Where we are together, we are strongest.

Sheila McKechnie Foundation

We have read the criticisms of the blog post below, and understand the anger it has generated. We would like to clarify some of the parts of the post. We are not attempting to make any excuses, only to better communicate the points we made.

When describing last year’s referendum campaign in the blogpost, we meant to make it clear  that by failing to include the voices of migrants, people of colour, and trans and non-binary people in the referendum campaign, the Abortion Rights Campaign (ARC) did not uphold our own values, which we had worked so hard to promote for the previous six years.

ARC has, since our foundation, tried to be an inclusive campaign. We use trans inclusive language in our communications, and work to highlight, as best we can, the vast inequalities that people of colour face when trying to access reproductive healthcare. We have sought to create inclusive spaces for people to organise, and to forge partnerships with other organisations representing these groups.

Reflecting on the referendum campaign and the larger issue of exclusion is a conversation we have been having in ARC, and will continue to have with the ongoing input of our members. We are always learning, and want to listen to and learn from those most affected by this exclusion. Where our organising falls short, and our actions are insufficient, we are sorry.

The issue of coming together and overcoming bad faith was raised as a separate point to the one about exclusion, and was not meant in any way to be used to silence those affected by the lack of abortion rights here in Ireland. The post was intended to highlight how our strength is in our unity, that often activist campaigns can be damaged by a lack of collaboration, and how we are working towards more collaborative inclusive campaigning. We apologise that this was not made clearer in our post.

We are at the start of a process to address the exclusion of those disproportionately affected by failures in our laws, as well as failures in our organising. We know we need to do better as an organisation, and we do not intend this to be the last time we address this issue.

We appreciate the feedback we have received and are taking on board the critique. We will leave the blog post up in the interest of transparency and accountability.

ARC co-convener Claire Brophy attended the Sheila McKechnie Foundation event Change Network: The Irish abortion referendum – one year on. She was joined by Deirdre Duffy, Campaign Manager for Together for YES, Rachel Lavin, a data journalist who works as a Partnerships Coordinator with Who Targets Me and Nike Jonah, Creative Producer of Counterpoint Arts.

It’s Thursday the 23rd of May, and I’m in Dublin airport, waiting to board a flight to London to talk about how we won repeal. Sitting here I think of all the people who’ve travelled for abortions, all the people who’ve worn repeal jumpers through airports to show solidarity, all the thoughts and tweets and care that we have for the strangers around us. I also think of all the people who have yet to travel for their abortions. This isn’t what we voted for last May, but it’s what we have. People are still travelling, because abortion is only available in Ireland until 12 weeks—or actually 11 weeks and 4 days—to allow for that 3-day-wait. They’re still travelling because there isn’t a provider near where they live and the simplest option is to fly abroad. They’re still travelling because their diagnoses of fatal foetal anomaly aren’t definitive enough.

In London, a group called the Sheila McKechnie Foundation have gathered us in a room to talk to campaigners, activists, organisers and—a term that hasn’t made its way across the Irish Sea yet—change-makers. But change-makers we are. On the 25th of May last year, Ireland voted to remove the 8th amendment from our constitution, marking tangibly a change we have all been making for years now.

The terrible 8th amendment was designed and placed in the constitution in 1983 with the sole purpose of ensuring that women in Ireland would never have abortions. A brutal piece of law that had no care for people’s agency, wishes or will, the 8th amendment tried to do the impossible, because the fact remained: people will always need abortions. Making abortion illegal doesn’t stop it, it only forces people to have unsafe ones. More than that, criminalisation forces secrecy, which slips easily into stigma. If people can’t talk about what they need, what they’ve experienced, or how they feel, then shame is compounded and buried deeply. When we repealed the 8th amendment, one layer of that stigma was lifted.

After the talk, a woman approaches me. She tells me that she’s an Abortion Support Network helpline volunteer, an incredible charity who help women travelling for abortions. She has noticed the difference, “They’re still ringing but they’re not apologising anymore. It’s different now.”

We’re asked how we did it, because they need to know, they have changes to make. I tell them that it took years of work and generations of people to pull this off. The non-hierarchical structure that we have in ARC is a huge part of that. It’s been the subject of curiosity (and more, confusion) since we founded the campaign, and took the care to use these structures of organising. Yes it’s more complex to understand than what we’re used to, but it works. Non-hierarchy is a feminist structure where members share work, responsibility and accountability. You will, at meetings, be presented with lists of things to do, but it’s up to you to step forward and say “I can do that.” It’s also up to you to say no, arguably a feminist lesson in itself. This structure of self selection is open and empowering. Crucially for last year’s referendum, it creates entire teams of confident, articulate and brave people: leaders.

We’re asked if we would do anything differently, knowing what we know now. I’ve thought about this before. If we knew the result was going to be a landslide, of course we would have. We could have been more brave, more open about values that political campaigns deem risky. We could have told people that while yes of course doctors are an authority, so are you. We could have used the word ‘person’ instead of ‘woman’, because we know that trans men can get pregnant and need abortions. We could have talked more about the fact that racism played a part in the deaths of Savita, Bimbo, and in the barbaric treatment of Ms. Y. But we didn’t know. We didn’t realise that so many Don’t Knows were secret Yeses; there were people all over the country, secretly willing us to win. Their silence was caused by decades of the 8th amendment, forcing clandestine behaviour and creating shame that was swallowed up and never spoken about. The swathe of secret Yeses represents all the people in our communities who have lived this experience, who understand, and who simply cannot talk about it.

Story-telling and talking were a huge part of our campaign, and a part that will no doubt be used by future campaigns. For us in ARC, storytelling and busting stigma around abortion have been as much a part of the work as repealing the 8th. Now we have wave of stories about last year, thousands of perspectives on a phenomenal and difficult referendum campaign, each one unique to the person who experienced it, and each one valuable.

I end by telling people something I’ve learned: that campaigns that have taken years to build can fracture in a second. Bad faith is corrosive to movements, and ego has no place in achieving social change. A lot of work—maybe even most of the work, certainly the hardest—is listening to one another and weaving our struggles together. Where that is not possible, campaigns are set back. Groups seeking social change rarely disagree on principle, and when we remember that, and remember that we have the same adversaries, and the same challenges, we pull together. Where we are together, we are strongest.

#repealedthe8th #thenorthisnext