By now, you will have hopefully heard the news that the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, has confirmed that there will be a referendum on the eighth amendment next year. He has stated the earliest it can be held will be next May or June, and that the “stand alone” referendum would follow on from the recommendations of the all-party Oireachtas committee, which is to report by Christmas.
Concerns have already been raised that this summer deadline is too ambitious, and that if the Special Oireachtas Committee tasked with examining the Citizens’ Assembly recommendations and coming up with a wording for the referendum, miss the Christmas deadline, then this could push the referendum much later, and even possibly into the next government cycle. But what does this mean for those of us campaigning on the ground?
There remains the ever-present and far too real concern that for every day this referendum is pushed off, another 10-12 women a day are forced to leave our shores
Over the past few weeks, suspicion had already been mounting that the Taoiseach would confirm a referendum for mid-2018. Activist circles were abuzz with talk of how a summer referendum would play out, and what our timeline looked like to meet this polling day deadline. There has been a sense of urgency around preparations for the upcoming March for Choice on September 30th , with hopes that it is to be the last one. Local activist groups have sprung up around the country and online activity has ramped up. Students have started organising themselves on campuses and the annual national voter registration campaign has taken off with vigour. Preparations for a May/June referendum were underway before the Taoiseach’s confirmation yesterday. However, with this confirmation campaigning will undoubtedly ramp up on both sides of the campaign.
There is obviously also concern of what will happen if the referendum gets pushed further down the line, and a very real fear about what will happen if it is kicked into the next election cycle. Quite apart from the logistical nightmare a later date brings with it, there remains the ever-present and far too real concern that for every day this referendum is pushed off, another 10-12 women a day are forced to leave our shores to access termination services abroad. Even more women will illegally procure the abortion pill online, or terrifyingly take unknown risks trying to induce an abortion at home in secret.
Summer 2018 is our time and we must spend the next six months heartily preparing, campaigning and mobilising. No more delays
Over the summer recess alone, it is estimated that 816 people had abortions: 612 travelling abroad to access healthcare services and 204 taking safe, but illegal, abortion pills at home. Politicians need to know that any kicking the can down the road on this issue will have very real and devastating impacts on women’s lives in Ireland.
There is also a concern about the impact the Pope’s visit will have on the campaign. Even though the Pope’s visit to Ireland in 1979 came four years before the 1983 eighth amendment referendum, it brought with it a heightened sense of connection with Catholic morals and teachings. Catholic teachings held sway in Ireland with contraception, divorce and abortion banned by law.
Ireland of today, however, is different, with divorce legalised (even if the legal aspects of obtaining one are still nigh on impossible and cumbersome to navigate). Ireland too led the global liberal charge in 2015 when we passed the marriage equality referendum by popular vote. Contraception is freely available, albeit expensive, and the morning after pill can even be accessed without a doctor’s prescription! We truly are living in the Age of Aquarius. But in all seriousness, even though Ireland progressed along in leaps and bounds in terms of liberalising our laws and society, the issue of abortion still remains divisive.
With a deadline now looming, it is important that campaigners and activists get prepared
So while there is perhaps no need to fear that the Pope’s planned visit will have a huge impact on the referendum, it would be silly of campaigners on the ground not to be aware of the heightened sense of moral responsibility and renewed faith in the Catholic Church’s’ teachings that this visit will bring for a cohort of Irish society.
With a deadline now looming, it is important that campaigners and activists get prepared. It is also crucially important to keep a keen eye on the discussions taking place within the Special Oireachtas Committee, and ensure our public representatives adhere to the Christmas deadline.
We have waited too many years for this referendum to come about, and too many women will suffer between now and polling day. Summer 2018 is our time and we must spend the next six months heartily preparing, campaigning and mobilising. No more delays.