by Eve Currie
Ireland is on the brink of historic social and political change. A determined and passionate campaign is being waged to win not just access to abortion, but also the argument for abortion on demand. And while the campaign has already achieved significant victories, the coalition of grassroots groups, led by women, are not prepared to compromise on their demands.
Fighting for freedom in a country with one of the most repressive and conservative laws on abortion worldwide, activists’ objectives are twofold: (1) to repeal the 8th Amendment to the Irish constitution, which enshrines “the right to life of the unborn”, and to overturn current anti-abortion laws which carry a maximum penalty of 14 years imprisonment, and (2) to bring about free, safe and legal abortion on demand.
The most interesting aspect of this campaign is that, through campaigning, activists have come to recognise their elected representatives as a barrier to the total change they demand. Rather than appealing to politicians to carry the torch for the women of Ireland, activists are instructing politicians to take a back seat on discussions and to let those who are affected by the issue take the lead. In effect, campaigners are telling politicians, “you don’t represent us”, and are instead insisting that they represent themselves.
As noted in my earlier article, we are just days away from the deadline for the conclusion of discussion in the Irish Parliament (Oireachtas) on the recommendations of its own Committee on the Eighth Amendment and, in all likelihood, draft legislation for a referendum to repeal the 8th Amendment.
Much has been achieved so far
What’s remarkable at this stage in the proceedings is that the Committee, set up by the Oireachtas to debate the findings of a Citizens’ Assembly, has recommended that the 8th Amendment not only be repealed outright, but that provision for safe and legal abortion also be made without restriction up to twelve weeks of pregnancy, and that abortion beyond twelve weeks be lawful “where the life or health of the woman is at risk and that a distinction should not be drawn between the physical and mental health of the woman”.
The recommendations of this Committee are striking. Not only would they catapult Ireland out of the Dark Ages by bringing its law on abortion more in line with other countries’, but they would also put Irish law ahead of British law. Moreover, the recommendations would provide a basis for campaigners to challenge UK law, which still requires those seeking termination of a pregnancy to prove they meet specific criteria under which abortions are permitted. As such, the recommendations of the Committee reflect the serious work that has been put in by activists to advance the position of women in Ireland. Quite simply, without the persistent effort that has been made by grassroots groups to tell the stories of the thousands of women and girls who travel each year to Britain for abortions, the Committee would not be in a position to recommend such sweeping changes.
Furthermore, the work of the 100-plus groups that constitute “Repeal Eight” has had undeniable influence on policy beyond the Republic of Ireland. At the end of June 2017, the UK Government announced that women travelling from Northern Ireland would no longer have to pay for abortion services sought in England. Three months later, in October 2017, this policy change was augmented by the commitment to also pay for travel and accommodation expenses for Northern Irish women from lower income backgrounds. This policy change was no coincidence, but instead reflects the reality that the voices of Northern Irish women are reaching the ears of those in Westminster. As Stella Creasy, the Labour MP who pushed for the original policy change, welcomed the news, she tweeted, “Sisters in Northern Ireland we will hear your voices – have asked for speedy meeting with govt to make this a reality!”
By waiving the cost of abortion services in England for women who travel from Northern Ireland, the UK Government is simply extending funding of a health service which is already free to women in the rest of the UK. It is far from ground breaking and more accurately represents a minor reduction in the inequality that Northern Irish women continue to experience as UK citizens. What is noteworthy however, is the fact that the work done by hundreds of women in grassroots organisations across Ireland, North and South, is having concrete impact in the UK and Ireland.
So, as we watch closely over the next few weeks to see what comes out of the Oireachtas debate, and what impact this has on abortion provision both North and South, there are several key concerns at the forefront of women’s minds.
Taking the struggle forward
While the Committee’s recommendations have been broadly welcomed as “marked improvement” by pro-choice groups across Ireland, activists know this is not the time to celebrate. The specific wording of the promised referendum bill is crucial. Asking people to vote on anything less than an outright repeal would be a crushing defeat. Reform is not an option. And, even if the 8th Amendment is repealed, the process of determining access to abortion is fraught with the risk of backsliding. Nothing less than “The gold standard of free, safe, and legal abortion … would guarantee access for all those who need it”, argue Abortion Rights Campaign (ARC).
ARC has always been clear about its intention to shift discussion around repealing the 8th Amendment from “abortion in the case of exceptions” to “abortion free on demand”. Arguing that abortion should be dealt with as a healthcare matter, not a criminal matter, is a central tenant of ARC’s campaigning, and one which evidently chimes with people’s aspirations for freedom. First-hand accounts of abortion stories have been used by ARC, and many other campaigning groups, to demystify abortion and to demonstrate how commonplace abortion is. The X-ile Project is another example of how activists are challenging the taboo status of abortion, through the medium of art. Collectively, these kinds of projects have contributed to shaping the narrative on how Ireland should deal with abortion in the twenty-first century, and, as the Oireachtas begin their deliberations, activists are gearing up for a final push prior to the outcome of a referendum.
The first part of this final push was a Strike Assembly held in front of the Irish Parliament the day after it reconvened following Christmas break (16 Jan.). At this event, people gathered in front of the Irish Parliament while it was in session debating the referendum question, to let politicians know that “#TimesUp, the #StrikeAssembly is watching and … won’t accept anything less than straight repeal and full abortion rights”.
Perhaps though, the most potent feature of the campaign, and one which will serve women’s interests beyond a referendum, is the fact that women have come to realise the importance of representing themselves. Over the past few years, many brave and bold women have stepped out of the shadows, risking family and public life, to become the public face of abortion. Having either made the arduous journey to Britain for an abortion or having procured illicit abortion pills online, these women have carried the weight of Ireland’s oppressive abortion laws, and know that they are the ones best placed to put an end to such injustice.
Aware of their crucial role in the fight for free, safe and legal abortion, and having already stepped forward to lead the pro-choice campaign, women are unwilling to return to the side-lines. So, while Senator Noone has endorsed calls for politicians to take a back seat, the appeal itself comes straight from the experience of campaign success to date. Not content to sit back and let politicians steer legal change into harbour, Irish women are setting the agenda for a generation to come, telling their politicians “you don’t represent us” and “only we can represent ourselves”.
Timeline for the Referendum on the 8th Amendment
- • 29 June 2017 – a Citizens Assembly, tasked by the Irish Government with discussing abortion provision and reporting back on its findings, published its report recommending terms for the legalisation of abortion in Ireland
- • 20 December 2017 – following discussion of the Citizens Assembly report, the Committee on the Eight Amendment published its own report recommending a referendum on straightforward repeal of the 8th Amendment
- • 16 January 2018 – the Oireachtas (Irish Parliament) will reconvene and the Committee on the Eight Amendment’s report will be open for debate.
- • End of January 2018 – the deadline for the Irish Government to publish and approve a referendum bill formally announcing a referendum on the 8th Amendment, if the Government wishes to adhere to a projected early summer referendum
- • Turnaround time for an early summer referendum is extremely tight
- • The wording of a ballot paper can have significant influence on the outcome of a ballot, and the language of the 8th Amendment referendum ballot paper, which is still to be set, may block the path to repeal
- • Repeal of the 8th amendment does not guarantee access to abortion, and much work will be required after this point to ensure free, safe and legal abortion on demand