Irish abortion referendum: The people travelling #HomeToVote

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Media captionIrish women on why they’re travelling #HomeToVote for repeal referendum

Irish voters from around the world are returning to cast their ballots in Friday’s referendum on whether or not to repeal the country’s Eighth Amendment. That clause in the Irish constitution in effect outlaws abortion by giving equal rights to the unborn.

The #HomeToVote hashtag has seen a flurry of activity in recent days, as men and women share their journeys home.

From car shares, to offers of beds for the night, the movement has been propelled by social media. A similar movement also took off ahead of the 2015 vote that legalised same-sex marriage.

Irish abortion referendum: The people travelling #HomeToVote
Irish abortion referendum: The people travelling #HomeToVote

People on both sides of the argument are travelling back to vote, but the movement has been spearheaded by the London Irish Abortion Rights Commission – a pro-choice group that believes some 40,000 people who recently left Ireland could be eligible to vote.

The Eighth Amendment came into being after a 1983 referendum, so no-one under the age of 54 has voted on this before. For many, it is a once in a lifetime opportunity to have their say on Ireland’s abortion laws.

Thousands of Irish women travel every year for abortion procedures in Britain. For women making the reverse trip to vote Yes to repeal the Eighth, the journey has a lot of symbolism.

“I think of it every time I’ve travelled to and from the UK; it’s always on my mind,” says 21-year-old student Bláithín Carroll.

Image copyrightBláithín Carroll
Image caption Bláithín Carroll says the vote is a chance for Ireland to “really progress” as a modern country

Karen Fahey, 26, and 24-year-old Maria Mcentee are going back from London to vote against the change.

They argue that young women opposed to abortion have been stigmatised for their views in the run-up to the referendum and believe many others like them have kept their opinions quiet.

“A lot of people don’t want to get involved in the polarising debates online,” Maria says. “But you can kind of infer who is voting no, because they’ll be the people who don’t have repeal stickers on their picture or post things about repeal.”

The 24-year-old said she had always been “a bit indifferent” to the abortion issue until she saw a campaign video showing a procedure.

Image copyrightSupplied
Image caption Karen Fahey (left) and Maria Mcentee (right) are a part of London-Irish United for Life

Currently living in the UK where abortion is legal (except in Northern Ireland), Karen says she has concerns about the proposal presenting abortion as “the first and only choice” for women with unplanned pregnancies.

“I don’t want to see that coming to Ireland, and I think we can do a lot better,” she says. “We should be investing and providing support for women in crisis pregnancies.”

“In those very difficult situations when there’s a very severe disability, we should provide more child benefit and support women in education.”

Abortion is only currently allowed in Ireland when the woman’s life is at risk, and not in cases of rape, incest or foetal-fatal abnormality (FFA).

Round trip from Japan

Clara Kumagi, a keen repealer, has taken time off work in Tokyo to travel back thousands of miles to cast her vote.

“I want to live in a country where I feel safe, where I know that I have the autonomy to make decisions about my own body,” the 29-year-old says.

Image copyrightClara Kumagai
Image caption Clara says she always knew she wanted to return #HomeToVote to repeal, after being ineligible for the 2015 equal marriage ballot

“For me, the act of travelling was something that I felt was important to do. How many kilometres do Irish women travel every year? For me 10,000km felt like the least I could do.”

Her student brother is also travelling back from Stockholm to vote. Irish men living as far away as Buenos Aires and Africa have posted online about their journeys home. Pro-repeal men have shared their support for the movement using the #MenForYes hashtag.

Mother-of-three Amy Fitzgerald, 38, is taking three flights to return to Ireland from Prince Edward Island in Canada. She will return just two days later.

Image copyrightAmy Fitzgerald
Image caption Amy’s flights were a birthday present bought by husband Padraig, whom she describes as her “favourite feminist”

“There’s always people who will need an abortion,” she says, reacting to accusations that the proposed new law could lead to abortion “on demand” as a back-up to contraception.

The government’s proposed abortion bill would allow unrestricted terminations up to 12 weeks, with allowances made afterward on health grounds.

“No-one wants one until you actually need one. No little girl dreams of having one,” Amy says.

Irish actress Lauryn Canny, 19, says that concern over abortion access loomed over her teenage years. She recalls being “constantly terrified” of the risks of having sex while growing up.

“I remember one of my friends said: Well if I got pregnant, I would just commit suicide. I couldn’t tell my Mam,” she says.

Image copyrightLauryn Canny
Image caption Lauryn (second left) pictured with her sisters and mother, believes every vote will count

“I have two baby sisters now, and they’re six and seven, and I just really hope that when they are growing up they feel safer and feel like they’re growing up in a more compassionate Ireland that will care for them if they’re in crisis.”

Lauryn is returning from Los Angeles to vote after her grandmother organised a “whip-round” to raise money for her flights.

Student Sarah Gillespie, 21, has also travelled back from the US to vote – but for the other side.

She felt so strongly about the issue that she cut short her time studying abroad in Pennsylvania to return to Ireland to canvas for a No vote.

Image copyrightSarah Gillespie
Image caption Physics student Sarah rearranged her flights home to canvas against the repeal

She describes herself as a feminist, but believes the rights of the unborn should be considered too.

Having previously voted for marriage equality, she wants people to recognise that the issues are different, and No voters are not simply voting according to strict religious beliefs.

“I would never judge or get angry at a woman who went abroad, I just wish there was better support here,” Sarah says.

Sarah encourages people to read the legislation itself rather than each side’s propaganda, in order to come to an independent conclusion.

Unlike in other countries, most eligible voters outside Ireland have to physically travel back to cast their ballot.

Only those who have lived away for less than 18 months are legally entitled to take part in the referendum.

Because of that rule, Oxford University lecturer Jennifer Cassidy is ineligible to vote – she believes that Ireland should relax its strict regulations.

Hers is one of several UK institutions whose student unions are offering to help subsidise travel.

Image copyrightJennifer Cassidy
Image caption The 31-year-old helped support the motion, alongside a number of Irish students

“I understand it to an extent – Ireland has a huge global community and policing that would be difficult,” she says.

“But it seems illogical and counter-intuitive to the Irish narrative, which is one of emigrating for a while and then coming home.”

Under the current system, people are not routinely removed from Ireland’s electoral register, so polling cards are often sent to the family homes of emigrants who are no longer eligible to vote.

If the result is as close as some predict, many believe questions over voter eligibility may spark complaints on both sides.

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