Just after 1000s marched in Dublin demanding abortion rights, Aoife Frances from Re(al) Productive Health talks to The Last Round about the lack of abortion access in Ireland and the campaign demanding the state #repealthe8th
On 22nd of September, four days before the annual March for Choice, the Irish Examiner published the results of a recent survey detailing that 64% of Irish farmers would support a repeal of the 8th amendment and allow for more liberal legislation on abortion. The significance of these findings cannot be underestimated. Rural areas in Ireland have long being associated with more conservative voting patterns on social issues, as typified by the 2015 marriage equality referendum, during which Dublin boasted the highest turnout of ‘Yes’ votes while less urbanised counties such as Cavan, Mayo, and Roscommon polled much lower.
A well-funded right-wing movement against the liberalisation of abortion law is everywhere to be seen, and this can foster a sense of pessimism, but we should feel hopeful at 64% of the farming electorate’s evident pro-choice leanings – after all, they represent a broad base of the Irish electorate. A Red C Poll reported in July 2015 that 80% of those surveyed wanted either full access to abortion, or access in cases of rape, incest, a risk to health, a risk to life, or a fatal foetal abnormality. Over 4,000 women a year are forced to travel abroad from Ireland to access abortion services. There are no records detailing figures of those who access the abortion pill online for use at home, but given that customs reported the seizure of over 1000 packages containing this pill in 2014 alone we can assume that the numbers are significant.
The Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill (PLDB) was signed into law in 2014, and attaches a 14 year prison term to the procurement of an illegal abortion in Ireland; assisting another person’s abortion also carries a prison sentence under this law. Cora Sherlock of the ‘Pro-Life Campaign’ has recently criticised Amnesty International for highlighting this penalty, claiming that women ‘are not actually being prosecuted for having abortions’, and pointing out that similar sanctions exist in other countries where woman are also not prosecuted. It is true that there have been no prosecutions under the terms of this law since the 8th Amendment was signed into being in 1983, but the threat of legal action – as well as state interference, as in the notorious X-Case and in the case of Ms Y – alongside additional complications created by prohibition, complications like difficulty of access and fear of medical mishaps, are arguably having the precise effect Ms. Sherlock and other anti-choice activists would like them to have: forcing women to seek healthcare overseas, and remaining silent about it.
The horrifying reality of restrictive abortion laws has been made grotesquely apparent in Northern Ireland, where a woman is currently being prosecuted for assisting her teenage daughter to access the abortion pill online. The Offences against the Persons Act 1861, which informs abortion policy in the north, is similar to the PLDP Act, in that it proposes a prison term for having or assisting an abortion outside the law. While we await further developments in this case, its very existence is a further source of anxiety and indignity to those who need an abortion in Ireland.
Fortunately, groups and individuals have been assisting women to access abortion in Ireland for decades. Women on Web, an online abortion service, provides the abortion pill to those living in countries with restrictive abortion laws, including Ireland – north and south – while the Abortion Support Network assists women who need to travel from Ireland to terminate their pregnancies in England. These groups, along with others, keep Ireland’s political abortion ‘problem’ at bay somewhat, helping to alleviate, to some degree, the danger, stigma, and cost which women living in Ireland face when they need to access abortion services.
In spite of this Ireland continues to build on a distressing history of episodes in which the law was not combatted by empathetic and courageous groups or individuals; instances in which women and their families were subject to medical neglect to the point of physical and psychological trauma, and even death. The child at the centre of the X Case, the individuals within the ABC versus Ireland Case, Savita Halappanavar, Ms Y, and, most recently, PP versus HSE, detail a legacy of cruel, degrading, and abusive treatment in situations where the church, the state, institutional racism, and the misogynistic morality of strangers all played their part.
In light of these tragedies, as well as the pending case in the North and growing evidence of a desire for liberalised legislation in the population, this year’s annual March for Choice was especially passionate, and made evident, as ever, the commitment and resilience of its resident activists. Since 2012 the Abortion Rights Campaign have harnessed the energy of thousands of pro-choice activists, academics, politicians, writers, and artists to provide a family-friendly platform for a mass movement to ‘choose our future’. As inspiring as 26th of September was this year, it needs to be the last time we need to march for bodily autonomy. In the struggle for choice, we need 2016 to herald a new era – for politicians to listen to the Irish people and put a halt to the growing list of women and families they have failed. We need to maintain solidarity in our struggle with those in the North, and avoid taking for granted the assumption that liberalised law in the south will have a domino effect.
Commenting on the weekend’s events, Niamh Uí Bhriain of the Life Institute insisted that ‘The push for abortion in Ireland is almost entirely media led and driven, and has failed to attract significant grassroots support.’ Much like the campaign for equal marriage, all that the regressive fringe elements of Catholic Ireland’s chokehold can do is stand at the sidelines and blame the boogieman media for what is clearly a majority push for a more equal Ireland. An Ireland which has repealed the 8th amendment, recognising and promoting our rights, our choices, our health and our lives.
By Aoife Frances
Aoife is an activist with Re(al) Productive Health, who campaign with others to call on the Irish state to repeal the 8th amendment, an amendment that denies women access to the abortion services they ought to be able to receive.