Activists in Dublin call for the removal of Ireland’s Eighth Amendment, in the March For Choice by the Abortion Rights Campaign (ARC) on September 30, 2017. Image credit: abd / Shutterstock
In the spring of 2018 the Irish people voted to overthrow the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution and legalize abortion. It was the culmination of years of feminist activism in a country the Catholic Church has had in a firm grip for decades. In her book Repealed: Ireland’s Unfinished Fight for Reproductive Rights (with Sinéad Kennedy, Pluto Books, 2021), activist and professor Camilla Fitzsimons analyzes how the Irish people finally came together to repeal the Eighth Amendment. In this conversation with Amalie Thieden, Fitzsimons expands on the lessons of Repealed and why the fight for free abortion still isn’t over in Ireland.
Amalie Thieden: At the beginning of the book, you briefly describe your upbringing in a Catholic family. Please tell our readers more about yourself and your background.
Camilla Fitzsimons: I grew up in a family where my mother had 10 children and I would hear her openly say that she would not have chosen to have that many children. She had to leave work at age 23, since married women weren’t allowed to work in Ireland at the time. She didn’t have a particularly good marriage either. She had an extremely difficult life, like many Irish women in the seventies and eighties.
And you have to understand: when I was a child, it was my belief and most people’s belief that abortion was murder. But as I grew up, I started to become politically active. I became quite left-wing in my thinking and started to go on marches and demonstrations and that automatically brought me around to women’s rights. And from the 2010s and onwards, the fact that abortion was illegal in Ireland was a big part of any sort of feminist discussion or any sort of feminist space at the time.
Thieden: What about in your own family—you didn’t talk about it?
Fitzsimons: Not at all. I mean my father—and my father only died quite recently—I don’t think he ever knew I wrote this book. I wouldn’t have told him. I think he knew there was a book about feminism, but I would have concealed the specific topic from him because it just wouldn’t have been worth the discussion, to be honest.
Now, that isn’t to say that everyone in his generation felt that way. When I was campaigning to repeal the Eighth Amendment in 2018, many older people were very, very, very welcoming of the referendum; they had somebody in their family who had had to travel abroad to get an abortion, or they had experienced or known women who felt they’d had too many children. It isn’t just an abstract thing, it is something that touches the lives of many, many people. And I think people started to realize that something had to change—especially after the death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012.
Thieden: Can you tell our readers about what happened to Savita and how that affected people?
Fitzsimons: Savita Halappanavar, who was an Indian woman living in Ireland, died of septicemia in a hospital in Galway despite repeatedly requesting an abortion. She was actively miscarrying but she was denied [an abortion] on legal grounds. I think when Savita died, it changed things for people because they went: “Oh my God, that could be my sister, that could be my mother, that could be my wife.” It was no longer this kind of abstract moral argument. For the first time, people could see that very clearly.
Thieden: The Catholic church has had a big role in criminalizing abortion in Ireland. Can you talk a little bit about the church’s role in Irish society in general?
Fitzsimons: The way to understand the church’s role in our society is to know that Ireland was quite a poor country when it became an independent state in the early 1920s. Britain pulled out and they pulled out all their economic resources too. I think British rule was then replaced with Catholic rule. We were no longer part of the British Empire, but we became almost a kind of theocracy. There was a very, very strong relationship between the Catholic church and the government, and the Catholic church had a heavy hand in writing the Constitution of Ireland in 1937. They controlled our hospitals, our schools, and pretty much all our social and cultural life. And this is in my lifetime. The Catholic church still controls most of the schools in Ireland, and they still have a very heavy hand in healthcare. Many people will still christen their children and that’s because they can’t get them into schools otherwise.
But I think they’ve lost their moral monopoly. Church-going is much, much lower than when I was a child. I remember asking my mother: “Why do you go to mass, Mammy?” And I remember she said: “Because I might get struck by lightning if I don’t.” And she meant it.
Thieden: Why did the church’s role change?
Fitzsimons: Several things happened which have changed the church’s role. Globalization happened, and people started to travel abroad and watch TV and they realized that the rest of the world didn’t look like Ireland.
But then other big things happened too—the Catholic church was the master in their downfall because of church scandals that broke in the media about child abuse within Catholic institutions. Even as recently as two days ago a big story broke about abuse within private boys’ schools, which are run by Catholic priests. The church’s many scandals have destroyed its credibility in Ireland.
Circling back to abortion—we’ve had several awful stories over the years like the X case in 1992 where a 14-year-old girl had been raped and became pregnant. The family wanted to travel abroad for her to get an abortion but before doing so, they asked the police if they could take a DNA sample from the fetus to use in the court case. They were denied and she was barred from traveling. It took a Supreme Court appeal for the ban to be lifted.
Thieden: Let’s talk about the repeal movement, which you spend a lot of time on in the book. One of my questions while reading it was: Why didn’t it succeed earlier?
Fitzsimons: I believe we would have lifted the ban sooner if it hadn’t been for conservatism within Irish government circles. There were consistent polls done by The Irish Times, which showed that [Ireland] would’ve voted to repeal the Eighth Amendment much sooner had it been put to the people.
Thieden: Why did you decide to write the book?
Fitzsimons: I wrote it for two reasons. One reason was that I was out canvassing in 2018, and I had never seen anything like it in my life. So I started to ask canvassers to participate in interviews and polls to understand why.
But the other reason is because the same people who had blocked the referendum for years started to claim the vote as a victory. The prime minister at the time, Leo Varadkar, had blocked it for a long time and then he suddenly went: “Well done us.”
This change didn’t happen because of politicians, this happened because of activists and feminist groups, and because of European human rights watchdogs. I also think that the marriage equality referendum in 2015 changed things. Ireland became the first country in the world to introduce same-sex marriage by popular vote, and I think that made people realize they could win this one too.
Thieden: Can you talk more about the connection between marriage equality and free abortion in Ireland?
Fitzsimons: I mean there were a lot of similarities in terms of the campaign, some of the same people involved. There were a lot of similarities in terms of the impact it had on the public mood and in terms of the confidence that it gave Ireland and Irish people to say: “No, we are a modern European country, and we don’t have to be hiding away in the corner here.” I think that it did make Irish people feel more confident that it was—in many ways—the end of the Catholic church’s domination of Ireland.
Thieden: I was in Dublin in the weeks leading up to the referendum in 2018 and I remember seeing a lot of anti-abortion protesters standing in the streets with signs of fetuses. Do you still see them in the streets of Ireland now?
Fitzsimons: Yes, they still have an annual march, and you’ll see several of them outside abortion providers. And I think that’s a good place really to explain why my book is called The Unfinished Fight.
Ireland now allows abortion, even if the word “abortion” isn’t mentioned anywhere in the law—but it is still one of the most restrictive laws in Europe. You can have an abortion on demand up until 12 weeks, you just have to go to your general practitioner (GP). The problem is that only 10 percent of GPs in Ireland have signed up to provide abortion through the government scheme, which means that you can find yourself in a situation where you have to travel many miles to get to somebody who will perform the abortion. You also—by law—must wait three days between seeing your doctor and getting the abortion, which means you have to travel twice, and it might push you outside the 12-week window. If that happens, you’d have to travel to the UK. You also must have a minimum of two doctors sign off if a woman’s life or health is at risk and to confirm that there is a fatal fetal anomaly, you are only allowed to terminate it if the anomaly is fatal, meaning two doctors must sign off that if a baby were born they would die within 28 days.
Now, that is practically an impossible thing to ask doctors to do. Moreover, if they make a mistake, they could go to jail because it is still a criminal offense in Ireland to have an abortion. Abortion is essentially still criminalized except for in the exact circumstances outlined in the law. As a result, lots of Irish women are still traveling to England and probably also the Netherlands and other countries. Doctors over there are saying: “What are you doing here? This isn’t a viable pregnancy.”
And then we have the issue of the protests outside the clinics or GPs. We were promised legislation around state zones or buffer zones so people wouldn’t have to be faced with protesters when going to have an abortion. We were promised these zones back in 2018, but four years later, we’re still waiting. It creates shame and stigma, and it makes doctors reluctant to become a provider because they don’t want to be dealing with protests every time they go to work.
Thieden: Is the movement in Ireland still active now?
Fitzsimons: Yes, very much. And it mobilizes quite quickly, that’s why I’m writing a second book about the movement now. I think feminist activism in Ireland is very strong and I think everybody is very aware of the potential impact of Roe v. Wade in terms of how it has galvanized the anti-abortion movement worldwide. I think the big issue with Roe v. Wade is the impact on people in the United States, but also the impact on people in African countries, Middle Eastern countries, and Southeast Asian countries with harsh abortion regimes where it now seems unlikely that they will be lifted in the wake of Roe v Wade. It’s a terrible time.
Click here to read an excerpt from Repealed, courtesy of Pluto Books.
Camilla Fitzsimons is an activist and associate professor at Maynooth University School of Education. In 2021 her book Repealed: Ireland’s Unfinished Fight for Reproductive Rights (with Sinéad Kennedy), was published by Pluto Books.
Amalie Thieden holds an MA in Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism from The New School for Social Research.