This unmissable new documentary is a rousing, painful look back at Ireland’s abortion referendum

Three years on from Ireland’s historic abortion vote, The 8th tracks the forces and people that shaped a seismic moment for reproductive rights. 

The referendum that took place in Ireland three years ago followed a turbulent period in global politics. Within 24 months, the UK had voted to leave the EU and Donald Trump had been elected US president. Women’s rights were under attack in many countries around the world, from Poland – which tried to ban abortion in 2016, prompting huge street protests – to Russia, where Putin’s government partially decriminalised domestic violence in 2017.

Yet on 25 May 2018, Irish voters turned out in their droves to repeal the eighth amendment to the country’s constitution. It was a landslide victory for reproductive rights, with 66% of voters supporting the legalisation of abortion up to 12 weeks of pregnancy, and a bright burst of progress in what often felt like a darkening world.

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Now, new documentary The 8th goes behind the scenes of the 2018 referendum, looking back at the build-up to the vote and culminating in the scenes of joy and relief when the result was announced. It’s directed by filmmakers Aideen Kane, Maeve O’Boyle and Lucy Kennedy, all of whom were born and raised in Ireland (although Kane and Kennedy now live in New York).

“We all grew up under the eighth amendment,” Kane tells Stylist. “We came to this story as Irish women first and filmmakers second.”

The documentary follows two key players on the pro-choice side of the referendum campaign. Ailbhe Smyth, a veteran organiser and academic, has been involved in feminist and LGBTQ+ activism in Ireland since the 1970s. Andrea Horan is the glamorous millennial owner of a Dublin nail salon called Tropical Popical, who cheerily admits that she had “no interest” in politics before being drawn into the fight for reproductive rights.

“I don’t know if I know what my feminism is, to be honest,” Horan says in the film. “I would still not consider myself politically minded, per se.”

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This may be true. But one of the things that makes The 8th so enjoyable is that it shows there is no one way to be an activist. Smyth is sprightly and warm, but she’s also gritty, strategic and deeply experienced as a political organiser. As the head of the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment – an umbrella organisation comprising more than 100 pro-choice groups in Ireland ahead of the 2018 referendum – she is seen leading marches, making behind-the-scenes phone calls and devising the messages that campaigners will deliver on doorsteps. 

Horan, in contrast, knows her way around an Instagram Story and understands instinctively how to draw politically disengaged young women into the pro-choice movement – because she used to be one herself. (“When I was in my teens and 20s, all I wanted to do was party,” she says.) The documentary shows her masterminding social media-friendly moments that will push the referendum onto people’s news feeds, such as the painting of a brightly stylish ‘Repeal the 8th’ mural in Dublin, and hosting events in her nail bar where young women can learn more about reproductive rights.

“Andrea was clearly passionate about these issues, but she was going to approach them in a way that was authentic to her,” says Kane. 

The 8th documentary: campaigner Andrea Horan after voting in Ireland’s 2018 abortion referendum

The 8th doesn’t focus solely on the months before the 2018 referendum. Instead, it goes back to 1983, when Ireland voted to introduce the eighth amendment in the first place. Abortion was already illegal, but in the wake of the landmark 1973 Roe v Wade ruling in the US, Irish anti-choice campaigners pushed for a change to the country’s constitution.

The eighth amendment stated that “the unborn” had an equal right to life to “the mother”, framing abortion as murder even in cases of rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality. As Smyth puts it in the film: “Somewhere out there, there was that sense that women couldn’t be trusted … that a law was not enough; that we were such a threat to an entire social system that we had to be constitutionally corralled.” 

The 8th documentary: feminist academic and academic Ailbhe Smyth

For The 8th to resonate with audiences outside Ireland, the directors knew they had to illustrate why beliefs about abortion changed so dramatically in the country between 1983 and 2018. To that end, the documentary explores key events that added momentum to the Irish pro-choice movement. 

These include the death of Savita Halappanavar – who contracted sepsis at University Hospital Galway in 2012 after being denied an abortion following an incomplete miscarriage – and the discovery of a mass grave of babies in Tuam in 2017, on the site of a former Catholic care home for unmarried mothers and their children.

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These scenes are some of the most painful in the documentary, but they also demonstrate why attitudes toward abortion in Ireland had to move on. Anti-choice rhetoric, with its talk of ‘killing babies’, often positions the decision to end a pregnancy as a callous and violently selfish act. But shocking events such as Halappanavar’s death and the discoveries at Tuam proved that the compassionate moral high ground is not held by those who rigidly police women’s bodies.

“I think Irish people have decided what sort of a society we want to be, and what values we hold dear,” says Kane. “That [old] version or definition of Ireland is no longer mainstream and has been held to account.”

The 8th documentary: flowers are left at a mural to Savita Halappanavar in Dublin after the 2018 abortion referendum

Three years on from the 2018 referendum in Ireland, reproductive rights are still under threat all across the globe. The US Supreme Court is currently gearing up to hear its first significant challenge to Roe v Wade. Abortion access is still unacceptably limited in Northern Ireland, despite the procedure being decriminalised in 2019. Elsewhere in Europe, terminations are illegal in Malta and Gibraltar, while the Polish government succeeded earlier this year in banning abortion under almost all circumstances.

“One thing we learned very early on [in Ireland] is that these rights can be taken away,” Kane tells Stylist. “Reproductive rights are never won forever, so we have to stay vigilant and supportive and open.” But she hopes The 8th will be a source of inspiration to pro-choice campaigners around the world.

“Activism is really exhausting,” she says. “But if this extraordinary grassroots campaign in the tiny island of Ireland overturned this abortion law, [other campaigns] can do it. We can all be activists, we can all access our own power, and we can all be agents of change. We’re inspired by what happened in Ireland – and we hope others are too.”

The 8th is in UK cinemas and available to watch online now

Images: Together Films

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