It is tempting to look from Australia to the result on the Emerald Isle with excitement and momentum, wondering where might be our next focus for reform in reproductive healthcare rights. But before we do, it is worth spending a moment reflecting on how the campaign to repeal the eighth succeeded.

First and foremost, this was a change driven from below. It was absolutely correct to put trust in ordinary people, that they would support trusting women to make decisions about their own bodies.

This started with the radical experiment of the Citizens’ Assembly. A broadly representative, randomly selected group of citizens were charged with the duty of considering constitutional reform in respect to this issue. Their response broke the deadlock created by the accepted wisdom of party politics, that abortion is electoral poison. On one level, this was unsurprising. Abortion is the kind of policy area that benefits from considered reflection rather than sloganeering, where data and expert testimony can be both varied and revealing, and difficult ethical quandaries are best resolved by resisting judgment and respecting autonomy. Save for the last of these, the broad contours of such a task are not altogether dissimilar to the job we give to juries in legal trials. Rather than appointing a few technocratic experts or peacocking politicians to make a decision on behalf of many, in this situation, the strength of a jury of peers engaged in decision-making was on display.

Of course, such a process might be participatory, but it is not technically democratic. On its own, the Citizens’ Assembly was not actually accountable to anyone. This is why the referendum that came afterwards was so critically important – it provided a mass endorsement of a collectively determined policy proposal. It put on display the clear potential of asking everyday people difficult weighty questions, outside of the usual voting every few years for various rotating members of the political class. Exit polls show that a surprisingly large number of people who voted for repeal prioritised women’s bodily autonomy over their own personal views on abortion. This is an astonishingly sophisticated response to an issue that is often subject to inflammatory politics, and represents a perspective that is rarely a feature of top-down forms of politics.

Mass forms of decision making also transform how the left does politics. This referendum required campaigners to get organised, to find ways to make complex arguments to people one-on-one and to listen to their concerns and respond. It compelled activists to commit to the bread and butter work of politics, to convince people of an alternative. Convince – not shame, not inspire – but have conversations that involve listening, talking and finding common ground. There is certainly a place for propaganda in politics, but there is also perhaps an abundance of it in an age dominated by ephemera and at times vacuous social media commentary. The work of convincing people involves skills that the left must spend time improving if we are to win people to the cause of equality, liberty and fairness.

We must be sceptical of any future proposals that denigrate mass participation in policy and decision-making. We need more democracy, not less. There is no doubt that these processes can be challenging and at times heated, but it is also clear that they are an important way to give rights meaning. Enshrining rights in law is about trust; it is about taking power away from the collective in specific fields and marking out space socially for the individual that is sacrosanct. Among other things, this requires a level of respect: faith that individual autonomy will be used with care and an understanding of responsibility. These rights are at their strongest when they have been argued for broadly, rather than simply decreed. The politics of trust is built from below, not handed down from above.

We can apply these political lessons in Australia. Rather than appealing to the powers that be, activists need to get organised, and campaigners must work together to compel law-makers to act. The single biggest challenge is getting the question on the public agenda. If politicians are not prepared to decriminalise abortion in places like Queensland and New South Wales, we should be advocating for experimental ways of allowing for greater participation in these policy debates, to circumvent the party-political inertia. We can do this with confidence that if given the chance, and with hard work and organisation, we can win people to the cause of trusting women.

Success breeds success. The fact that women have won their rights in Ireland, against formidable opponents such as the Catholic Church and American anti-choice dollars, gives us pause to consider why it is that Australian women have been denied similar rights. Our sisters in vast sections of Australia have their autonomy criminalised and their health compromised. We should not leave them behind, but rather scale up the features of the campaign that allowed our Irish sisters to win.


Image: March for Choice in Dublin, 2012 – William Murphy / flickr

Lizzie O'Shea

Lizzie O’Shea is a lawyer. Her book Future Histories (Verso 2019) is about the politics and history of technology.

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  1. Absolutely. There are lessons to be learned and applied and agree success breeds success. We still have much to do in our daily and community & political lives to continue to ensure all women in Australia and everywhere else live full rights based lives. We can and must do it.

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