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Opinion and Insight

Irish Creativity’s Fight for Abortion Rights

Ahead of Ireland’s referendum on abortion, much of the country’s creative community has been making an impassioned plea to repeal the eighth amendment, writes LBB’s Alex Reeves

Irish Creativity’s Fight for Abortion Rights

On Friday, May 25th 2018 the Irish population is making a historic decision, voting on whether to repeal the eighth amendment of the republic’s constitution, a clause which underpins a near-total ban on abortion, even in cases of rape and fatal foetal abnormality. In the case of a vote to repeal, a proposed bill will come into effect legalising abortion access up to 12 weeks without restriction.

It’s the culmination of a debate that has raged in the country for decades and, as almost 170,000 women have travelled abroad to obtain abortions since they were first permitted to in 1992, it’s not an issue contained to the shores of the island.

Naturally, Ireland’s creative community has not been silent on the divisive issue. Filmmakers, designers and artists across the country have made their emotional arguments on the subject. And as Catriona Campbell, managing partner at Dublin advertising agency The Public House, notes, the debate has become ever more vicious on both sides. “As we approach the vote, it seems that respectful discourse is out the window,” she says. “Posters spam the landscape, the rhetoric is graphic and insensitive, and it’s open season on shock tactics and misinformation.”

Polls show clear urban-rural and generational divides, with younger, urban voters more likely to support the repeal side. Dublin’s young, liberal advertising community, perhaps unsurprisingly, seems to be in favour of the yes campaign, and this has made for some powerful messaging as part of the pro-repeal campaign. 

While BBDO Dublin’s neutral position as custodians of the Referendum Commission account meant the agency was unable to push an opinion other than “your vote means everything”,  other agencies have not been so circumspect. 

“Aside from our theological support of the yes side, we also think that the more subversive and thought-provoking messages are coming from the repeal movement,” says Catriona, whose agency was one of the few to nail its colours to its mast with an arresting stunt, ‘The Weight of the Eighth’. For just two hours, Aspiration, a 1995 Rowan Gillespie sculpture in Dublin - a strong symbol of women’s struggles for equal rights and treatment, received the addition of a light-projected figure of 8 chained to the woman’s foot, dragging her down as she struggles to progress up the wall. 


Catriona explains the imperative to make this clear statement: “With reports of increasingly tight polls and suggestions that this was another election that could be hijacked by the likes of Cambridge Analytica, we realised as voter registration deadline approached, that we needed to act. We’re an independent agency, with the freedom (and responsibility) to take a stand - and it quickly became clear this was an issue our entire team felt strongly about. So we considered how we could use what we’re good at - creativity - to add to this fractious debate in a positive and refined way. In terms of the idea itself, there are embarrassingly few sculptures of women in Dublin. And ‘Aspiration’ always had this intrigue of a woman who hasn’t quite reached her goal. Adding the burden of the eighth (in the shape of a ball and chain) seemed a natural fit to create a relatable metaphor for women in Ireland today.”

The stunt impacted the debate almost instantly, with #TheWeightOfTheEighth trending on Twitter within about two hours. The response was “Even better than we could’ve imagined,” said Catriona. “Everything from ‘Brilliant’ to ‘Goosebumps’ to dispirited yes supporters who felt re-energised after seeing it. But more significantly, we’ve spotted ‘Weight of the Eighth’ statements on rally placards, proof this message has landed.”

Filmmaking has played a key role in the repeal campaign going back to way before the debate reached its current fever pitch. Like much of the Irish diaspora, London based director Kathryn Ferguson, who’s represented for commercials by La Pac in France and Believe in the US, felt the urge to be part of the debate. Her big contribution to the conversation came in August last year, when she created the super-shareable ‘25 annoying things about being pregnant’ for Amnesty International - a film that knocks the wind out of you the first time you see it. 


“As a Northern Irish woman I’ve been furious my whole life with the status of women’s rights in the whole island,” explains Kathryn. “The film is an attempt to inject some sanity into the debate, both for my family members, and the women I know who have been directly affected by the laws in both the South and the North of Ireland.
 
“I worked with a fantastic creative team in Dublin who were equally as passionate about the making of this film. We wanted to make a film that would speak to all Irish women regardless of their views or even their understanding of how the eighth amendment affects them. To do this, we needed it to look like clickbait and highly shareable, but which ultimately delivered a very strong punch.”

The public reaction was typical of the impassioned nature of the debate leading up to the referendum. Some were shocked and others delighted which, as Kathryn adds “really highlights the paradoxical feelings about the eighth in Ireland.”

The film went viral fairly instantly and caused a lot of debate online. “It reached the New York Times within 24 hours and hopefully helped a tiny bit to keep the discussion and awareness about the need to change the law alive and well,” she says.

Rachel Ni Bhraonain’s short film ‘The Undecided Vote’ fuses spoken word, dance, and music, to convince those unsure of how they’re voting to consider the historic nature of the referendum, at the same time embodying the nuance of the issue.


In a more straightforward way, director Karl Callan’s harrowing short film titled simply ‘Repeal’ dramatises the stories of three women as they are directly affected by the eighth amendment’s abortion ban. Inspired by real-life testimonies, it demonstrates the law’s tangible impact on women’s lives in Ireland.


As polling day looms, Amnesty’s support for the yes vote - which has been centred on the argument that the ban violates human rights - took a more contemplative tone this week with the launch of the organisation’s final film in its campaign ‘The Tear in Ireland’s Eye’. Working in collaboration with artist Sinéad Brennan, the film conveys the emotional shadow the eighth amendment has cast over women in Ireland. The film has a quieter, more hopeful tone than the majority of the debate, offering an opportunity for quiet reflection.


The discussion is on pause now as the debate moves to the ballot box. Those who’ve fought in the campaign can only hope for the right outcome. “There’s no guarantees at this point,” says Catriona. “We’ve just got to believe that we’ve done everything we can to put Ireland on what we believe is the right side of history.”

Kathryn feels invigorated to have played a part in this battle. “I think the repeal campaign has been nothing short of phenomenal. I’m so proud of what they have achieved,” she says. “There has been huge attention on how regressive women’s rights in our country are, and this has now lead to an awareness that has broadened out on a global scale. If the yes vote doesn’t go through, Ireland will suffer pariah status with regard to women’s rights. People are stunned and disgusted by what they have learnt via the noise this referendum has created.”
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