have access to social media, especially older voters, who may also be put off by the tone of the Repeal campaign. Some campaigners have posed provocatively in front of religious monuments, or used social media to tweet abusive content at Pro-Life campaigners and students. The media’s liberal bias has also aggravated some voters who believe that government-funded media outlets should present a more balanced view on the issue.
The Pro-Life campaign receives funding from the Iona Institute, a Catholic group with wealthy benefactors. Their larger budget allows them to erect billboards featuring potentially upsetting CGI images of foetuses, designed to arouse the viewer’s sympathy for the unborn. The tactics of the Pro-Life campaign have been compared to the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Money has been pumped into video campaigns designed to make young people look uneducated on the issue, and paid pushes cause these videos to gain thousands of viewers, though nobody can figure out where the funding is coming from.
Students are at the forefront of the campaign, on both sides. The most important thing that they must be aware of, however, is that the student vote won’t decide the referendum, and that those put off by the tone of the campaigns are probably more likely to stick with the status quo. It is very difficult to moderate our tone when speaking about the issue, when, no matter how you look at it, people are dying because of the 8th Amendment. However, appealing to a broad range of viewpoints will be critical in winning the referendum.