Helen Jennings and Niamh Ryan both hope to see Ireland's abortion ban repealedCatherine Lally

“It’s really Ireland moving forward into the present,” said Niamh Ryan, a second-year Magdalene student from Dublin, on the prospect of the country’s abortion ban being lifted. Ryan is one of at least seven Cambridge students who plan to fly back to Ireland next week, despite exam season, to vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment of the Irish Constitution, which has left reproductive rights in Ireland some of the most restrictive in Europe.

On 25th May, Irish voters will decide whether to repeal the country’s ban on abortion outside of extreme cases where the mother’s life is endangered. The postal vote has not been extended to those living outside Irish soil, leaving Cambridge students who wish to vote with no choice but to travel home. In the 2015 referendum, thousands returned home to make Ireland the first country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage by popular vote.

Funded by the NUS Women’s Campaign, the CUSU Women’s Campaign has offered nine bursaries worth up to £110 each to Irish students at Cambridge who plan to vote ‘yes’ on the secret ballot.

Ryan, who is flying home to vote ‘yes’, labelled the referendum “a monumental chance for our generation”. “I’m very proud to be Irish”, she said, but noted her disappointment in Ireland’s “restrictive rules on abortion, and the fact that we have laws that are so lacking in compassion for people, and for women.”

“I’m very, very proud to be Irish but something I'm not proud of is our restrictive rules, and the fact that we have laws that are so lacking in compassion”

Ryan is reminded of the women who fly from Ireland to the United Kingdom to access abortion services – estimated as just under ten a day in 2015 – when she flies from Dublin to Stansted airport at the start of a new Cambridge term. “I’m sure there’s been women on that flight before that are traveling to get abortions […] and I always think that woman is at such a tough time in her life and she’s afraid to tell people […] and here’s me going off to Cambridge, which is like a dream come true.” She said “it was the contrast between those two things” that made her realise she could not miss her chance to vote.

She added that her stance on reproductive rights changed as a formerly pro-life teenager, with the realisation that if she became pregnant, she “would have had to give up everything [she had] been working towards. However, she added that “it’s not about me really, it’s also the women who just couldn’t afford to have a child,” or whose wellbeing would be adversely affected by being forced to carry a pregnancy to term.

Niamh Ryan is travelling home to Dublin to vote 'yes'Catherine Lally

Eimear Ní Chathail, a third-year also at Magdalene from Dublin, said she feels that if the ban lifts, it will mark the end of a “certain sense that Ireland is a morally-superior Catholic country”. Ní Chathail criticised a “two-facedness about Irish society”, where some from the ‘no’ campaign will claim that Ireland is “is like the defender of the unborn,” when in reality “Irish people do continue to have abortions“, and the amendment is only “forcing them to travel to England for it”.

Expressing her disappointment at the lack of an available postal vote, Ní Chathail noted that the “momentum to change” voting laws may come from showing “how much people living abroad do care about their franchise” by returning to vote.

Ní Chathail emphasised that she feels she must vote because she believes that “the future of the country is tied up with [her] own future”, as she intends to go back to live in Ireland after graduation.

All of the women interviewed by Varsity found that moving to study in England made them notice how different feminist discussions can be in a country where abortions are readily accessible. Ní Chathail said that at her school “there was a lot of quite strong anti-abortion discussion,” and students were made to watch “a video of abortion,” a fact she said shocks the English students she tells.

Molly O’Gorman, a first year at King’s from Dalkey who is flying back to vote, said that the word abortion was banned at her school and her summer camp, because it caused such “vicious, vicious arguments,” while at Cambridge, abortion is “something that we take for granted”.

“Please go home and vote to be our ‘yes’.”

Ryan said that before arriving at University, she had not “ever had a conversation about feminism where we haven’t discussed abortion” – lying in sharp contrast to a feminist discussion group she attended in her first year, where abortion rights were not mentioned at all.

O’Gorman described the political climate when she returned to Dublin over the Easter vacation as “very polemical” and “so, so angry,” with “pictures of dead babies being thrown in your face” throughout the ‘no’ campaign. She said that “the debate is so polarized that you meet very few people who are on the fence.”

O’Gorman said that she believes that “for reproductive laws to have any meaning we need a total change of sexual education” and “a total reform of the way we handle sexual assault”, for a true cultural shift. However, she also thinks repealing the Eighth will remove a huge barrier, because “if it can happen to anyone, and anyone may be in need of that service through no fault of their own.”

Jemima Higgins and Helen Jennings, two Northern Irish students campaigning for repealCatherine Lally

Some students from Northern Ireland, which currently has similar restrictions on abortions, have been actively campaigning for a ‘yes’ vote in the South.

Jemima Higgins, a Christ’s second-year from Antrim, said she believes that “if the referendum does pass,” it may draw attention to the lack of abortion rights afforded to Northern Irish women, as opposed to women living in all other parts of the United Kingdom.

Abortions for Northern Irish women on the British mainland are NHS-funded due to an amendment from Labour MP Stella Creasy in 2017. Before then, Northern Irish women found themselves paying £900 for abortions in Great Britain. Higgins praised Creasy and the work of the London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign, but noted that travel is still not funded for Northern Irish women, “and there’s still no funding for Southern Irish women.”

“So often, people will say things like ‘imagine not being able to have an abortion’ – I have never had to imagine.”

If the abortion ban is lifted in the Republic, Northern Irish women may be able to have an abortion in the Republic, instead of travelling to England. However, she noted that the legislation is not guaranteed to extend “provision to Northern Irish women.”

Helen Jennings, a second-year Pembroke student from Down in Northern Ireland, believes that Northern Ireland being left as one of the few places where abortions are not available in Europe “might bring it to the attention of political forces much more, because it’s embarrassing” for the government. She added that placing Northern Ireland “outside of the rest of the UK” in political discourse allows situations that would be treated as “really quite huge issues” if they were to take place in England, can be “passed off” in Northern Ireland.


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Niamh Curran, a second year at Fitzwilliam from Northern Ireland, noted that English students often hold misconceptions about Northern Ireland, and said she feels compelled “to inform people that we don’t have access to abortion,” adding that “so often, people will say things like ‘imagine not being able to have an abortion’ – I have never had to imagine.”

As the devolved government in Northern Ireland collapsed in January 2017, Jennings said that campaigners are “completely without any means of political activism to make the law change” in Northern Ireland, and are instead channeling campaigning efforts towards the abortion referendum in the Republic.

Jennings added that she “stands in solidarity with our sisters and the Republic of Ireland,” and asked Irish students – if they are registered to vote – to “please go home and vote to be our ‘yes’.”

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