science of us

What It’s Like to Be an Abortion-Rights Activist in Ireland

Ailbhe Smyth. Photo: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

On Friday, Ireland will vote whether or not to appeal a 35-year-old constitutional ban on abortion. The Cut spoke to Ailbhe Smyth, an Irish activist and former academic, who has been campaigning for reproductive rights in her country since the 1970s.

I’ve been spit on. I’ve had very nasty, frightening notes left on my car. I used to get phone calls in the middle of the night from people who would recite the rosary when I answered, or sometimes they’d shout obscenities at me. Well, maybe not so much obscenities — actually, no, I do think “baby murderer” or “killer” is a rather obscene thing to say. So, yes. Obscenities. This was all back in the 1980s and 1990s, before cell phones. I eventually learned my lesson, and made my number unlisted.

I’ve campaigned for Irish women’s rights, including abortion rights, since I was quite a young woman, in the 1970s. I’m 72 now, and I head the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment. The Eighth Amendment is the clause to our constitution that prohibits abortion, and we are looking at a referendum at the end of this week, when we hope to repeal it.

When I started this work, it created what I called a Siberian wind, which would blow between me and certain family members, certain friends. Also, in the late 1990s, I came out as a lesbian. In Ireland, at least at the time, being a feminist, pro-choice, lesbian really did not win you a lot of friends. I felt quite isolated, like I’d been branded as a radical. Which I don’t have a problem with, really, I just happen to have always thought abortion’s not a particularly radical thing to be asking for. Because every single day, there is something between 10 and 12 women that have to go to England for an abortion, which is a terrible thing to have to do. And there are two or three more women every day who take the abortion pill, without having the safety net of medical care or medical supervision if something goes wrong.

It was often quite difficult, dealing with friends and family members who didn’t understand. I have some painful memories, which, even now, I don’t particularly want to talk about. It’s still painful.

But I would say now, I don’t feel that Siberian wind so much anymore. I don’t feel that distance, that coldness, between myself and my friends and my family. That’s not to say that this is true of the whole country — we still have a battle on our hands. But in my own immediate circles, I don’t feel that iciness anymore. Maybe they’re just used to me by now. But generally, people are more willing to talk about it, more than they ever have been since I started doing this work. You know, I grew up in an Ireland where you didn’t even talk about sex, never mind talking about something like contraception or abortion. I didn’t hear the word “lesbian” until I was 21 or something. But gradually, as Ireland has become economically more comfortable, and education has become much more widely available, and people got television and they started traveling — and then, obviously, the internet! — that has opened up this island in a way, so that people are genuinely, I think, much more open and more tolerant.

This work has required me to speak to crowds, sometimes hostile ones (though, again, less so as the years have gone by) which can be a difficult thing for anyone, but especially when you’re naturally shy. I’m not sure you ever do get over it, the shyness, the nervousness. I’m speaking at a big march soon — you know, a big truck, a microphone, all that sort of thing — to a few thousand people. I’m already incredibly nervous about it. For the hour or two beforehand, I will have not just butterflies in my stomach, but real pain in my stomach. I’ve felt quite ill on and off all day, actually, because I’ve been doing media for a ruling we had from our supreme court this morning.

When you stand up to speak in public, and you’re nervous about it, you think the worst that can happen is you make an awful mess of it — you’ll forget what you want to say. And that happens. I think it happens more often to me, now that I’m getting older. What you don’t expect is to be spat on, or called awful names: killer, apostate. Though that’s much rarer now then it was when I first started.

You don’t get over the shyness, in that it never really goes away. But I’ve often thought about the question: What makes the personality of an activist? How is it that I can both be a private person, and also be able to get up on a barricade or a platform and speak to crowds? I think there must be some kind of temperamental disposition there, that makes you question things, that makes you say, “Why should I do that? What’s the reason?” My mother always said that when I was a baby, whenever she would ask me to do something, I would say “no” automatically. And apparently my very small granddaughter — she’s 5 — has the same kind of disposition. And I just think, “Oh my god, god help her parents.” But I am of course also incredibly pleased.

Maybe I’m a tiny bit unusual for having stuck with this for so long. Back in the 1980s, I was fighting for myself, because I was a young woman of childbearing age. And then I had a daughter, and I was really fighting for her rights, to be able to make that choice of abortion, if she needed to.

My daughter has always supported me, but she has other pursuits in her life. I’m the campaigner in the family at the moment. Who knows about my granddaughter! She’s just been reading Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, and she’s absolutely loving it. I think that’s a really good indication of a future rebel there. Now I’m in my 70s, and I look at my granddaughter, and I just can’t bear to think that this is unfinished business. I can’t leave this undone for her.

What It’s Like to Be an Abortion-Rights Activist in Ireland