Niamh Cavanagh, a 24-year-old journalist from rural Tipperary, will get on a plane from London on Thursday, May 24, to Shannon airport in Ireland. Her father will collect her and drive to the family home, where she’ll stay less than 36 hours. Even so, she is “blessed” to be able to fly home, she says. She is there for a purpose.
Cavanagh is one of an estimated 40,000 Irish emigrants still eligible to vote in Ireland, and expected to travel home to vote in a historic referendum this Friday. The vote is whether to cancel the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, a ruling that makes abortion illegal in nearly all cases by equating the life of the unborn and pregnant women.
After the high-profile death of pregnant dentist Savita Halappanavar in 2012, Ireland finally took action on a deeply divisive issue. In 2013 terminations became permissible for pregnant women whose lives are in danger. Otherwise, abortion remains totally banned, with some of the strictest laws in the world.
But women’s rights activists who want abortion rights like those across the Irish Sea in Britain have long clashed with religious “pro-life” advocates in the traditionally Catholic country, who believe abortion is always wrong because the procedure kills the unborn.
Both sides of the debate will have a chance to put their beliefs to paper, in the historic referendum that will ask whether people want to remove the constitutional clause which effectively outlaws abortion, and allow the Irish government to legislate for abortion up to 12 weeks into a pregnancy.
Before the vote on May 25, Irish expatriates who have been living outside of Ireland for no more than 18 months will board planes, embark ferries and hitch lifts home to vote. The law requires them be physically present at a polling station to cast their ballot. Postal voting is not allowed for most citizens, and those who have lived outside Ireland for more than 18 months can’t vote at all.
A similar “homecoming” in 2015 helped change the law on same-sex marriage.
A long journey home to vote
One major argument of the pro-abortion rights, or “pro-choice,” stance is that women find other ways of terminating pregnancies anyway, such as with abortion pills or by traveling elsewhere, which women are legally allowed to do.
Since the Eighth Amendment, also called Article 40.3.3, was enacted in 1983, an estimated 160,000 women have made the journey for abortion overseas. Many go to England and Wales for the procedure. In some cases they go as far as the Netherlands (Irish Times).
‘Do you approve of the proposal to amend the Constitution contained in [the Thirty-sixth Amendment of the Constitution Bill 2018]?’ – Question Irish voters will see on referendum ballot paper
According to an Amnesty International study, at least 10 women travel overseas from Ireland to obtain abortions every day, and an estimated three women unlawfully take abortion pills bought on the internet to self-induce a medical abortion.
Claire McGowran, a magazine editor and member of the pro-abortion rights group London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign, lives in London but will travel back home to Ireland before the referendum to advocate for a “yes” vote. McGowran says these women will be on her mind when she gets on the plane home. “They always are when I travel but [they will] this week in particular.”
“On the day of the election, 10 women will still travel, three women will still take abortion pills. The day after the election 10 women will still travel, three women will still take abortion pills. And we can’t forget about those women.”
McGowran can’t vote as she’s lived in England for six years. But she didn’t want to miss out.
“It’s such a monumental moment in Ireland and I wouldn’t want to miss it … lots of people have gone home to canvass. Everyone wants to do their bit and no one wants to wake up on the 26th and think there was more we could’ve done,” she says, citing her frustrations with watching the abortion debate “from afar.”
Raymond Reilly, a 27-year-old Amazon account manager and comedian living in London, booked his plane ticket home as soon as the referendum date was set. He says he’s voting to repeal the Eighth despite empathizing with both sides and being “undecided” in general about where he stands on abortion.
“It’s important because I think men should be involved with it … the reason why I want to go home and vote and the reason I vote ‘yes’ is to not put a woman in that situation where you have to travel back.”
Ultimately, he says his empathy for women is what has convinced him to vote for relaxing abortion laws in Ireland. When he was 17, a girl he had made pregnant traveled to England to get an abortion.
“From a pure selfish point of view, it made my life a lot easier … Because, I was for it. I was genuinely like, ‘Thank fuck.’ But it would have been easier for her to do it [in Ireland].”
“They’re going to do it anyways — make it easier for them to do it. That’s my logic.”
Other emigrants aren’t as close to Ireland as the United Kingdom, such as 27-year-old Christine Howell, who is making the journey from Australia. “I was coming home from the second I knew it was happening,” she told Reuters.
Emulating same-sex marriage vote
In 2015, tens of thousands of Irish living overseas traveled back to Ireland from as far as Australia to vote in a referendum on same-sex marriage (The Guardian) in which the public voted in favor by a wide margin. Campaigns to have people catching a ferry together successfully got thousands of expats home to vote.
This time around, Facebook groups are helping people raise money for plane tickets and Twitter hashtags such as #HomeToVote are encouraging people to arrange travel, emulating the same-sex marriage movement for the abortion vote.
A campaign video released by the London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign in April pushed for eligible expats to return home to vote in the referendum and was viewed by more than 100,000 people on Facebook.
“It brought back that feeling that we all had the day of the marriage equality vote…that people were coming from all over the world. I think some people had forgotten how special that was and what a monumental moment and happy news story it was. The video brought that up again.”
Young people, most of whom have not had their say democratically on the Eighth Amendment the Home to Vote campaign says, are expected to tip the contested vote.
Video: The London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign’s video calling for Irish emigrants to return home to vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment
Home to vote ‘no’
Anne Murray, a campaigner and spokesperson for the Pro Life Campaign in Ireland, says the vote will be “close” but that support for the Eighth Amendment is on the rise. Ahead of the referendum, Murray’s group launched “Love Both”, a project advocating for a no vote.
Raymond Reilly suspects that the vote will be closer than polls indicate because people are afraid to say honestly which way they will vote.
“If you even insinuate you are on the fence or insinuate you’re going to vote no, people attack you. Therefore, it creates this whole environment … It’s the same that happened with Brexit … People were afraid to say they were going to vote Brexit. People were afraid to say [they were] going to vote Trump. They shouldn’t be afraid to come out in social circles to say it. So it’s a silent vote…opinion polls are skewed.”
While young, urban, higher income voters coming home to vote are more likely to support repealing the Eighth Amendment (The Guardian), Murray says younger voters also support abortion restrictions.
A friend of Murray’s daughter who lives in London will be making the journey home to vote for keeping the amendment intact, she says. “She sees it as the human rights issue of our time, [that] what we’re being asked is to take away the right to life of the unborn baby.”
“What we’re finding on doorsteps is the more people are realizing what’s being asked, [and] the more they’re deciding to vote no,” says Murray, who is 56 years old and rejects abortion on the basis it is the “intentional taking away of life of a human being.”
Murray explains that along with allowing abortion without question up to 12 weeks pregnancy, a vote for “yes” will also include allowing abortions up to six months on mental health grounds, which is too far, she says.
If the referendum bill passes, the power of abortion legislating will fall into the hands of the Dáil, the lower house of the Irish government. But this, Murray says, is an unpopular outcome.
“Citizens will have no vote on future abortion laws … A lot of people aren’t comfortable with the fact that we’re handing over the decision-making with regard to abortion to politicians,” says Murray.
She added that Irish people are also uncomfortable with the prospect that Ireland’s abortion laws would be more liberal than those in the United Kingdom if the referendum bill passes. In England, Wales and Scotland, abortion is not on demand and is only permitted if carrying a pregnancy to term would adversely affect a woman. “In Britain you can’t just get one,” says Murray.
“It’s not healthcare. It’s the actual intention, taking away the life of another person. And that is not right. There is evidence that [abortion] hurts women,” says Murray.
A report published by the U.S.-based Catholic News Agency outlines what it says is “hard proof” that abortion hurts women. It cites several studies that point to a link between abortion and poor mental health, and reproductive health complications. However, other studies such as those pointed to in a blog post by gynecologist Jen Gunter say the opposite.
Abortion support, not celebration
For new Londoner Niamh Cavanagh, who says she will vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment, this is one of the most important votes of her life.
“I’ve never been in that situation but I know women who have and it’s just so tough. The pain and the heartbreak I’ve had to see [friends] go through…women who’ve had [abortions] and come back to Ireland…they’re very much alone having dealt with this huge situation.”
But while the build-up and aftermath of the same-sex referendum was a kind of celebration, there won’t be many flags and fireworks this time around. The atmosphere surrounding the referendum is “dark,” says Cavanagh.
“It’s not something we can be really excited about voting for…it’s a weird thing to go home and be pushing for, but we’re all thinking about the bigger picture.”
“It’s sad on all parts, even though we’re voting for women…we’ll all be happy but it’ll tough,” she adds, referencing the inevitable trauma and severity of abortion procedures that will be experienced before and after the vote.
Ireland is one of few European Union countries that prohibits citizens abroad to vote via postal or embassy ballot.
A spokesperson from the Irish government’s Department of Housing, which deals with voting registration and the law on conducting elections and referendums, said an emigrant is entitled to vote in referendums if they still have residence in their constituency. They have to provide a written statement that they intend to return home at some point in order to be able to vote up to 18 months after leaving Ireland, they said.
Postal voting is available to a “limited number” of citizens who are working outside of the state but deemed to be resident, such as Defence Forces personnel and civil servants. Students at institutions away from their home address may also be eligible.
Cavanagh’s friends who have been living outside of Ireland for more than 18 months are “heartbroken,” she says.
“Hopefully after this referendum [postal voting] could be something the government looks into.”