A still from the documentary

Award-winning activist Ailbhe Smyth was co-director of the Together for Yes campaign, leading the movement to repeal the Eighth Amendment of the Irish Constitution, which had effectively banned almost all abortion. Now abortion is legal up to 12 weeks in the Republic of Ireland. Three years after this historic success, Smyth draws lessons from the referendum. Has the rollout of legalisation been effective? And what about the shifting relationship between the Irish people and the Catholic Church?

Today marks the third anniversary of the landslide vote in Ireland to repeal the Eighth Amendment. A new documentary The 8th is out in cinemas, following the struggle for legalisation. Why tell the story now?

Well, in one sense, if anything, the situation is somewhat worse for women (globally) even than it was three years ago. Think of the situation for women in Poland, just how very fraught it is there and the extent of resistance. And when we look at the US, and the constant blocking of women's access to abortion by means of this chipping away at state legislation throughout the country. Just having an example of a campaign for abortion and for women's right to choose that has been successful somewhere in the world is really encouraging. And if there are things that people can learn from it, great.

The campaign was a huge success. The country had been so fiercely divided that the abortion issue was often called “the second partitioning of Ireland”. But on referendum day, twice as many people voted "yes" for change. Can lessons be drawn by countries facing similar battles?

Each country is quite specific. So if we think about the role and place of Catholicism in Poland and Ireland, for example, both are still very Catholic countries. But the way in which people understand and practice Catholicism and the role it plays in the life of the country generally, is now quite different in those two countries. So in Ireland for a very long time, Catholicism played a major role in social policy and specifically around socio-sexual issues. But over the past three decades, really, since we had the very first referendum putting prohibition into the Constitution in 1983, we have seen very wide social and economic change in Ireland. And partly that has been a growing sense of our own identity as a country and our place in the contemporary world.

How has Ireland’s sense of identity changed?

So becoming part of the European Union, in the 1970s, was very important for us, that we were not just a small country on the edge of Europe, but actually in the heart of Europe, and therefore seeing how other countries conduct their business, and legislate for human rights, and so on and so forth. And we did become more prosperous in the ‘80s. And eventually, in the 90s. That was undermined by the crash, of course, but it was for everybody. And in that process, we became a more open minded country, because we were much more connected with mainland Europe. And also because there was a lot more coming and going, young people were flying off here, there and everywhere, the country opened up physically, as well as politically and socially.

What about the position of the Catholic Church?

That was the period during which the Church managed to commit hara kiri, on several occasions. We had the revelations on the abuse of children, by Catholic clerics, which began to emerge really at the end of the ‘80s, the beginning of the ‘90s, which seriously undermined the role of the Catholic Church in Irish society as an authoritative voice in terms of morality, ethics, and socio-sexual behaviours, because the Catholic Church revealed itself to be highly hypocritical, and actually dishonest. And many people felt very betrayed by that, and it made them question the nature of their adherence to the Catholic Church.

And that was compounded by later revelations, which have just been peaking recently, of the very cruel and brutal treatment of religious-run Catholic run institutions for women and girls who became pregnant outside marriage, beginning in the 19th century, and continuing up to present times, up to the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s. There’s a really interesting book recently by a woman called Caelainn Hogan, called Republic of Shame. We were and maybe still are a republic of shame – there is so much we have to be ashamed about. So all of that was playing into the displacement of Catholicism as a core part of the socio-political structure, and placing it definitely to the margins of social policy, and even indeed on moral questions.

Has the rollout of abortion services been effective?

That’s a very crucial question for us at the moment. The legislation which was introduced in 2019 is now coming up for a three-year review. And we are organising here in Ireland to make very substantial submissions to the review panels. And I think the first thing I would say is that, you introduce a law on the second of January 2019, and suddenly say that what was a crime, punishable by 14 years in prison (not just a mortal sin in the eyes of the Catholic Church) now you say, to the legal and medical professions, “Oh, by the way, today is Tuesday. So that's not how it is anymore”. It's like trying to turn around the Titanic or something. You really can't expect that it is going to work out perfectly.

And it really hasn't. For example, the three day cooling off period. So now you go to your local doctor and you say “I want an abortion” and the doctor says “Yes, that’s okay, now you have to go away and think about that for three days, and come back to me again”. It presents a material impediment to very many women who don't have the resources to make two trips to their doctor. And that’s quite apart from the insult, effectively, to women as decision-makers. So we're seeking to have that period removed.

And from the 12th week, abortion is available only if there is a “serious risk” to the health of the woman. But many doctors are pointing out that “serious” is not actually a medical term. So a large number of organisations will be making recommendations that the word “serious” is removed, but just to simply look at situations where there is a risk to a woman's health and of course to her life. And to make very clear what conditions apply post 12 weeks. In relation to the practice of carrying out abortions, we cannot have grey areas.

I would also say that, countrywide, if you live in one of the big urban centres in Dublin or Cork or Limerick, up to a point there is not a problem in finding a GP, but it is a problem elsewhere. There may not be a GP at all in your town, or area, who provides abortion. There is one whole county in Ireland where there is no doctor who provides abortion, so you're going to have to travel.

That’s because of conscientious objection? How many doctors refuse to provide abortions?

Well, we don't know. We do know that out of the 3,000 plus GPs, there are only around 400 who have officially listed themselves as providing abortion, medical abortion. However, that doesn't mean that there are 2,600 who don't. There are many, many doctors around the country who do provide it but who don't advertise it.

So how can women know who provides it?

She can find out in principle, but in practice it's quite difficult. There is a very good service called My Options, where a woman can ask for the names of GPS, if any, in her area, who provide abortion. The problem is that by no means all women know about the service. You know, across the whole diversity of our women, women are more or less connected, more or less well informed. So publicising of that service is really important. But that goes hand in hand, of course, with the promotion of the importance of general practitioners providing abortions.

What’s stopping GPs who are providing abortions form advertising?

We feel that in some areas, GPs are not making it known broadly because they are concerned about the possibility of anti-abortion protests. And there have been such protests in parts of Ireland, in Galway, and also around various GP surgeries in Ireland. So GPs are not wrong to think that there may be a push back, and abortion, for all that it is legal now, is still stigmatised. It takes a long time for that stigma to wear through.

Has the position of the Catholic Church shifted in the years since the referendum?

Now the Catholic church is left with a very, very real problem, because not only did we vote overwhelmingly for the right to abortion up to 12 weeks on request, which was a major victory, we had also voted in 2015 for the right of lesbians and gays to marry on the same basis as straight people. So you know, that was a double whammy of a blow to the central position that the Catholic Church wanted to occupy in Ireland, in regard to socio-sexual policy. And that's gone now. There was a process there for several decades, but it has now been made quite explicit: that the Catholic Church does not have a contribution to make to the formulation of policy and legislation with regard to sexuality or reproduction in this country.

Interestingly, the Catholic Church in Ireland is now full of this new narrative around the need to rebuild, the need to build a different way of interacting with citizens. So one of the youngest bishops in Ireland spoke recently about the damage to the Catholic Church done by Covid. People have realised that it's not essential to go to church every day, the church is no longer essential in their lives. So it's really, really, really interesting. And the Catholic Church in Rome has always been very anxious, very keen not to lose Ireland, as a premier example of a modern but Catholic country.

Does the diminished power of the Church reflect a decline in faith?

So you still have a situation in Ireland where more than 80 per cent of people here identified themselves in the census as Catholic, but it certainly seems that the definition and interpretation of Catholicism has shifted so that people see the role of individual conscience as being very much more important than it ever was in the traditional Irish Catholic church, where you did absolutely everything that the bishops and the parish priests and so on told you to do. Now people see that there is a margin, an important margin for individual conscience. And that is not yet the case in Poland, for example. So while you see that momentum, and that movement in the polls, and those cross generational gaps between Polish people, it still has not led to a displacement of Catholicism from a central role within Polish society. That's likely to happen over time.

Finally, as The 8th documentary shows, the Together for Yes campaign emphasised the importance of compassion. Why did you foreground compassion and personal testimony?

A key part of the messaging was about removing abortion from the area of theological debate, but also saying "It’s not about religion, it’s not actually about morality, it’s about women: about women’ needs, their health and wellbeing". One of the problems in the polarising debates on abortion is that people end up talking about the foetus and not talking about the woman. Not understanding that a woman is in a particular situation, and really wants or needs an abortion. And we needed to bring people back to actually seeing women.

And we also didn’t fight it particularly on the basis of human rights. I think everybody in the campaign believed it was a woman’s human right, but that was not the major plank. Why? Because people find talking about rights very abstract. So when you’re in a referendum campaign you’re not having a debate. You’re having more of a conversation. People want the everyday in front of them. They want to know: what is the problem here? What are the kind of problems that women face? We made that shift very consciously and specifically. And we moved people away from being "for" or "against", to understanding someone else’s situation. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.

We had people on the doorstep, often older generations, saying: "Well I don’t approve of abortion myself, but who am I to stop a woman who is having one." So they got that message, that they could retain their own position, belief, moral sense, without imposing it on other people. People were effectively saying "I understand the concept and the right to freedom," without us giving them lessons on human rights. And it was very remarkable. It was very moving, actually.

We have to rethink how we approach this issue of abortion. In many ways we have to be very much more understanding, very much more pragmatic, and we definitely have to be less judgemental.

For information on how to watch the documentary "The 8th", in cinemas or via Video on Demand, go to The 8th website.