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Here's what 10 first time voters have got to say about the upcoming referendum

The atmosphere in secondary schools seems to vary greatly.

Ireland abortion laws Source: PA Archive/PA Images

FOR MANY PEOPLE, the referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment this month will be the most important thing that they’ll vote on in their lifetime.

We decided to reach out to people who are voting for the very first time this year, to see how they feel about voting for the first time in such a monumental referendum.

Ireland abortion laws Source: Caroline Quinn

Let’s begin with one of the youngest people who’ll vote for the very first time on May 25th.

17-year-old Kerry from Dundalk is currently in her last two weeks of Sixth Year. On the 25th of May 2018, she’ll turn 18. She’s eager to vote, and wishes she could have done so in the marriage referendum back in 2015.

Kerry only decided how she would vote in the last month:

I was uncertain if I was able to vote or not at the time that the date was announced. I attended a talk that was organised by Dundalk Together 4 Yes in the local town hall and I listened to the women who were speaking and decided I am definitely voting yes. One of the women had a fatal foetal abnormality, and her story was so heartbreaking that it helped me make my final decision.

The atmosphere in Kerry’s all-girls catholic school in Dundalk is strange.

Some of my teachers say we’re not allowed to discuss the referendum in class due to the ethos of the school.

Although the teachers do not discuss the referendum, the students are free to wear their ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ badges.

When I got my ‘Yes’ badge, my mam told me not to wear it to school, because I would probably be told to take it off, but I wasn’t! There’s been a group of girls handing out ‘Love Both’ and ‘Vote No’ badges, as well as leaflets. The girls say “If you haven’t decided yet, vote no.” I think it’s absolutely okay to have your opinion and wear your badge, but I think handing out leaflets and telling people how to vote is a big no-no. I don’t think canvassing should be done in school, especially if we’re not allowed talk to our teachers about it.

Ireland: Ireland: Thousands Strike 4 Repeal in Dublin Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

Ellen from Cork arrived at her stance on abortion in Ireland when she was the same age as Kerry.

I knew since I was 16/17 that I was pro-choice. Back then, I had been raised pro-life by being in a super catholic environment (family and school-wise). One day, one of my friends told me about how her sister has €1,000 saved up in case she has an accident and has to travel. At the time I was personally opposed to abortion, but then I realised that I couldn’t stop anyone else so I became pro-choice.

Ellen is now twenty years old, and has become pretty invested in campaigning for abortion rights in Ireland. She’s currently the Repeal The 8th Officer in UCC’s Feminist Society, and organised a day-long festival called Repeal Fest.

Repeal Fest went amazingly. We raised over €1,200 from college students! People who don’t buy proper meals for their dinner, but were willing to donate so much for ‘Yes’.

Ellen has been involved in other activism, including leafleting, working on stalls and canvassing. She has found that canvassing in Cork has been really good, as well as really bad.

The majority of times I’ve gone canvassing, it has been amazing. Getting yes after yes from demographics I would presume to be ‘no’ voters has been extremely heartening and exhilarating. The last time, however, I got called “worse than Hitler” and called a disgrace by an older woman. In the last house of that particular canvass, a woman screamed obscenities at me until we left. I can understand everyone having different opinions, but verbal abuse isn’t a good example of how to ‘love both’, is it?

Ellen said that using her first ever vote on a topic that is so close to her heart is “hugely emotional and monumental.” When she began volunteering she never expected that she’d have the opportunity to vote on this issue in three years.

This vote means we can finally stop sweeping things under the carpet, finally start treating women and pregnant people as first-class citizens and we can finally stop exporting our problems. I will finally be safe in my own country.

Ireland abortion laws Source: Niall Carson

18-year-old UCD student Jade Wilson is also proud that she can use her very first vote on an issue that is really important to her.

She said that not being able to vote in the marriage referendum in 2015 was really difficult for her.

I was walking to school every day seeing ridiculous ‘No’ posters and hearing people arguing against the rights of people I love on television debates and on social media. I felt powerless not having the opportunity to vote back then.

Jade says she has been pro-choice her entire life, but the first time she became actively aware of her stance on abortion was during a debate in religion class, “which was quickly shut down.” Her experiences canvassing have been very important to her:

A lot of people have been labeling this referendum as ‘divisive’ (which it absolutely can be at times), but I’ve also witnessed it bringing people together. I’ve made friends through canvassing and I’ve had the most emotional conversations with ‘Yes’ voters and people who were undecided until we have a compassionate conversation and showed them all of the facts. So many people have stories relating to the Eighth Amendment, and they’re finally beginning to open up after years of silence.

Ireland abortion laws Source: Niall Carson

Jane from Kildare says she would personally never get an abortion.

But she is still going to vote yes. She said:

I don’t believe it’s right to take that choice from someone else. Ireland shouldn’t leave women who want to get an abortion with no choice but to travel to England (if they can afford it) or ordering tablets online and putting their lives at risk. I respect the point of view of the Save The Eighth campaign, and I think many of their points are valid. However, I don’t think the graphic images and misleading information in their public campaigns are appropriate.

Jane just turned 18 in December, so she’s still in secondary school.

My school is an all-girls catholic school, so naturally there is quite a bit of conflict about the referendum. There are a number of big personalities who are very passionate about their views. I do admire their passion. However, their views often lead to very heated discussion, usually ending in an argument. For this reason, I don’t partake in group discussions in school, because I don’t think anything can be achieved from them. Both sides are so strong in their opinions that arguing will not sway the other side to join theirs.

Ireland: Protest Against Abortion Referendum In Dublin Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

Despite the hostile environment in some schools, 18-year-old Vicky’s school is doing pretty well.

Her Dublin school even offered students forms to help them to register to vote.

I am currently in 6th year. My school is doing as well as they can to try and discuss this in a Catholic school. They’re letting us have discussions in Religion class and debating it respectfully, which is appreciated. My school has also been giving out registration forms to some people who hadn’t given in their RFA2 for. That was great.

Vicky decided she would vote ‘Yes’, because:

I’m tired of this country constantly failing women. I’m tired of living in a place that does not value women’s lives equally. Women are dying, women need support and basic healthcare. We need to help them.

Ireland abortion laws Source: Niall Carson

19-year-old DCU student Jenny says that she doesn’t see a future for herself in this country if Eighth remains in the constitution.

Jenny, who is from Mayo originally, isn’t sure if she would have bothered registering to vote for a general election or any other kind of referendum, but this referendum is immensely important to her.

I don’t want to live somewhere where the government has more control over my body than I do if I ever become pregnant. Abortions will always happen in Ireland, illegal or not. If the Eighth Amendment is saved, every one of these abortions happening will be unsafe and unregulated. If the Eighth Amendment is repealed, they will be performed safely. If they’re going to exist, why shouldn’t we make them safe and legal?

Ireland abortion laws Source: Niall Carson

Catríona from Kildare also said that she wouldn’t have registered to vote unless a referendum directly affected her in the way that this one does.

To be honest, I don’t think I would have registered. For a while I was considering not voting at all because I was so on the fence about it.

It took her quite a while to come to a decision.

I thought abortion was wrong and I could never understand why anyone would want one. I thought it was wrong to allow it for fatal foetal abnormalities, as I thought those babies deserved a chance at life, however short that may be. However, after reading a lot of stories shared by women all over Ireland, my opinion began to change. I saw so many brave women sharing their heartbreaking stories of why they had to travel to get abortions when they had no other option.
During the marriage referendum, I was outraged that people felt they had the right to tell others who they can and can’t love. I began to see that I don’t have the right to tell anyone what to do with their own body.

Now that Catríona has decided, she says that voting to repeal the Eighth Amendment means a lot to her.

It’s time to put an end to all our vulnerable women being forced to travel. It is time we have faith in Irish women to make a decision that is right for themselves and their circumstances.

Ireland abortion laws Source: PA Wire/PA Images

18-year-old student Ella from Wexford values her vote.

Ella doesn’t believe that the Eighth Amendment has any place in the Irish constitution, and believes it will bring about a change that our country desperately needs.

Regardless of whether it’s an issue that directly affects me or not, I think it’s super important to vote.
I’ve said so many times how delighted I am that my first vote will be regarding something very important to me. Being able to vote yes for my right to bodily autonomy is incredibly liberating and meaningful. Despite believing fundamental human rights shouldn’t be topic of public debate and vote, I’m so happy my first vote gets to go to such an important topic.

Ireland abortion laws Source: Niall Carson

19-year-old Cliodhna is from Donegal.

Like everybody else we spoke to, she was pretty frustrated by the fact that she couldn’t vote in 2015 on the marriage referendum. As a result, she’s a strong believer that the voting age should be lowered to 16.

I think it’s rather insulting to suggest that young people aren’t as, if not more, willing and eager to become informed about political and social issues than citizens over the age of 18.

Although Cliodhna is now in college, she believes her secondary school offered her a very limited perspective on the issue.

[The school] didn’t allow for any political badges either in favour of or against the Eighth Amendment during my Leaving Cert. In 2018, regardless of the religious ethos or lack thereof in a school, I think it’s inappropriate to stifle the views and opinions of young people, particularly on issues which such high social justice stakes. Discourse should be encouraged, voter registration drives for those eligible should be encouraged, and vitally, impartial and factual information regarding the referendum in question should be freely available within schools.

Her exposure to both sides of the argument while studying in UCD has helped her to become much more informed, and Cliodhna says she does not see “any reason why the same discourse should not be encouraged in secondary schools.”

Ireland: Anti-abortion Protest in Dublin Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

18-year-old Megan from Carlow says that she’s “nearly glad” that the referendum has been ignored in her school.

She says that she’d prefer no mention of it than to have a ‘No’ vote forced on vulnerable young people.

I remember a couple of years ago they brought in women to talk about why abortion is wrong, etc. etc. and they never brought in anyone to speak about the other side of it. As well as this, a religion teacher had a booklet in her classroom pinned to the noticeboard titled ’8 Reasons To Save The 8th’, and there was no objection to it by any of the other teachers or principal. So I put up my own effective ‘Yes’ poster in her classroom, and she took the booklet down.

Megan is very glad that she has the opportunity to repeal the Eighth Amendment in her life time, and says she’s very glad that change is coming, however late it is.

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Kelly Earley

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