How to Win the Abortion Argument

Activists overseas have lessons for post-Roe America.

Abortion-rights activists march in Dublin.
Deirdre Brennan / Eyevine / Redux

About the author: Helen Lewis is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

In May 2016, three women walked into a police station in Derry, Northern Ireland, and gave themselves up. They were unlikely criminals—all born in the 1940s, they arrived wearing warm coats and jeans. But Colette Devlin, Diana King, and Kitty O’Kane were deadly serious about their willingness to spend years in prison. Their offense: These three women had bought abortion pills on the internet.

I wrote about Devlin, King, and O’Kane in my history of feminism, Difficult Women, because they represented a type of unshowy grassroots activism that I find humbling and that will become ever more important in a post-Roe America. If anything close to Justice Samuel Alito’s leaked draft opinion becomes an official Supreme Court ruling this summer, the effect on reproductive freedom will be immediate. Nine states have pre-Roe laws, currently unenforced, to ban all or nearly all abortion; 13 more have post-Roe bans that would be activated by the decision, according to the pro-choice Guttmacher Institute.

When I went to meet the Derry activists, in 2018, Northern Ireland had a near-total ban on abortion, too. Although it is part of the United Kingdom, whose 1967 Abortion Act legalized terminations under certain conditions, Northern Ireland had been granted an exemption. Amid decades of conflict between Catholics and Protestants, leaders of the two religious factions could agree on one thing: They were opposed to a woman’s right to choose. The law in Northern Ireland made no exceptions for rape, incest, or fatal fetal abnormalities.

As always happens with abortion bans, people with resources found a way around the law. Anyone with money traveled across the sea to England, usually Manchester or Liverpool. Others bought pills on the internet. But Devlin, King, and O’Kane had heard about a teenager who’d used the pills and was reported to the police by her housemates. The three abortion-rights advocates believed that her conviction was an abomination—and they gambled that the police would stop pursuing such cases if their actions were subjected to public scrutiny. So they bought the same pills, went to a police station, and confessed everything. They dared the state to lock them up. Perhaps, King told me later, prison would give her a chance to catch up on her reading.

That same year, I went to Dublin, 130 miles south of Derry in the Republic of Ireland, to witness a historic moment. Ireland was holding a referendum on repealing the eighth amendment to its constitution. That law gave equal weight to the lives of the mother and fetus—making doctors reluctant to offer a termination even when the mother’s life was in danger. In 2012, the eighth amendment led to the death of Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old dentist who started to miscarry at 17 weeks. She arrived at University Hospital Galway with the fetal sac half-delivered into her vagina. But doctors would not give her drugs to expel the fetus.

Halappanavar developed sepsis. Once a fetal heartbeat was no longer detectable, doctors removed the contents of her womb. It was too late. Her blood was poisoned, and she died seven days after being admitted to the hospital. An official inquest attributed her fate to “medical misadventure.” Sabaratnam Arulkumaran, a medical professor who presided over a subsequent investigation, told an Irish government committee that the abortion ban had tied doctors’ hands. Had the hospital terminated Halappanavar’s pregnancy when she first asked, Arulkamaran said, “We would never have heard of her, and she would be alive today.”

The Halappanavar case increased support for the Irish feminist movement, leading to the campaign to #RepealTheEighth, as it became known. On May 25, 2018, two-thirds of Irish voters endorsed repeal—an astonishingly high number in a traditionally Catholic country—and by the end of the year, the Irish Parliament had legalized abortion up to 12 weeks into a pregnancy. The new law was still restrictive compared with England, Scotland, and Wales, but it represented a new, more liberal era for a country once dominated by the Church. It also gave members of the British Parliament the courage to challenge Northern Ireland’s exemption from the 1967 Abortion Act. In 2019, Parliament passed a law decriminalizing abortion in Northern Ireland, which now allows the procedure up to 12 weeks. Provision is still contested, and limited, and many women still travel to England, but the prosecutions against individual women making hard and lonely choices have stopped. The case against Colette Devlin, Diana King, and Kitty O’Kane was never pursued. King never got time to catch up on her reading.

Having covered both of these campaigns, I think they can offer inspiration for American activists facing the downfall of Roe v. Wade and the constitutionally protected right to abortion that it established. To some, the advice below will seem very basic, but that’s the point. Conservatives have chipped away at abortion provision for decades, but the end of Roe is something different—an era-defining change. Activists need to go back to fundamental principles, and to do slow, careful movement-building that goes beyond marches and slogans. Although the legal framework of the U.S. is unique, there are commonalities in the struggle. Both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland are countries with powerful religious traditions and institutions, making them more similar to the U.S. than to other, more secular Western European countries. So how did activists there highlight the human cost of abortion restrictions—and mitigate their effects while bans were in place?

Regain a Sense of Urgency

Online progressives tend to deprecate British (and, by extension, Irish) feminism as fusty and middle-aged, but its cross-generational appeal is a strength. An awareness of feminist history reveals how fragile gains can be, and how they must be constantly defended. “Myself and other activists in my community are focused on issues that feel like immediate life or death, like the environment,” one member of America’s Generation Z told a New York Times reporter recently. A 20-something explained how she felt more energized by campaigns against police racism: “A lot of the language I heard was about protecting Roe v. Wade … It felt grounded in the ’70s feminist movement. And it felt like, I can’t focus on abortion access if my people are dying.”

These statements suggest complacency among a generation for whom second-wave feminist is an insult rather than an accolade. But feminism succeeds only when women recognize their common experiences and build on the work of previous generations. And that respect and solidarity goes two ways: What I found moving about the three women of Derry is that they risked going to jail despite knowing they were long past needing an abortion themselves. “Older women have much less to lose,” King told me.

In the U.S., post-Roe generations of feminists have found other compelling causes to champion, but they must not be afraid to make this fight a priority. The history of the suffragette movement, and other feminist movements, is the history of women being told to wait their turn. If Roe falls, this issue is one of “immediate life or death.” Alito’s logic could also be used to dismantle other legal protections, such as those prohibiting discrimination against LGBTQ people.

Appeal to Normies

Support for abortion rights should be presented as a commonsense, normie, majority position, because it is. Most Americans support the right to abortion, at least in the first trimester, but most Americans also have reservations about the procedure. Campaigners should acknowledge this; they cannot afford a repeat of the writer and director Lena Dunham’s joking comment that “I still haven’t had an abortion, but I wish I had.” (She later apologized.)

One of the most eye-catching parts of the pro-choice campaign in Ireland was “Grandfathers for Yes.” This was exactly what it sounds like: a group of seniors (the demographic most likely to be pro-life) campaigning for abortion rights. Baby Boomers weren’t being scolded that they didn’t “get it” by young activists; instead, Grandfathers for Yes presented pro-choice beliefs as sensible, compassionate, and mainstream. Using phrases and ideas traditionally associated with the “other side” can also be effective. Kamala Harris’s statement on the Supreme Court leak used the conservative language of individual rights. “If the right to privacy is weakened,” the vice president argued, “every person could face a future in which the government can potentially interfere in the personal decisions you make about your life.”

In Ireland, the Yes campaign generally focused on family bonds. One slogan ran: “Your mother. Your daughter. Your sister. Her choice.” This kind of language might strike some abortion-rights defenders as patronizing. But it worked. On a similar note, #RepealTheEighth ran a trans-inclusive campaign without losing sight of the fact that the overwhelming majority of those who need abortions are women, and that abortion bans are driven by the desire to control female bodies.

Resist Polarization

Ireland became a model of how to take a divisive issue and encourage a productive debate. Ahead of the referendum, a citizen’s assembly considered the subject. A representative sample of voters heard from experts on the topic and offered a considered opinion. When the referendum was called, the Irish government made clear that it would introduce only limited access to abortion in the event of a “yes” vote. That allowed religious voters, mild conservatives, and nervous older people to be reassured that they weren’t voting for a free-for-all. It shouldn’t be taboo for activists to entertain compromise, and to acknowledge the reality of principled opposition to abortion. In the U.S., there has never been a better slogan for defending abortion rights than “safe, legal, and rare.”

The American court system encourages high-stakes, sweeping, binary judgments; a single Supreme Court ruling can remake the legal landscape. If Roe is repealed, then state-level campaigns need to establish the right to abortion access while accepting its limits. In England, where I live, abortion is low on the political agenda. The procedure is limited to 24 weeks into a pregnancy, with rare exceptions. That has proved to be a compromise most people can accept.

Highlight the Unintended Consequences

The #RepealTheEighth campaign foregrounded the experiences of women who desperately wanted to have a baby—only to discover that their fetus wasn’t viable. Even people who are opposed to abortion on religious grounds will find it hard not be moved by these stories.

A total abortion ban means forcing women to give birth. Sometimes that will mean forcing a woman to carry a baby for 40 weeks who won’t live beyond his or her first breath. “To endure the full-term pregnancy, and to come home empty-handed and with the physical changes that come with pregnancy—it would have been awful,” the Irish writer Helen Serafinowicz said in an interview around the Irish referendum. She was living in England when she discovered that her 11-week fetus had a fatal skull condition in 2004, and had a termination; in Ireland, she would have had to continue the pregnancy: “I don’t know how I would have got through that, mentally or physically.” Barack Obama referenced the same situation in his statement on the Roe draft, asking voters to consider “the couple that have tried to have children for years, who are without any options when faced with the tragic reality of an unviable pregnancy.”

Stories such as that of Savita Halappanavar are also powerful. She died to preserve the life of a baby who would never have survived; the 31-year-old mother-to-be was deprived of her future by a law that ostensibly defended the right to life.

The political right will want to talk about the rare patients who get repeat abortions, or “career women” fixated on their own ambitions. Those women deserve access to abortion too. But nothing is wrong with highlighting the heartbreaking cases, nor with reminding people that most women who have abortions are already mothers. They know the extent of the time, money, and resources needed to take care of a child properly.

Do It Yourself

What impressed me in both Northern Ireland and the Republic was the grassroots nature of the activism involved. These women didn’t need permission from corporate donors or institutions; they built networks from the ground up, and they were more representative as a result.

In the U.S., the leading organization in this fight should be Planned Parenthood, but it has recently seemed distracted by arguments over its future direction and the wider storms convulsing the left. (Last year its chief executive wrote a self-flagellating op-ed apologizing for the political views of its founder and declaring, “What we don’t want to be, as an organization, is a Karen.”) Those hurt most by repealing Roe include poor women, Black women, undocumented women—the most marginalized among us. This is no time for navel-gazing, nor for organizations (and Democratic candidates) to fundraise on the back of pro-choice outrage without delivering results.

Already, American activists are preparing for an “abortion underground.” This is what happened in Ireland, too: covert networks to supply abortion pills by mail, volunteer networks to transport women to jurisdictions where terminations are allowed, dangerous knowledge passed via private messages and word of mouth.

Make the Fight Personal

Perhaps what American activists need most are faces. In 1972, more than 50 well-known American women who’d had abortions put their names to a letter in Ms. magazine, hoping to remove the stigma of the procedure. (In response to the Alito leak, the singer Phoebe Bridgers has done the same.) In Ireland, activists made sure that Savita Halappanavar’s name and image were just as prominent as the pictures of fetuses plastered on lampposts during the referendum campaign. In Derry, three women were prepared to put their lives on hold to make a protest.

Real adversity shows the difference between a luxury belief and a principle for which you are prepared to make sacrifices. Colette Devlin, Diana King, and Kitty O’Kane cared so much for other women’s futures, they were prepared to go to jail. No doubt the repeal of Roe will encourage more Americans to realize how fundamental abortion rights are to women’s ability to participate in society. “Courage calls to courage everywhere,” Millicent Garrett Fawcett wrote after the death of the suffragette Emily Davison, “and its voice cannot be denied.”