“Abortion is such an emotive subject in Ireland. It touches upon religion, women’s rights, state control and ultimately who has the final say over a person’s body. But it’s rarely discussed in the open.
“I think a lot of the credit for opening up the public debate is down to Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly. The assembly is made up of 99 people chosen
at random to discuss key issues and give recommendations to parliament. It put abortion laws on its agenda last year and, as well as including experts from both sides of the debate, it asked for personal testimony from members of the public. There were more than 13,000 applications.
“The assembly listened to the evidence and reached a decision which shocked many people, suggesting in April 2017 that the eighth amendment should be repealed and that abortion should not only be legal but available on the Irish health service up to the 12th week of a pregnancy, with no questions asked. After that announcement it was only a matter of time before there would be a vote on repealing the eighth. Still, the majority of people I met in those first months after the referendum was announced weren’t prepared to take a public stance on the topic.
“I did find a few people on both sides who were prepared to speak out, however. I met Megan Scott [pictured right] on the streets of Dublin. She was dressed as Saint Brigid, one of the patron saints of Ireland. She had initially worn the outfit on Saint Patrick’s Day to protest against sexism in the country and make the point that Ireland has a female patron saint that nobody talks about. She dressed as Brigid again to campaign for the right to abortion.
“A little-known – some would say suppressed – part of Saint Brigid’s story is that her miracle was to make a foetus ‘disappear’.”
“The eighth amendment was added to the Irish constitution following a referendum in 1983. It was quite radical for the time – and still is. It meant the law would recognise an equal right to life for both mother and unborn child. This not only effectively prohibited abortion in almost all cases but also meant doctors had more of a say in the birth of a child than the pregnant woman.
“Recently a number of tragic cases have brought new awareness about the law. In 2012, Savita Halappanavar died from sepsis after miscarrying her daughter, after doctors refused her an abortion even though medical staff had concluded that a miscarriage was inevitable. Her death shocked Ireland and brought new energy to the campaign to repeal the eighth amendment.
“As was the case with the Brexit campaign, there were issues with propaganda and misinformation during the lead-up to the vote. A year before the election, there was a report in The Times about how a pregnancy counselling centre had been telling people that abortion causes breast cancer, mental health issues and infertility. These centres were supposed to have been closed down, but while I was covering the campaign I was able to speak to a counsellor who told me exactly the same thing, that abortion causes breast cancer. These places were still spreading false information, although I don’t know how much they actually influenced the vote.
“After criticism of its role in the Brexit and Trump campaigns, Facebook used the Irish referendum as a testing ground for its new policy on political advertising. Facebook banned foreign groups from buying advertising to influence the referendum and was also transparent about which groups were being targeted with which types of advertising. For the first time you could see the actual ads being pushed towards particular groups on the subject.”
The pro-choice campaign
“At the start of the campaign people felt anxious about saying they were pro-choice, but as the Yes movement gathered pace that changed. The ‘Repeal’ jumpers, which you can see above, became symbolic of the campaign. Initially they represented a quiet call for change, but as the vote approached it seemed like almost everyone was wearing them.
“I photographed a pro-choice protest organised by the artist Alice Maher. She created these costumes of giant figures representing Ireland’s dark treatment of women. About 150 people marched through Limerick to a slow, steady drum beat as a woman sang a traditional lament over and over. It was really powerful. There was some nervousness that there would be a lot of anger directed towards them, but there was just one man shouting, ‘You’re all going to hell!’ What struck me was that it wasn’t spoken in anger. It seemed like he was genuinely concerned for people’s souls.”
The pro-life campaign
“The pro-life side was initially more open and welcoming than many of the pro-choice campaigners I met, who seemed wary of me. A lot of the pro-lifers felt like they had been dismissed by the media and politicians, that their concerns were no longer part of the mainstream conversation.
“I shot at the summit of the holy mountain Croagh Patrick in County Mayo where a group of around 25 men were begging forgiveness from two priests for the sins of men that may have resulted in abortion. They were very welcoming, but were also worried about my soul; they gave me Catholic charms and promised to pray for me. It was touching. John, who led the party up Croagh Patrick, is a very traditional man, he doesn’t approve of divorce or homosexuality and he doesn’t believe in contraception. In an unguarded moment at the top, I said I was a feminist and his eyes almost popped out of his head.
“The people who are pro-life strongly feel that the foetus should be valued as much as a person. The mood shifted towards pro-choice so much over the course of the campaign that shortly before the vote I spoke to some pro-life students in Dublin and they said that it was almost impossible for them to express their views publicly. They felt like they were being shouted down.
“I met quite a few American Catholics in Ireland during the campaign. They organised a number of events – including a national day of prayer on the beaches of Ireland – to keep abortion out of the country. Some American religious organisations have centres in Ireland and the Holy Love organisation, which is based in Ohio, has an outpost in Knock in County Mayo, where I took this picture [above]. Inside they sell rosary beads with plastic foetuses in them for around €25. You are supposed to say prayers with this rosary to ward off abortion.”
“Opinion polls were very evenly split throughout the campaign, but in the end the Yes campaign won with 66.4 percent of the vote. I think the result – which followed the 2015 referendum on same-sex marriage, when Ireland became the first country to bring in marriage equality by popular vote – means that the separation between church and state is well underway. It’s still got a way to go, however: the Catholic church still controls 90 percent of Irish schools, which affects how sex education
“There have been so many devastating revelations recently about how the Catholic church has abused its power and I think the results of both referendums have been a reflection on that. But the relationship between Catholicism and Ireland is very complex. The national identity is bound up with Catholicism. You don’t have the six o’clock news in Ireland – you have the 6.01 news because the Angelus prayer is broadcast for the first minute of the hour.
“This shot [below] was taken during Cork’s Eucharistic procession, one of the highlights of the Catholic calendar. Just 20 years ago the whole town would have come to a standstill and everyone would have been on their knees – but that’s no longer the case. It was just a few people praying while everyone else went about their business. While the repeal campaign won by a landslide, it still means a third of Ireland is very upset with the decision. So as most of the country celebrated on 26th May I did feel for those people I had met who would be heartbroken by the decision and I hope that they’re able to find some peace in the new Ireland.”
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