The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ireland’s Abortion Battle Can Help Post-Roe America

Placeholder while article actions load

The US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 case that guaranteed the right to abortion, will set back reproductive rights for Americans by decades. Other hard-earned freedoms may come under threat. To regain — and keep — these basic liberties, rights campaigners, social justice activists and their allies will need to rethink abortion advocacy, build far broader grassroots movements across age, race and regional divides and mobilize more voters. They can begin by studying Ireland’s experience.

Orla O’Connor is director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland and one of three co-directors of the Together For Yes civil society campaign for the provision of legal abortion services in Ireland. Along with Grainne Griffin of Abortion Rights Campaign and Ailbhe Smyth, convenor of the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment, O’Connor built a movement that secured an unequivocal victory in 2018, when more than 66% of voters backed a move to abolish the eighth amendment to the Irish constitution, which gave equal rights to the unborn and the pregnant person and acted as an effective ban on abortion. The conversation, which took place before the Supreme Court ruling, has been edited for length and clarity.

Clara Ferreira Marques: For all the differences between Ireland’s trajectory and the backward slide in the United States, much will look familiar to Irish activists, from the traditionalist arguments to the way many ordinary people feel excluded from an increasingly polarized, politicized debate. What do you see when you look across the Atlantic?

Orla O’Connor: One thing that is very striking is the difference between countries that have gained reproductive rights through legislative or judicial means, and those like Ireland, where there was a public vote. We see that when rights are gained through legislation, they’re not necessarily owned in the same way, and then they’re more susceptible to political change, through undermining and attacks.

I’m looking at this from the outside, of course, but the undermining of reproductive rights seems to be coming from a number of different places, and there’s a definite threat in terms of far-right activism. We look at that with huge concern. Women’s rights are always contested, you can never take them for granted, but there definitely is a movement to undermine them, and reproductive rights are on the front line of the attacks on women’s rights. What will be the reality for women in the United States? What will be the reality for women in different states?

There are some similarities to Ireland in terms of forcing women to travel, with the trauma that causes. Restrictions don’t reduce the number of women having abortions, they make it much, much harder, they make it more traumatic, cause more harm — but they don’t stop women. There were anti-choice groups here who argued that if you didn’t allow abortion, you stopped women having them. Well, no, you don’t. You force them into more difficult situations. Ireland had a safety valve because of proximity to the UK, plenty of women traveled by boat — but we know the harm that caused, and the stigma it built up.

CFM: The US is seeing a reassessment of abortion advocacy and campaigns as a result of the threat to Roe, and there’s a lot of work underway to understand what has succeeded elsewhere. Your campaign in the run-up to the 2018 referendum has been among the most remarkable, not least because of the breadth of the coalition you built. What lessons can others take from that?

OO’C: Together for Yes was made up of three organizations: the National Women’s Council, the Abortion Rights Campaign and the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth — three quite different organizations came together, the women’s movement, young women and the grassroots, and this combination of organizations primarily working on reproductive rights. We were three quite different organizations appealing to different sections of the population. Also, the abortion referendum came not long after the referendum for marriage equality(1) , so there were young grassroots activists who now turned to abortion rights.

Really there were two big campaigns, because first, we had to campaign to get the government to agree to hold the referendum. That had gone on for three or four years before 2018, probably since the amendment to ban abortion was put in the constitution (in 1983). There were lots of organizations working toward that, and in the research we did, in the polling, we could see that there was the section of the population that wanted access to abortion, and there were the people who wanted the amendment kept. But the vast majority of people were in the middle, a lot were uncomfortable, didn’t want to talk about it. So we had to devise a campaign that very deliberately was about those people in the middle. We worked on getting those people to the point where they felt exercised enough to go out and vote. So that meant we had to talk about abortion in a way that they could engage with, in the context of healthcare, as a necessary decision.

The abortion pill helped change the conversation too because we could say women are having abortions, but they’re doing it in secrecy, with shame, afraid to access our healthcare services, and that’s not okay. It was also about appealing to people to think about the women they knew who might need it, even if they felt they themselves would not. 

CFM: And it worked.

OO’C: It wasn’t just about winning the referendum, it was about the size of the vote, well over 60%. That’s been really significant, because people own this, and that public ownership is really important, even now as our legislation is being reviewed. Because there are still restrictions, (the law) is not good enough, in our view, it doesn’t give wide enough access to women. But we can see already from our polling that support has increased — so the referendum, the way the campaign was organized, left that for the long term.

CFM: One distinctive feature of your campaign was also your use of personal stories of ordinary women. Not just extreme cases.

OO’C: From the start to the campaign, we put this in a healthcare context. We also decided the campaign would be led by the experiences of women, and we did that in a number of different ways. It was women talking about having to travel, about the shame and stigma. And yes, the stories of fatal fetal anomalies. We tried to bring in all of the different realities.

There were mixed views on that, as to how much the campaign should focus on experiences. Why do women have to keep telling their stories in order to gain to gain their rights? At the same time, we could see that the stories really made a difference. There is this myth of the woman who wants an abortion and is inconsiderate, generally young. But when the life stories came out? These are people in relationships, married women, women who already have children and decide it doesn’t make sense where they are in their lives to have another child.

And when it got to the sort of the final stages, the messaging was “Who Needs Your Yes.” It was about the people still struggling with the decision. We encouraged men to think about the women in their lives, in their families. 

CFM: There were individual cases, of course, that really paved the way for the referendum, like the death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012, when she suffered a miscarriage and was denied an abortion, dying of sepsis. 

OO’C: That was a moment when there was a shift. People saw her husband, out on the airwaves, and really connected with that. This was what the eighth amendment was doing to people. They could not believe that this could happen in Ireland. People had a sense of the legacy of the past, particularly in terms of the Church and how the Church had treated women, but there was a sense that we were not that Ireland any more — and this put that up for question, a young woman in the prime of her life. Politically, also, you couldn’t ignore it anymore.

The other big piece here was the citizens’ assembly. Citizens are selected randomly from the electoral register, 99 citizens and one chairperson. I don’t think anyone, including ourselves, expected the assembly to be so far reaching in terms of their recommendations (in 2017) and to be so overwhelmingly supportive, recommending abortion on request. The government then really couldn’t avoid it — and it also gave them increased confidence that this referendum could be won.

CFM: One thing that was absent in your campaign — and indeed, surprisingly, was not prominent in the referendum — was religion. 

OO’C: Part of that was the experience of the marriage equality referendum. We could see the Catholic Church was there, but the more they had to say, the more it was backfired. People wanted to distance themselves from that old Ireland, where the Church did control our decisions.

They were there in the background, supporting the organizations who were involved, but not visibly upfront. So, it was not something we had to contend with. And even the anti-choice campaign, they used old arguments, but not around religion. 

CFM: You also avoided making it a political discussion, which again will be harder in the US, but making it about society writ large seems to have been vital to your levels of approval.

OO’C: That was really important. We knew from polling that when it came to trusted voices on abortion, people trusted doctors and they trusted women talking about their experiences. Politicians were less trusted. So we made it very clear that this was a civil society campaign. We knew, to be fair, that some political parties had a good long track record on supporting reproductive rights, and others didn’t, but that wasn’t going to help us. 

CFM: You’ve been very particular about your selection of words for the campaign, making it about a joint effort, something forward-looking.

OO’C: It’s about creating our language, a language that resonates with people. We weren’t going to do this in the terms of the anti-choice campaign, so it was about creating a new conversation. We certainly used the word abortion in our meetings, in our leaflets, but a lot of the work we did in the run-up to the vote was understanding how people talk about abortion. We had to figure out what made sense in terms of having a conversation with the public, rather than maybe what made sense to us as activists — because otherwise, we’re talking to ourselves.

That’s a bit of a challenge for organizations that have been working on this for so long. Part of this was about putting it in the context of healthcare, but we also had a clear message that “sometimes a private matter needs public support” — and that really resonated. People saw it is private, were uncomfortable talking about abortion, but at this moment, at this time, it could be public. 

The context in Ireland isn’t the same as in other countries, so it’s about really finding out what’s going on in the heads of people in the space that you’re in. And particularly for activists and for people who’ve campaigned on this for a long time, it’s moving out of your own assumptions. And if we had to run this campaign now, we’d have to do it again, because it’s a changing context.

CFM: One of the biggest challenges for US campaigners is that they have to build up a wider movement and momentum without a referendum or indeed any deadline to work toward. What advice do you have for that more open-ended effort, which is so hard to sustain?

OO’C: It’s (important to) figure out what people are thinking, what they’re concerned about, to help set the agenda, even though it is costly to do that. Obviously, there are some pieces that I think are constant — experiences, harm. In the US, though, it can be about positive experiences, that are now being taken away. 

The challenge is in terms of momentum. We’re facing that now in Ireland, with this legislative review, mobilizing people again, reminding people of what they voted for. But what’s happening in the US with Roe v. Wade is such a critical moment that you can see people getting really active around it. It’s a massive opportunity to really mobilize people around this right. And around not losing this right.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

Anti-Abortion States Can’t Ban Medical Travel: Stephen L. Carter

If States Ban Abortion, How About Abortion Pills?: Lisa Jarvis

• Abortion Rights Falter As Democracy Slides: Clara Ferreira Marques

(1) Ireland backed same-sex marriage in a popular vote in 2015. It became the first country to recognize marriage equality by referendum, rather than legislation or the courts.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and editorial board member covering foreign affairs and climate. Previously, she worked for Reuters in Hong Kong, Singapore, India, the U.K., Italy and Russia.

More stories like this are available on

©2022 Bloomberg L.P.