Editor’s note: Less than five years ago in Ireland, a woman getting an abortion could get a longer sentence than her rapist. That changed with a referendum in 2018, where the people of Ireland voted for abortion rights. The following article is written by one of the organizers of the Yes campaign: a campaign that reached out to people leading up to the referendum to get them to vote Yes for abortion rights. IN this piece, Clodagh Schofield describes her experiences with using powerful conversations as a tactic in the campaign.
As social beings, we tend to be reluctant to voice our opinions if we believe that those around us would get uncomfortable because of it. It might be because we think others don’t agree with us, or simply because the topic is an awkward one (like abortion). Voicing our opinions in such situations can be a small, yet powerful, way to start a discussion on a topic. It can lead to an exchange of ideas and people beginning to understand each other’s perspectives. Sometimes, it can also be part of a wider strategy to influence public opinion.
While DGR does not believe that changing public opinion in itself can lead to a cultural shift required to save the world, we do believe it is an important part of our movement. It is also a tactic that you can use with the people around you which requires relatively less time and energy and a higher amount of courage. Let us know if you have started uncomfortable conversations around you, and the effects you observed.
By Clodagh Schofield/Commons Library
Overturning the abortion ban in Ireland meant equipping people to share their stories and spark conversations with their friends and family.
In Ireland on May 25, 2018, the Yes campaign to repeal the nation’s 8th Amendment abortion ban won after receiving nearly two-thirds of the over 2.1 million votes cast.
The victory resulted in part from people across the country having hard conversations about abortion. Let’s take a look at how the campaign helped start and support the tough talks needed to shift perceptions about deeply held values.
In Ireland’s landslide win for abortion rights, a long-silent majority appeared to vote Yes. The Yes vote also won decisively in rural counties thought to be the heartland of the No campaign. Why?
After the vote, 39% of people polled about what changed their minds to Yes cited a conversation with family or friends. Thousands of people with traumatic abortion experiences broke their silence and inspired others to speak up.
But it wasn’t by accident that people across Ireland had these difficult conversations over tea, at sporting events on the weekend, in the car, after school and online. In fact, when polled in January, four and a half months before the vote, over half of voters said they would be too uncomfortable to talk about abortion with people in their lives.
The Yes campaign helped people start and maintain conversations, modeled positive values-based talk that didn’t play into the opposition’s messaging frame and ran a grassroots effort that gave people agency over their conversations.
The campaign also recognised the value of each person. In Ireland, where abortion has been banned since the 8th Amendment was passed in 1983, everyone has a story about abortion. When it comes time to vote, a person needs just one story to change or affirm how they mark the ballot.
I worked on the Yes campaign and see valuable lessons in sparking difficult conversations for campaigners working elsewhere in the world on issues that, like the Ireland abortion referendum, are steeped in centuries-old mixes of institutions, politics and values.
Help people start conversations in diverse ways
It’s not easy to talk about abortion on a personal level. Different people need different prompts and various levels of support.
Groups used a variety of approaches to help people start conversations. Amnesty International partnered with the Minister for Health, Simon Harris, and asked members to pledge to have conversations with those around them on itstime.ie (unfortunately the site is now retired). Local groups of the official Yes campaign held some amazing conversation cafes. My favourite tactic was so simple: the Abortion Rights Campaign produced badges for supporters which read “Talk to me about Repeal.”
At Uplift, we ran a number of different campaigns to encourage people to start conversations. We also equipped people to have effective and meaningful conversations.
Early in the campaign, we ran an online conversations training on Crowdcast. We focused on using stories and values based communication to approach undecided voters. We followed up conversations with a microsite, letstalkrepeal.ie [Link not working 27 April, 2022]. Engagement with these resources was strong. Feedback was also good. The program provided an accessible low bar ask for people who supported Yes and wanted to step up but not into leadership roles.
We launched Mobilisr [link not found 29 April 2022], a peer-to-peer messaging program, in the run up to the vote. People used it to get in touch with their Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and Telegram contacts to either start a conversation about abortion care, or ask them to get out and vote. People were slow to start using Mobilisr but activity picked up once users had used the tool at least once.
By 25 May, the app converted extremely well – especially as users could select as many people in their contacts as they chose to send a prefilled but customisable message. Lightweight and adaptable, this tool shows huge promise for starting conversations with users outside of a campaign’s existing reach.
We segmented lists into people who were a Yes vote, people voting No, and undecided voters. Strong pro-choice members were recruited to have conversations with undecided voters. One volunteer trained and supported a team of “e-Repealers” who offered undecided people the opportunity to have a conversation via email using Freshdesk. Though at times a little rough and ready, this program was entirely volunteer run. The program fostered earnest and often complicated discussions between very different people.
Focus on your values and vision, not the opposition’s framing
Campaigning was organised locally but most Yes groups used messaging focused on care, compassion and change.
At Uplift we worked with Anat Shenker-Osorio to develop messaging. We talked about abortion as a part of healthcare and shared stories of individuals instead of speaking of women collectively. We also shared a vision of the society where everyone has the freedom to decide whether and when to become a parent.
The tone of the Yes campaign paved the way for powerful conversations between people on an issue that’s historically untouchable. Even the No campaign acknowledged that Yes campaign messaging grounded the debate and prevented it from becoming as toxic as it could have been.
Empower people with campaign ownership
The Abortion Rights Campaign, one of three partners in the official Yes campaign, is an unashamedly radical organisation with no paid staff and a flat structure. Local groups have a strong sense of campaign ownership built through years of distributed community organising and grassroots fundraising.
But a campaign with few paid staff still needs leaders. The referendum campaign facilitated opportunities for people to step in, learn and take on campaign roles. The challenge was in finding lightweight, scalable and impactful ways to connect and resource them.
A voter only needs one story in mind to vote Yes
In the end, the aim of the Yes campaign was to make space for brave people to talk about their abortion care experiences in a country that banned abortion. We also created a situation in which those stories would have power.
Together4Yes and campaigning NGOs like Uplift and Amnesty International targeted personal story video ads on social media. We gave particular weight to stories of “hard cases.” These included people who were pregnant as a result of incest or sexual assault and cases of fatal foetal abnormality. These stories were so powerful with undecided voters that the No campaign tried to do a double-take in the final week and argue for a compromise that would enable abortion in those cases.
In Her Shoes, a volunteer-run Facebook page, is a great example of how people created a way for others to share personal stories. The format was simple. People sent in their story with a picture of their shoes. Posted anonymously, these stories went viral again and again. It became possible for people to feel surrounded by anonymous women, wearing Vans, sandals, runners and heels, who’ve kept their struggle secret from those around them for years.
By far the most powerful story of the referendum campaign was that of the late Savita Halappanavar. Savita’s parents shared their daughter’s story in one of the most watched videos of the campaign. In it, they called on the people of Ireland to remember their daughter and vote Yes.
Halappanavar had a septic miscarriage and was denied a requested abortion in a hospital when it was determined that her life was not sufficiently threatened. She died shortly thereafter. Eight percent of Yes voters polled by Irish national broadcaster RTE said they voted yes because of Savita.
In the same poll, 43% of Yes voters said people’s personal stories in the media convinced them. 34% cited experiences of people they knew. Creating safe and respectful platforms with reach for these stories was crucial to the success of the Yes campaign, and gave people the tools they needed to talk to those around them.
A people-powered catharsis
As a woman living in Ireland, knowing that this fight was won by the people around me makes me feel that broken trust is now mending. Reflecting on the campaign, many have said that the country is changed forever: stories have come to light that will never be hidden again. In listening, and acting compassionately, we’ve gone through a catharsis.
As an organiser, this campaign taught me that it’s valuable to pick moments when people are passionate and ready to act. As important is providing tools for people to follow through on that passion by connecting with people around them: family, friends and social networks.
People power, properly organised and resourced, can beat a huge budget and Cambridge Analytica style dark ads. More on that later.
The online conversation training by Uplift can be replayed in Crowdcast.
Featured image: A mural outside the Bernard Shaw Pub in Portobello, Dublin depicting Savita Halappanavar by Zcbeaton via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Abortion is one of the tougher talks to have, because the core arguments on both sides are compelling: “A fetus is a human life,” vs. “Every child should be wanted,” and “A woman’s rights over her own body are paramount.”
As a retirement-age male, I’m no longer a direct party to the argument. But having caused five pregnancies in the past, the central point for me was always that the burden of pregnancy, childbirth, and post-childbirth responsibilities fall overwhelmingly on the woman.
Thus, my position was always some version of, “You decide what to do about the pregnancy, and I’ll support you 100%.”
In my case, the first woman wanted the child, didn’t want me involved at all, and didn’t even tell me she was pregnant. All I know is that I have or had a son, who would now be 55 years old. I offered my support, but the mother declined (it was overseas, I was in the military, and the U.S. was effectively an occupying power). As a result, I don’t even know the child’s name.
The second instance was with the love of my life. She wanted a child or two. But we both knew we weren’t ready for parental responsibilities. As a result, she had an illegal abortion, where she was driven blindfolded to the doctor’s office, and was criticized for being a few dollars short of his usual, $500 fee. (I sold my car to pay for the abortion.)
She later married another man. When we reconnected, 28 years later, she couldn’t find anything positive to say about her husband, but said that her two children were the joy of her life.
The third was my ex-wife, who never wanted children, and neither did I. I’ve never really understood the impulse to spend the best years of life raising adult-trainees, and in a world that is already overpopulated, by at least a factor of ten.
She had the abortion, as well, and we separated, 19 months later. She subsequently went back to school, and earned a Ph.D. in education. She has now been happily remarried for close to 30 years, and she and her current husband work in university administration.
The fourth woman who became pregnant while we were dating didn’t even tell me about it, and I learned later, from a mutual friend. She also had an abortion. Twenty years later, however, she decided she wanted a child. And, because her partner at the time wasn’t fertile, she asked me if I would be a surrogate father. After considerable thought, I declined, not wanting to be an absentee father, with no parental rights.
Number 5 came well into a four-year relstionship, though not one that was destined to last. She wanted children, but hadn’t said so. I still didn’t want children, while she wanted the father of hers to want them as much as she did.
Two years later, she married, had two children, and is one of the best mothers I have ever known.
I subsequently met and worked with another woman, whose story was similar. She’d had two abortions, later married and had two children, and told me that those four decisions (the two abortions, and the two children) were the best decisions of her life. No regrets either way.
More recently, I met a woman who took a different path. She gave birth through an “open adoption” program, got to know the couple who adopted her child, and became a virtual member of their family, too.
Once a month, she spent a Saturday with her biological son, and was also invited over for his birthdays, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.
She died tragically, when her son was four, and the entire adopting family was at her memorial service. As for her son, he still had one of his two mothers, and was left with loving memories of the other.
As for me, one of my three big regrets in life is not having had a daughter. (Little boys scare me, due to a fear that they might be as much of a problem growing up as I was for my parents!)
I dealt with the absence of a daughter by becoming a fan of a women’s college basketball team. Every year or two, I chose a new “fantasy daughter,” and followed her career as best I could.
One of my “fantasy daughters” is now a successful attorney. Another is an M.D., who teaches medicine at a university medical school. Another was killed in a car wreck, 20+ years ago, after working late at the office. And I’m no closer to getting over her loss than if I had been standing at the bedside, the moment she was born.
The “fetus is a human life” argument bothers me a bit. But overall, I will always believe that, prior to birth, the mother is the only “person” inside her body, and that she has as much right to terminate her pregnancy as she has to eat, sleep, or cut her toenails.
Personal stories and the like may work well for a personal issue like abortion — though for the tiny minority of us who prioritize the Earth and all the life here and see humans as just one among millions or tens of millions of species on Earth, abortion is first and foremost part of the human overpopulation issue — but this is much more difficult when dealing with environmental issues. Whether root cause issues like overpopulation and overconsumption, land use issues, or explicit wildlife issues, these issues don’t lend themselves to personal stories very well. I’ve told people the personal story about how the land on which I used to ride my horse was destroyed by developing it as an exurb of Chicago (not that the farms that occupied part of that land weren’t also destruction, but they were nowhere near as bad as the “development”), but that story doesn’t seem to have much if any effect.
Because humans are generally very unevolved mentally and spiritually, they don’t see themselves as just part of the web of life, and so don’t relate to the land, air, water, sky, or other species. Those lives are just nice things to most people, so my story about the destruction of them doesn’t evoke much of a reaction.
I don’t have a solution here, just raising a problem I see with this tactic. I’m all for trying personal stories and anything else that might get people to care a lot more about the natural environment, but we should be aware that what worked for Ireland’s abortion campaign may very well not work for us.