In May 2018, the people of Ireland voted to overturn the Irish ban on abortion and introduce legislation around the termination of pregnancy. It was a landside referendum result, with 66% voting ‘Yes’. The level of turnout and the extent of the victory were both testament to the campaign devised by Together for Yes, an umbrella group made up of over 70 organisations, groups and communities from across Irish civil society. Now that the Supreme Court has ruled against the right to abortion in the US, it’s important to understand what made this campaign messaging and behaviour so successful, the reasoning behind it, and what other countries with abortion rights under threat can learn from this experience.
Abortion is one of the most politically divisive subjects in the western world. People on both sides of the debate believe strongly that they are unequivocally ‘right’ and have a tendency to vilify the other side. From a moral point of view, both camps believe that they occupy the ‘high ground’ and find it hard to listen openly to those they disagree with. From an emotional point of view, debates can get heated and personal, and many bystanders fear getting caught in the crossfire.
“From a moral point of view, both camps believe that they occupy the ‘high ground’ and find it hard to listen openly to those they disagree with.”
The 2018 Irish abortion referendum proposed providing abortion to more Irish women on home soil, repealing the 8th Amendment of the constitution. Polling showed there were questions from society as to how broad abortion provision should be: what circumstances should someone be able to access abortion – personal choice, rape, fatal foetal abnormalities, a danger to life? After how many weeks of gestation? Should there be a waiting time between decision and procedure? Should abortion require one or more medical approvals? When we conducted qualitative research in late 2016 on behalf of the ‘Yes’ campaign, we found that many people were highly conflicted about allowing abortion to take place in Ireland. In addition, the electorate feared that the campaign from both sides would be angry, militant and divisive, which made some want to opt out from the whole debate. ‘Yes’ campaigners worried that low voter turnout would hurt their chances of success.
The first strategic decision for us was to focus on ‘undecided’ voters. These voters did not see abortion in black and white. They cared about the wellbeing of women but did not think about abortion access in terms of rights or personal autonomy. We called this voter group ‘the concerned centre’ and knew that we could not force them to change their minds – we needed to listen to them and talk about abortion in ways that resonated with their own moral priorities. We needed to ask them to care for women, rather than instruct them to acknowledge women’s rights. We needed to acknowledge they felt empathy with women making an abortion decision but they also felt sad that she didn’t want or feel able to have a child at this juncture. We need to help them believe it was possible to collectively make this change together in Irish society. This led to the development of the Together for Yes campaign values: care, compassion and change.
Second, we recognised that the concerned centre wanted to balance care for women with the needs of society at large. They saw abortion as strongly impacting women but also having ripple effects on partners and existing (or potential) families. The ‘Yes’ campaign needed to acknowledge that abortion could be a difficult dilemma for more than one person – from sexual partners to family members – rather than always an individual choice for the pregnant person. Together for Yes needed to reflect this complexity while guiding the concerned centre towards supporting abortion in Ireland. This led to a finely tuned message of care in the launch poster: “Sometimes a private matter needs public support”.
Third, we identified the trustworthy experts that could help the concerned centre feel comfortable voting ‘Yes’. Qualitative and quantitative research showed that medical doctors and nurses were the people that the electorate trusted to know what the best caring framework would be for Irish society. Knowing that medical professionals had ethical training and experience grounded in the Hippocratic Oath to ‘do no harm’ gave the public reassurance that these abortions would be provided in a humane way. This guided Together for Yes to work closely with eminent obstetricians and authorities in maternity and reproductive care and partner with groups like Doctors for Choice.
Fourth, we had to help the concerned centre understand that abortion was already a reality for many Irish people. We did this by raising consciousness around the amount of people who had already had abortions, the amount travelling to the UK to get abortions and the amount of abortion pills that were imported into the country. This reality check needed to be delivered in a calm but consistent manner to help people accept that voting No would not change these facts, but voting Yes would allow people get the supportive abortion care they needed safely, legally, and in their own country. This led Together for Yes to start a ‘story lab’ which collected and disseminated real stories of Irish people travelling overseas to receive abortions, women taking the abortion pill without medical supervision or being refused abortion despite serious complications in pregnancy, alongside Facebook campaigns like In Her Shoes.
The final critical strategic decision was to develop Together for Yes as an umbrella campaign co-led by the National Women’s Council, the Coalition to Repeal the 8th and the Abortion Rights Campaign. This required calm, strong and tenacious leadership which kept members focused on the end-game, rather than fuelling factional fighting. They sometimes needed to negotiate with their own ‘base’ of pro-choice organisations, especially around emotive issues like whether there should be any gestation limits or waiting times on abortion access or whether women should have to wait between deciding to have an abortion and having the procedure but the ‘Yes’ campaign leadership kept focused on the need for positive change and momentum. As one ‘Yes’ politician expressed mid-campaign, “Some progress is better than no progress”.
“Put the societal mission front and centre – make it clear that providing access to abortion for women is more than a rights issue and will contribute to overall societal health and wellbeing.”
The fight for the right to abortion might have been won in Ireland, but abortion rights are under threat worldwide. As we watch the American Supreme Court reverse legislation protecting abortion access in the US, what can other countries learn from the Together for Yes campaign? Some pro-choice activists in the US have already been inspired by the Irish campaign in the materials developed by ASO Communications around ‘Someone You Love’.
First, put the societal mission front and centre – make it clear that providing access to abortion for women is more than a rights issue and will contribute to overall societal health and wellbeing. Second, practice a politics of inclusion and collaboration and build a shared umbrella platform for change. Third, recognise and respect what other people feel and want – even if you strongly disagree with them. Respect their moral integrity and work with them to co-create a journey towards a more compassionate supportive society.
Listening openly and working together is far from easy, but the success of the Together for Yes campaign shows that it is possible to work with and across very different groups of people to achieve progressive change, even on polarising issues like abortion.
Karen Hand is a social psychologist and brand strategist who conducted the qualitative research with the public and politicians to guide the Together for Yes campaign.