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Meet The Women Fighting For Abortion Rights In Ireland

Photo Courtesy Of Roisin Kiberd
Reproductive rights have long been an elephant in the room in Ireland. A law, known as the Eighth Amendment, states that a pregnant woman cannot have an abortion unless she is suffering medical complications and it must be performed to save her life. Because of this law, it is common for Irish women to travel to the UK to access abortions (statistics say it’s twelve per day, on average) or to order abortion pills online.

Recently, protest groups have placed an emphasis on visibility: Aside from demanding a referendum, they aim to expose just how ubiquitous Irish abortions already are. These groups are inspired by the referendum which passed same-sex marriage into law in Ireland earlier this year, but they also draw on a series of tragedies such as the death of Savita Halappanavar, denied a life-saving abortion in 2012, the case of Miss Y – who was left suicidal by rape and forced to continue her pregnancy, and the clinically dead woman used to carry her child as a "cadaverous incubator" late last year.

A poll conducted in Ireland this year by Amnesty International suggested that 81% of the population favoured significantly broadening access to abortion, indicating which way a referendum might swing if the government eventually allowed one. A subsequent social media campaign spread the hashtag "#notacriminal", emphasising the number of women who have already had abortions in a country where it remains illegal, and yet how little the law can do to stop them.
Photo Courtesy Of Roisin Kiberd
Based both in London and Ireland, we spoke to several of the groups leading the fight with courage, creativity – think crashing Dublin's St Patrick’s Day parade to scream “PATRIARCHY!” – and a sense of optimism that change is closer than ever.

Linda Kavanagh, Abortion Rights Campaign

The Abortion Rights Campaign stages workshops, 'SpeakOut' sessions, and an annual March for Choice, now in its fourth year. They view the present as a time of change for Ireland.

“I remember waking up and finding out that the marriage referendum had been won and thinking, 'we can do anything, we can change anything,'" said Linda Kavanagh, an activist with ARC.

“Following the most recent party conferences – Sinn Féin, Labour and the Greens all now have mandates to repeal the Eighth. We have passed some exceptionally progressive laws this year, between the marriage referendum and the Gender Recognition Bill. It can no longer be presumed that we are a conservative nation.”

ARC work with pro-choice groups around the country, in Dublin, Galway, Limerick, Cork and Sligo, bringing them together every year with the March for Choice. This year’s march had a notably upbeat atmosphere.

Kavanagh said: “It's great to be surrounded for one day by like-minded people who can celebrate being pro-choice with you, to be out on the streets being pro-choice and proud, instead of marching in reaction to yet another tragedy.”

Ailbhe Smyth, Convener of the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth

Ever since 1983, the Eighth Amendment to the Irish constitution has given equal rights to the unborn as to the mother, preventing abortion even in cases of rape and incest. The Coalition to Repeal the Eighth was convened in 2013 by Ailbhe Smyth, an activist and former head of Women’s Studies at University College Dublin.

“You could say that in Ireland, our culture has come of age over the last twenty years,” she said. “But that change was in process before the referendum, it didn’t just drop down from the sky.” Campaigns against the Eighth Amendment began the year it was introduced, with resistance building steadily ever since.

Asked if social media has played a role in embarrassing the Irish government on an international scale, Smyth replied “Yes, definitely. I do think our government are vulnerable to that. They notice the international shame. But it doesn’t force them to do anything.”

Women are coming forward to tell their abortion stories, with celebrities, well-known journalists and ordinary women among them. It’s a tactic which worked to success during the marriage referendum, though Smyth stressed that it needs to be done with respect, and a view to protecting women in a country where pro-life groups still take to the streets with loudspeakers and ‘Catholic advocacy group’ the Iona Institute are still afforded column inches.

“Most of the women who tell their stories are young, and I do worry about possible repercussions. People say that – strategically – this is important, but we need to take care that every woman who tells her story has access to support.”

Mara Clarke, The Abortion Support Network

“What weekend? Our week doesn’t end, we operate seven days a week!” As founder and volunteer manager of the Abortion Support Network, Mara Clarke follows a busy schedule. A tiny charity based in London, they advise women in Ireland, Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man on how to access the cheapest abortion possible, as well as offering accommodation and funding on a case-by-case basis.

Clarke hears from women at their most desperate, from around the ages of 13 to 50. “They all have four things in common: they’re pregnant, they don’t want to continue their pregnancy, they’re poor, and they never in a million years thought they would have to call a stranger begging for money.”

The network informs women of the UK cities that are the cheapest to fly into, which clinics offer a free taxi, and which have reduced fees for Irish patients (a surprisingly high number). Clarke’s work has given her an insight into Ireland’s conflicted relationship with abortion: “It’s really interesting how many say “I was pro-life, until…”. It could be “until my husband left me”, “until my sister got raped”, “until my 14-year-old got pregnant”. Until they needed an abortion.”

However, she believes that change is in the air: “If you think about how long this fight has been going on... we’d all put our heads under our duvets. But every time I’m in Ireland I meet all these young, articulate, vibrant people.” She also stressed the importance of including more seasoned campaigners. “The people who’ve been doing this for decades? They know some tricks, man. And the reality is, you’re not going to reach Middle Ireland on Twitter...”

Laura Fitzgerald, ROSA

With their roots in Ireland’s Socialist Party, ROSA stand “for Reproductive Rights, against Oppression, Sexism and Austerity”. They were founded in 2013 and lately have made headlines for travelling around the country on the ‘Abortion Pill Bus’ promoting access to pills online, an action which in Ireland can risk up to 14 years in prison.

“The Abortion Pill Bus highlighted the often-secret reality of abortion in Ireland,” said Laura Fitzgerald, an activist and organiser with ROSA. “Older men wearing rosary beads and holding pictures of late stage fetuses tried to shout us down. Despite this, several women approached us in need of abortion pills.”

When they’re not touring the country, ROSA runs campaign stalls and a yearly feminist event called Bread and Roses. “The support we get when we do street stalls in Dublin city centre has to be seen to be believed. Young people are very vocal in their support... older people give support too. Some tell us about what life was like as a young person in Catholic Ireland with no contraception.”

ROSA find hope in Ireland’s recent surge of grassroots political activity, including the Marriage Equality campaign and protests against national water charges. Reproductive rights are surely next on the agenda: “The women who have become leaders in that fight locally – in their own estates and communities – could form the basis of a referendum campaign to win repeal of the Eighth Amendment.”

Julie Morrissey,
The X-ile Project

Comprising an online gallery of women and also female to male transgender people who have travelled from Ireland for an abortion, the X-ile project was founded by Julie Morrissey, Ruth Morrissey, Paula Cullen and Laura Lovejoy in August of this year, and is currently seeking contributors. “Our aim is to bridge the identification problem between those who travel for abortion and the Irish government,” Julie Morrissey explained.

Few comprehensive statistics exist for Irish abortions, except for the aforementioned average of 12 women per day who leave the country. Likewise, the number accessing pills online remains uncounted. “We wanted to present those affected by the restrictive laws on abortion as the people they are: our mothers, our sisters, our daughters, our friends and our partners, and not just another statistic.”

The project sends a simple, unapologetic message of acceptance. “We do not require our participants to justify their abortions, however we have found that the women on the shoots so far have been open about sharing their own stories. They contribute to an atmosphere of frank and candid discussion – something we feel is severely lacking in Ireland.”

Speaking of IMELDA
"Imelda" was a code word once used by women helping Irish women access abortions, who would turn up at train stations wearing a red item as a signal. Today it stands for Speaking of IMELDA, used as an acronym for "Ireland Making England the Legal Destination for Abortion", who stage elaborate theatrical interventions in protest against the Eighth Amendment.

IMELDA speak as a collective, meaning that the woman commenting on their behalf chose to remain unnamed. Their first action took place in 2014, gatecrashing a conference on "Dissident Voices" in the London Irish Centre, which they noticed had failed to address women’s issues but was organised for International Women’s Day. Next, they served up a pair of underwear to the Taoiseach, Ireland’s Prime Minister, at a state dinner, staged a "Rogue Rose of Tralee" (an annual Irish beauty contest which curiously abides to this day) and took on the St Patrick’s Day parade, with women in red dressed up as alternative bishops (“It made for a good visual, gave them a little height...”).

IMELDA draw on the language and ceremony of the Church to provoke questions around Irish national identity, and the legacy of the Church in Irish culture. They’re always happy to dress women up as bishops, and they don't shy away from absurdity: one intervention even saw them accost the Irish president chanting "Twelve women a day, Ireland sends them away” backed by Enya’s chorus to Orinoco Flow, ‘sail away sail away sail away’.

“It’s something that’s caught people’s imaginations,” IMELDA’s representative added. “Hopefully we’re opening people’s minds.”