David Reviews

 Biting the hand that feeds us since 2002.

CAPTAIN'S BLOG: HOW THE 'YES' WAS WON.
31 May 2018

It's very revealing that no one campaigning for the repeal of the controversial 8th Amendment in Ireland was willing to publicly express their optimism going into Friday's vote. You can hardly blame them for feeling nervous. The stakes were enormous. It represented a 'once in a generation' opportunity to grant women autonomy over their own bodies by making it possible to end an unwanted pregnancy.

But the trepidation of the reformers was not just a reflection of the gravity of the decision Ireland faced, it was also because of an increasing sense among progressives that they cannot win a popular vote in any circumstances.

How was the campaign run by Ireland's progressives informed by the failures of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump? And can those lessons help to create a resistance to the reactionary forces threatening democratic values on both sides of the Atlantic?

The 1983 referendum.

The two exit polls on the night of the vote indicating a massive win for 'Yes' finally allowed campaigners to start to relax. And the results the next day confirmed a truly remarkable turnaround. Just thirty-five years after the eighth amendment was endorsed by 66.9% of those voting in a referendum, its demise was sealed by a mirror image of that result, with 66.4% in favour of repealing it.

It's easy to imagine that the toxic nature of political discourse is a modern phenomenon and that we can look back on an era of more civilised debate in 1983 but the evidence suggests otherwise. Some of those in favour of implementing the 8th Amendment considered nothing to be off-limits. The warnings about the Abortion Truck from a book published by the Family Life Research Centre demonstrate a willingness to stray into a form of dishonest propaganda which would be just as shocking today as it was then.

This kind of disinformation sat alongside images of aborted foetuses and pictures of beautiful newborns whom - voters were told - were being targeted by those who opposed to the 8th Amendment.

It was an ugly campaign for an unnecessary amendment. After all, abortion was already illegal in Ireland and the 8th was merely a reinforcement of it. It was akin in its aims to Clause 28 in the UK, the infamous addition to the 1988 Local Government Act which made it illegal to "promote homosexuality or gay relationships", and prevented councils from "spending money on educational materials and projects perceived to promote a gay lifestyle".

Reactionary forces on both sides of the Irish Sea wanted to crush liberal social attitudes once and for all.

In both cases, they sowed the seeds of their own destruction by taking it too far and - in the case of Ireland - created a clear target for pro-choice campaigners. They now knew that repealing the 8th wouldn't just remove the reinforcement, it would pave the way to safe abortions.

Savita Halappanavar.

One of the great ironies of the 2018 debate has been the complaints from those who wanted to retain the 8th Amendment that their opponents had weaponised the death of Savita Halappanavar. Their own campaigning had been founded on the ugliest imagery imaginable... they happily paraded pictures of bloody babies with no regard for the feeling of the thousands of women who have been forced to trek to the UK to end an unwanted pregnancy. Now - incredibly - they decided it was exploitative to tell the shocking story of Savita Halappanavar.

Halappanavar was an Indian dentist who died in an Irish hospital because doctors refused to grant her request for an abortion even though she was in the early stages of miscarriage and her life was threatened by sepsis. A verdict of 'medical misadventure' was recorded at the inquest into her death which provoked a spate of marches and protests.

Her death marked a turning point in the debate for a number of reasons. Crucially, those who favoured access to abortion now had an argument on their side of the debate which matched the emotional heft of their opponents. They took great care to be respectful of Halappanavar's family, who actively supported the campaign to repeal the 8th but they weren't shy about using her death - and that of other women whose lives were lost to Irish medicine's reactionary dogma.

The focus on the young women who have died because Irish doctors feared prosecution neutralised a key component of the opposing argument. There was now - to put it crudely - death on both sides of the debate and it undermined the arguments of the collection of misfits who gather under the 'pro-life' banner.

The Catholic church.

The referendum in 1983 occurred before the Catholic church had been outed as a sporadic facilitator of child abuse. The scandals which have rocked the church have hugely diminished its influence and - critically - it no longer has an exclusive hold on the moral high ground.

The church itself recognised the reality of its status and opted to adopt a surprisingly low profile. Patrick Claffey - a Catholic clergyman who looks after a parish in Central Dublin summed up their approach: "The feeling is, let laypeople do the speaking; they have the expertise and they're doing it very well."

Even in today's Ireland, an instruction from Rome would have been hard for a lot of older Catholics to resist and their decision to stay out of it will have removed a psychological three-line whip in many minds.

Whether or not the relative liberalism of the current pope played a role in this silence is unclear, but the absence of a statement condemning the decision appears to confirm an acceptance of the outcome and it could certainly be inferred from this that the die-hard opposition of the past is at an end.

#MeToo

In the last year, Western society has been confronted by the reality of the patriarchal yoke that burdens women. Harvey Weinstein's recent arraignment once again places the focus on his crimes but the #MeToo messages on Twitter made it abundantly clear that his conduct was not as exceptional as we would all like to believe.

The awareness of a woman's right to live a life free from harassment has provoked a broader examination of gender issues and it has galvanised a lot of women to rethink their approach to the limits placed on their opportunities.

This has driven a lot of positive outcomes and it proved a potent force when it came to discussing a woman's right to autonomy over her own body. The conflation of sexual assault and a woman's right to choose not only reminded the electorate of a need to improve society's approach to women, it put a spotlight on one of the least edifying aspects of the status quo - the reality of a state insisting that it's not possible to legally terminate pregnancies resulting from rape.

Persuading the persuadable.

The repeal campaign appeared to have learned a vital lesson from Brexit and Trump. The Clinton campaign and the Remain camp aimed their arguments at the reactionary base of their opponents, effectively sending their arguments over the heads of the undecided and unsure. Their certainty of their own righteousness provoked defiance and their adoption of a lofty superiority didn't just create an appearance of bullying... it often was bullying.

Historians often latch on to particular moments in political campaigns and when the hindsight on the 2016 US presidential election has fully crystallised, the pivotal moment is likely to be identified as Hillary Clinton's depiction of her opponent's supporters as being drawn from a "basket of deplorables".

It confirmed one of the the most strongly-held prejudices about the Democrat candidate - that she is a member of an elite who looks down on ordinary citizens. Trump supporters gleefully self-identified as 'deplorables' and - incredible as it may sound - it seems probable that a lot of previously undecided voters found her condescension more repugnant than any of Trump's intemperate displays of misogyny and racism.

In Ireland, they ignored the opposing die-hards and concentrated almost all their efforts on reasoning with those who could see merit in both sides of the argument. This created a huge contrast between the two campaigns - all the bombast came from their opposition who hadn't really updated their 1983 playbook. A walk down Dublin streets during the referendum campaign involved a unedifying exposure to emotionally-charged imagery designed to equate abortion with infanticide.

The death of Savita Halappanavar was a highly effective counterweight as it's hard to argue that 'pro-life means pro-life' when its implementation has led to avoidable tragedies.

Learning the lessons.

Some onlookers have been surprised by the fuss this result has generated, feeling that only an uncivilised nation would deny women the right to decide whether or not they want to continue an unplanned pregnancy. That's naive. If the momentum moves the debate to Northern Ireland where abortion is still illegal, we may witness a much closer contest. And - if this is the case - the repeal movement is likely to gain greater recognition for its achievement.

The circumstances favoured 'repeal'. The dogmatic wording of the 8th Amendment presented an easy target; the church's ability to influence had been hugely compromised; and women's rights have been looked at through a new lens over the last year.

But - in reality - the repeal movement still required a wise approach. If America can elevate an openly racist, unqualified hot head who boasts about sexually assaulting women to the presidency, and the UK can opt for an act of unparalleled economic self-harm, why should it be assumed that Ireland was certain to buck the trend and vote in favour of a progressive cause?

British politicians still hopeful of overturning Brexit, and Americans looking to November mid-terms and the 2020 presidential election to halt the slide towards fascism need to look at what went right in Ireland. Stop calling your opponents 'stupid' and instead engage with those who can be persuaded. Anything else is destined to perpetuate the success of the liars and the scoundrels who are using neo-nationalism to destroy long-cherished democratic values.

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David Reviews - Lovely Lenzie Ltd, Woodbourne House, Seven Sisters, Lenzie, G66 3AW. Telephone: +44 141 776 7766. Editor: Jason Stone.