Repeal | 2016 and the Fight for Reproductive Rights in Ireland

In a tumultuous year internationally, where peoples’ legitimate fears have been manipulated by right-wing populists on either side of us, there has been one enduring positive here in Ireland, at least. 2016 has been a breakthrough year in the effort to destigmatise abortion, to normalise discussion around, consequently, to positively influence public opinion. While the fight to actually have the eighth amendment repealed is far from won, attitudes across the country are shifting quite dramatically towards understanding why it’s such an important campaign.

The Coalition to Repeal the 8th Amendment is growing rapidly and now encompasses over 70 organisations, from pro-choice groups to NGOs, trade unions to healthcare bodies and charities.

The Abortion Rights Campaign has continued to organise, mobilise and educate nationally on the need not only for Repeal, but to ensure that free, safe and legal abortion access is secured subsequently. Its spokespeople have continued to perform powerfully and intelligently on national media – often in the face of hostility and downright mistruths from Iona/PLC reps –and September’s superbly organised March for Choice was the largest to date, with upwards of 20,000 in attendance.

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ROSA has come to prominence in 2016 too. Its creative direct action campaigning, driven almost exclusively by young people, has seen a number of highlights this year – from a human 8 in Smithfield Square to public performances and rallies across city centres, suburbs and villages alike. In response to its own government’s intended shift towards even more restrictive abortion laws, an Irish chapter of ‘Dziewuchy’ came together this year too. Dziewuchy Irlandia acts in mutual solidarity with pro-choice campaigns in both countries. During the enormously attended Black Protest which swept across Poland in late September, a vigil was organised  by Dziewuchy IRL outside the Polish Consulate in Dublin – it was intended as a small, low-key Monday evening gathering of support for those protests; it ended up with 500 Polish, Irish and International activists stretched across the length and breadth of Eden Quay.

Anna Cosgrave’s exceptional Repeal Project, launched earlier this year, has arguably been the greatest vehicle of all in facilitating the seismic shift in public opinion and attitude. At its heart, it’s a fairly simple idea – minimalist black jumpers with the word ‘Repeal’ written across their centre, sold to supporters as a means of fundraising for the Abortion Rights Campaign. Whether intended or not, however, it has evolved to become a galvanising force in the movement for choice.

It has ignited conversation throughout the country and has been backed by very prominent names – Vogue Williams, Vivienne Westwood, Graham Linehan, Roz Purcell, Panti Bliss, Sharon Horgan, Brendan Courtney and Angela Scanlon to name but a few. It has inspired spin off collaborations and sold-out events with Peachy, Choicebox and The Hunreal Issues amongst others, and has been showcased at some of Ireland’s largest events of the year including Electric Picnic and Longitude. Her.ie – an online powerhouse in Ireland with upwards of 2 million unique monthly users – have bravely positioned themselves as a media partner to the Repeal Project since its inception. This partnership has meant that the personal stories of those most affected by the grotesque 8th amendment have been amplified to enormous numbers of people.

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Despite these remarkable efforts, the contrasting indifference from Government is palpable. A piece of legislation introduced by AAA-PBP last month which sought to secure a referendum on the 8th was rejected – during the debate preceding the vote, the attendance in Dáil Eireann was paltry. The current Government’s rationale – to outsource the issue to a Citizens’ Assembly – is a mere delay tactic. It is not representative of ownership being taken on the issue, rather, it demonstrates the cowardice that has angered so many people, particularly in the aftermath of Savita Halapanavar’s tragic death. 

(While the Citizens’ Assembly is in existence, however, ARC have rightly pointed out the need to ensure that those who have been affected by the 8th have their perspectives considered by it. In that regard, submissions can be made to [email protected], via a web-form at www.citizensassembly.ie/en/submissions or by post to The Citizens’ Assembly, 16 Parnell Square, Dublin 1. Submissions are due by December 16th at the latest.)

A major challenge, too, has been the emergence of ostensibly neutral commentators lining up to tone police the nature of the current campaign. From Oliver Callan in the Sun to Alison O’Connor in the Examiner and Paul Cullen in the Irish Times, the theme is consistent – women organising en-masse to demand access to control over their own bodies is offensive at best, terrifying at worst. Their collective battle cry is that the debate lacks nuance. The trouble with nuance, though, is that it has achieved absolutely nothing in the 33 years since the 8th was introduced.

In the midst of nuanced debate, 12 women and pregnant people a day – that’s 144,540 since 1983 – have been forced across the sea to the UK in order to access reproductive healthcare. This is a staggering number and yet it doesn’t include (a) those who travelled to other jurisdictions or (b) those who accessed abortion services via underground/illegal means, such as the abortion pill.

The suggestion of nuance at this stage is quite frankly an insult to the legacy of the women who have died, it’s an insult to anyone who has been forced underground or abroad and it’s an insult to every single person in Ireland who is capable of becoming pregnant and therefore capable of their life being threatened – literally – by the 8th amendment.

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While the harmful, offensive and often wildly inaccurate rhetoric espoused by fervent anti-choice campaigners is still very much a factor in this debate, their messaging has become less and less credible and therefore less and less relevant over time. The same faces who tried – and failed – to mask inherent homophobic bigotry with ‘concern for the family unit’ in last year’s Marriage referendum are popping up again. This time it’s the veil of ‘protecting the unborn’, a veil that has failed to hide the true motive; a hatred of women and a wish to control their bodies that’s rooted firmly in religious fundamentalism.

In that context, it’s arguable that the real battle as we face into 2017 is not in fact between pro and anti-choice campaigns. Instead, it’s a battle to shake an indecisive, self-proclaimed ‘middle ground’ political establishment into meaningful action. Equally, it’s a process of continuing to destigmatise conversations around abortion and dispel myths. Toning the message down in the hope of being given conditional freedom over one’s own body and reproductive choices is not an option and neither would it be a victory. No-one should be prevented from speaking about their experience. Free, safe and legal abortion access has to be the desired outcome and it cannot be equivocated on.

It’s not about making endless concessions to appease an apparent middle-ground. It’s about continuing to bring the conversation into every household in the country and simply making bodily autonomy an accepted norm. With that in mind, the Repeal campaign is doing just fine and to those involved, across so many organisations, the message should be simple – keep going. Keep being exceptional, passionate, brave, committed activists. That’s how change is affected. Ours is not an extreme position – caring about the livelihoods of living, breathing people and aspiring to enable them to make their own choices IS the middle ground.

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