It’s Saturday 24th October 2015. Ten minutes past eleven in the morning. I arrive on Winthrop Street to find 15 people standing in a shaky line on the footpath, holding up posters of suspiciously Aryan looking mothers & babies, along with girly pink phrases that don’t seem to contain any sincerity, phrases like ‘Love Them Both’ & ‘Abortion Is Murder’. There are old men huddled together, holding a banner that ironically says “Hands Off Our 8th Amendment”.
Their 8th Amendment.
That’s rich I think to myself, before I take my place behind the table of the opposing group, which stands, cold and worried but nonetheless prepared for a possible altercation. One activist, Fiona, speaks through a PA system about the need for a repeal of the 8th Amendment, while I and several others proceed to hand out leaflets and sell badges to an ever-increasing group of people, men and women, young and old, approaching the table for more information, wanting to know what’s happening, wanting to help out, wanting to see what will occur once ‘the bus’ arrives.
There’s a brief moment where things don’t look good for the pro-choice side, the numbers have begun to grow on the other side of the footpath for the allegedly ‘pro-life’ group shouting “murder” at us. Despite their contingent being almost exclusively old men and women, with just 3 women of child-bearing age, we are nonetheless slightly outnumbered. That is the case until people approaching the table realize that the arrival time for the bus is growing closer and closer, at which point they begin to stay, to see what could happen. They stay beside the table; some of them are gracious enough to pick up some of our posters and hold them up for the other side to see where their allegiances lie. ‘Women Can’t Wait’ & ‘Repeal the 8th‘.
And that’s the point when the chanting begins. Fiona wants to draw more people over to us, to have a chat with the people manning the table, to engage with people on the issue. She begins requesting for us to chant with her. “Not the Church, Not the State. Women must decide their fate.” This is quickly and hastily met with derision by the anti-choice group, who chant “Life” over and over, before changing it to the radically thought-out “Abortion Is Murder”.
The people on our side begin to quickly outnumber their elderly screamers, covering different demographics: men, women, children, hetero-, homo-, bi- (me, in case you’re wondering how I can tell if someone’s bisexual), migrants. The opposition still maintains their retiree majority, with only one or two diverging from that norm, but largely the same age. What disappoints me above all else is seeing the amount of people I know on that side; older people that I’ve previously met at public meetings for various social issues, including members of the local group ‘Ballyphehane/South Parish Says No’. That ‘no’ is supposed to be to water charges, I might add, but they have recently branched out to include, under that banner, gay marriage (ever since the Marriage Equality Referendum), and now, disappointingly, women’s bodily autonomy.
The moment of truth happens. The bus arrives on to Patrick Street. Adorned in stickers and posters calling for a repeal. The passing of the bus gives rise to cheers of welcoming and excitement from the pro-choice group, boos and screams from the pro-life people. The crowd on the footpath, still spread out, will not leave enough space for the bus to park off the road, as was the original plan. The bus is diverted to park in front of a nearby delivery laneway by Penneys. With this, the table is hoisted up and carried to Penneys, and the two contingents swarm towards the bus, inadvertently mixing together, in a haze of chants, placards and violent screaming by men in their 50’s.
Before I go any further, let’s travel back in time a bit. Not too far; just to the day beforehand, when the bus itself took off from Dublin, it was met with objection from Pro Life Ireland, with their members wearing T-shirts adorned with the phrase “Positively Protecting Life”.
This is not what I see here on the busiest street in Cork. What I witness from the pro-life activists when the bus arrives, and continuously as the pro-choice activists disembark the bus and speak to the crowd, can be summed up with the following words:
And last, but not by any means, least:
Some of the so-called “positive” protesters begin to hold an impromptu emergency mass on the footpath behind the bus, complete with a priest (probably not a real one), and several women wearing rosary beads, copies of the Bible, and mantillas, which I have never actually seen outside of Hollywood movies until that moment on the street.
As the crowds mix together in a frenzy, the 20-strong group of activists emerge from the bus slowly, carrying banners and posters, greeting the mixed crowd, surrounded by people screaming either “Keep your rosaries off our ovaries” or “Murderers”. “Not the Church, not the State. Women must decide their fate” or “Go away”.
The pro-choice chants disappear to make way for speeches by the bus attendees, but the hate-filled anti-choice roars never seem to stop. They selfishly overshadow the testimonies of women who are brave enough to speak about why repeal is important to them, why women deserve better than a law that ignores them in favour of a ball of cells; even a rape victim speaking into the microphone can only just about be heard by the crowd as old men aggressively boo and scream at her.
At my vantage point, I have trouble hearing the speeches, as one of the ‘Ballyphehane/South Parish Says No’ members stood right behind me, blaring a megaphone into the back of my head, saying “abortion is murder” repeatedly, with little to no deviation from his script. This particular individual (we’ll call him John, because that’s his actual name) has previously displayed particularly bloodcurdling hatred towards women, and was making no secret of his misogyny at the rally, regularly insulting any woman who complained that he was deafening them with the megaphone, and only listening to the men who eventually grew tired of his behaviour, and began telling him to shut up. I tell him to keep away from me; he replies “fuck off, murderer”. My boyfriend orders him to “stay away from my girlfriend”; he sheepishly replies “you don’t have a girlfriend”, runs away with his tail between his legs, and hides from my boyfriend for the remainder of the rally.
As the numbers on both sides of the rally fluctuate, with pro-life members disappearing to make room for more pro-choice people to join in the hullabaloo as they are walking by, some of the remaining pro-lifers become physically aggressive. I witness one of the Emergency Mass congregation forcing himself on to some of the women holding pro-choice posters. Adorned with enough rosary beads to rival Mr. T on the bling scale, he throws his entire body weight onto several young women, who quickly push him back, out of frustration and over brewing anger. At this point, he begins to physically assault the women, punching one in the face as he is forced away. I look on in horror and disgust, realizing that he is maintaining an empty smile, a look of perverted sexual arousal, during the entire fracas. He seems to be getting an almost orgasmic thrill out of hurting women. Despite his behaviour being reported to a nearby police officer, nothing comes of it, and he is left to hang around, smiling at the women he assaulted.
The speeches continue, despite boos and screams from old men, still holding pictures of blond haired, blue-eyed little girls they have convinced themselves they are protecting, all the while being held back from the speakers by the now overwhelming crowd of supporters for repeal. Posters and leaflets get passed around among supporters, and people are flocking back to the old faithful table where we started, signing petitions, taking leaflets, buying T-shirts (designed by yours truly) and telling the people behind the table what amazing work they’re doing, in the midst of the chaotic scenes all around them.
The event is wrapped up after about an hour, with chants from the bus speakers, helping to show what anti-choice people that are remaining, that they are most certainly outnumbered. The bus slowly drives away, to the sound of young people chanting “Women can’t wait, repeal the 8th” and smatterings of old men roaring “Fuck off, bus” and “Go home”.
The event is over; small gangs of people remain at the scene outside Penneys, some talking to activists manning the table, others starting arguments with people they don’t agree with. Some of the pro-choice people begin mocking the anti-choice people, telling them that if they hurry, they can still get to Mass on time and pray for their mortal souls. I spot Fiona, who is talking to a reporter, all the while getting it in the neck from an elderly man carrying yet another “precious little girl” poster, who insists on following her around as the reporter speaks to her. As I approach her to speak to her, she begins giving her phone number to the reporter. I spot that the elderly man is sneakily trying to take note of her phone number as well, and I quickly cover the reporter’s notepad so her number can’t be seen, fearful of what an anti-choice person could do with such personal information as the contact details of one of the main speakers from the rally.
The table remains on the street to give information to people about the services advertised by the bus activists. The pro-forced pregnancy people set up camp down the street and remain there for only a short amount of time with their posters, before petering away.
I head off with my boyfriend at this point, having witnessed the exact level of hatred there is in Irish society for women having their own bodily control. As worried as I am by the violence displayed by the pro-life crowd, I’m delighted to see that they weren’t able to maintain their numbers consistently throughout the event, while the pro-choice numbers grew and grew. It reflects what has been happening in society in recent years; the old attitudes are fading away and dying, and an appetite for change is beginning to boil over, pushing the old regime back with a hell of a force.
Women can’t wait any longer for the older generations to give us our rights. Yes, maybe it is their amendment, but it will be OUR repeal.
By Doreen Manning,
Doreen is an activist with ROSA (for Reproductive Rights, Against Oppression, Sexism and Austerity) who organised the Abortion Pill Bus action that toured Ireland and made headlines. You can check them out on Twitter (@ROSAwomen) on Facebook or by going to http://www.Rosa.ie