Olivia Harris Documenting the people and propoganda of Ireland’s anti-abortion laws

Cover Image - Olivia Harris

In May 2018, Ireland voted overwhelmingly to overturn its strict anti-abortion laws. In the deeply religious country, a new consensus emerged led by a group of women for whom enough was enough.

British photographer Olivia Harris traveled to Ireland several times over the course of a year to document how the campaign was changing Irish culture and society.

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I was having a chat with an Irish friend of mine, and she happened to mention that abortion was still illegal in Ireland. I couldn't believe it, and that's what started me off. My grandmother was Irish and Catholic, so it was also interesting to me from that side of things.

It took a little while to figure out how I was going to photograph it, because it's such a nuanced subject and obviously tricky in terms of access.

It was really important to me not to show women who were guilty, or ashamed, or victims. I think often women are shown that way in these kinds of stories. But the fact that 3,000 women a year were traveling to the UK for abortions was mind-boggling. I wanted to show how it had come about in this day and age. I guess the cultural background is really important in that.

There was also the wonderful Irish sense of humor I wanted to show.

I was trying to be neutral. It was really important for me to show respect for both sides because it’s such a polarized debate.

The Irish are wonderfully open but traditionally they have struggled to talk about sex or reproduction as openly. They seem unable to talk about very private things.

The pro-choice side created a lot of artwork around the campaign. I realized that quite strongly mirrored some of the theater and performance that was happening within the Catholic Church. It felt totally natural that people who've grown up around the Catholic Church would use a bit of theater in their own campaigns.

It was different in different parts of the country. Dublin was very pro-choice but outside, especially in the west of Ireland, it's a lot more religious. More traditional.

I went up Croagh Patrick with a group of men who climbed the mountain annually to beg for forgiveness for the sins of men who haven't protected women who may have had an abortion. I was nervous about going along that day because I didn't know how I was going to be received. And actually, they were very, very welcoming and kept giving me little prayer books and saying they were going to pray for me. They were anxious about my soul. It was very endearing.

It was amazing when people were flying back from around the world to vote. Right up until the last day, I was speaking to pro-choice people who said the polls were 49/51 against them. So people weren’t truthfully saying how they were going to vote.

The brilliant women running the pro-choice campaign didn't want to challenge people on their religious beliefs. Religion in Ireland is very closely tied up with nationhood, because of the Troubles and the British trying to quash Catholicism. So they didn't want to engage people in that way. They wanted to talk about choice and about access to healthcare. And obviously that was effective. 67% of the population voted to repeal the amendment, which was enormous and a real validation, I think, of the liberal country Irish people want to live in.