The Big Interview: Ailbhe Smyth, Feminist, Activist, Academic.
Ailbhe Smyth is the Convenor of the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment. She speaks to The Daily Slog about her journey with the Irish Women’s Rights Movement from the 1970’s to today, and why she is hopeful that this will be the year a decades long battle for women’s reproductive rights will be won.
I started lecturing in UCD in the department of French when I was 21 and I have spent most of my adult life in academia. It wasn’t until I was in my 30’s that I became increasingly interested in politics, an interest driven by the women’s movement in Ireland at that time.
I wasn’t there in the first brigade in the early 1970’s, but by the end of that decade I began to believe that my feminist thinking needed to be integrated somehow into my academic work in UCD. It was also around that time that I started becoming very aware, on a personal level, how women’s lives and our options were by no means simple and straight forward and equal in this country.
I had been married briefly for six months and then discovered that I couldn’t actually get divorced in Ireland. Then shortly after that, when I gave birth to my daughter, I realised that technically my baby was illegitimate. I was becoming all too aware of the ways in which my life as a woman was being blocked.
I felt that the whole debate and outcome was very much about saying to us as women that our choices, our decisions about ourselves, our lives, our bodies, were not our own. The state was going to intervene and interfere in our lives and make those decisions for us. For me, that was, and remains, profoundly wrong.
Even though I was in a relatively well paid job as an academic, I had issues affording childcare and it hit me that if I was experiencing this problem, what was it like for the masses and masses of women who were in much less fortunate circumstances than I was? I began reading more into the women’s movement globally and at the beginning of the 1980’s I set up the Women’s Study Forum in UCD as a discussion group for these issues.
Around the time of the 1983 amendment campaign (a referendum in Ireland that led to a constitutional amendment recognising the right to life of the unborn child) I became involved in opposing the impressing of the eighth amendment into the constitution. I was extremely upset and disappointed when the amendment was passed because I knew, we knew, that it would be an absolutely disaster for women. I felt that the whole debate and outcome was very much about saying to us as women that our choices, our decisions about ourselves, our lives, our bodies, were not our own. The state was actually going to intervene and interfere in our lives and make those decisions for us. For me, that was, and remains, profoundly wrong.
The study forum at UCD really flourished for several years and drew attention to a lot of key issues. Whether that was about work, whether it was about children, whether it was about relationships and sex, whether it was about violence.
The forum also had very strong cultural strand. We constantly invited poets, writers, artists, women who were doing really interesting things, to come and speak with us about what they were doing. In 1990 I set up the first women studies programme and centre in UCD.
You’ve been lobbying for women’s reproductive rights since 1983 and the referendum has only come about this year. Has that been disheartening? How have you gathered your strength to keep fighting that fight over the years?
It wasn’t that there was nothing between 1983 and now. We had the X case in 1992 (in which a High Court ruling prevented a 14-year-old rape victim from travelling abroad for an abortion. Two referendums were then held and a further amendment was made to the Constitution protecting the right of the mother to travel and to receive information on services abroad). We fought that referendum very hard. I think it’s very important for us to say, “We didn’t actually lose in 1992. We just weren’t asked the right question.” We did say that we wanted women to have information, and to be able to travel to England. We didn’t want to make abortion laws any more stringent than they actually were. But we weren’t asked if we wanted to take the ban, to take the proposition out of the constitution. We just weren’t asked that question. Despite that, it was an interesting period in our history because showed that Ireland was beginning to change. At that time Mary Robinson was president and we felt that we could actually make some progress.
The #MeToo campaign this year has been very interesting. We have to carry on that work and not just leave it on the pages of social media. We have to make sure that we put in place the structures, regulations and the punishments for people who do not respect women.
Your passion for activism throughout the 1970’s & 80’s was spurred on by the unequal treatment of women in many facets of life; do you feel that Ireland is a better place for women to live now, overall?
On the whole, yes. I do think that there have been some very significant changes. Perhaps the most important one is that women now are not prepared to be treated differently or less well than men. That has been a huge feud, so to speak, over two to three generations now. But at the same time I do believe that some things remain very, very difficult for women. I have always said that there are two main planks to women’s equality and women’s freedom. One is sexual and reproductive freedom which is really crucial. The other one of course is our economic independence and freedom.
Progression has been inching along on both scores. It is definitely getting somewhat better, but it is very slow progress. One of the problems is that as soon as we have any difficulty in the economic system, as we did so dramatically here in Ireland, you see that it is women who suffer in particularly acute ways. Because women are at the coal face of family life, because women are seen as being more vulnerable in so many ways – I always hesitate to say, “Oh no, it’s much better now.” We have to keep on fighting.
I think the #MeToo campaign this year has been very interesting. We have to carry on that work and not just leave it on the pages, so to speak, of social media. We have to make sure that we put in place the structures, regulations and the punishments for people who do not respect women. The people who maltreat women. People who treat women with cruelty and sometimes with violence.
I was heavily involved in the Marriage Equality campaign in Ireland (Ailbhe was a founding board member of Marriage Equality, and an Executive member of the successful Yes Equality referendum campaign to achieve equal marriage rights for LGBT people) and the result of that referendum showed that people really had opened their minds and were saying, “Look, let’s get on, there’s absolutely no reason why lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people should be treated any differently.” That was, of course, a wonderful victory and incredibly encouraging. The campaign to Repeal the Eighth, however, is notably different.
While it was difficult for people to talk about lesbian and gay sexuality, it wasn’t too difficult to talk about marriage. This campaign however is genuinely more difficult for people to talk about – it’s more difficult to talk about health, it’s more difficult to talk about bodies, and much more difficult to talk about women’s health and reproductive health. They are definitely different campaigns but you do see that conversation opening up and there’s a more generous and compassionate spirit in Ireland on certain social and sexuality issues than there was when I was a girl growing up in this country.
We can’t go on closing our eyes to the reality of abortion in Ireland; that 3,500 women are going to the UK every year, that there are up to 2,000 women taking the abortion pill illegally without appropriate medical supervision.
When did you form the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment?
It was really the death of Savita Halappanavar that started it (Savita died in hospital a week after she was admitted whilst pregnant. Her husband had repeatedly asked for her pregnancy to be terminated but was refused because there was a foetal heartbeat). A number of us fought very hard to have a law which ultimately became the protection of life during pregnancy Act which would provide for abortion up to a point. We were prepared to fight for that, because we felt that having done that we could then move on to say, “the reason why we have such an incredibly restrictive law is because of the eighth amendment in the constitution. Fundamentally, women are not going to be able to access legal, safe abortion care in this country until we remove that amendment”.
Immediately after the protection of life during pregnancy Act became law we set up the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth as the fundamental first step in lobbying for that amendment to the Constitution. The aim was and is to open up the possibility of legislation in such a way that women will be able to get the services that they need here at home.
If the people of Ireland vote against repealing the eighth amendment, what next for the Coalition? Will there be a next step?
Since 1983 so many of us have, in one way or another, been fighting to ensure that women’s choices are respected. That women’s health is protected. That women’s lives are safe. We will absolutely go on doing that. But, I’m very hopeful that there has been a change of attitude in this country. I’m certain that people recognise that we can’t go on like this. We can’t go on closing our eyes to the reality of abortion in Ireland; that 3,500 women are going to the UK every year, that there are up to 2,000 women taking the abortion pill illegally without appropriate medical supervision.
People want to see change. I am very hopeful that we will remove this highly damaging and also profoundly insulting amendment from the constitution. It is extremely insulting when you think that women are singled out and told that really our bodies are not our own, our decisions are not our own. That we are limited in how we can live our lives. I think that that needs to end. I think that the people of this country generally want that to end. We’re certainly going to carry on fighting until we remove that restriction from our Constitution.
We are not trying so much to persuade, it is more about allowing people the space to think it through for themselves. What we’re looking for, very simply, is the repeal of the 8th amendment and abortion provision here in Ireland for women who need it.
I think that the part younger voters play will be important, but actually, as an older voter myself, I know there are many, many people like myself who just think, “Look, we’ve been through this for long enough, that’s enough suffering, that’s enough distress, lets put an end to that now and do something right”.