Rise and Repeal: The dawn of real reproductive rights reform in Ireland

On September 24th, despite bus strikes and heavy rain, an estimated 25,000 people gathered in Dublin for the ‘Rise and Repeal’ march, organised by the Abortion Rights Campaign. It was the biggest ever pro-choice march in Dublin and there were solidarity demonstrations in 25 cities around the world — from New York City to Kathmandu. Many are calling this unprecedented show of resistance a tipping point in the fight for reproductive rights in Ireland.

Thousands march in Dublin. Photo from http://thejournal.ie, Source: Sam Boal.

The law in Ireland

On the streets and in the Dáil chamber (the lower house of the Irish parliament) people are calling for one thing: the repeal of the eighth amendment. But what is the eighth amendment and what does it mean for reproductive rights in Ireland? The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution (1983) is a constitutional ban on abortion which equates the foetus’ right to life to the mother’s right to life, criminalising abortion even in cases of rape, incest and fatal or severe foetal impairment. In 2013, after the preventable death of Savita Halappanavar, the Irish legislature was forced to modify its abortion laws. Following a miscarriage, Savita Halappanavar died of septicaemia in an Irish hospital because she was denied the abortion that would have saved her life. So, Irish lawmakers passed The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013 (PLDPA), which clarifies that abortion is illegal in every circumstance except one: a risk to the mother’s life, including through suicide. However, the fact that the PLDPA fails to explain what constitutes “risk to life”, and the fear of a possible 14-year prison sentence facing those who get an abortion and healthcare professionals who assist them, means that this modification to the law has barely changed the reality for those who are in need of an abortion in Ireland.

10 to 12 people travel every day, others can’t

A recent Amnesty International report stated that “the government has relied on the ‘safety valve’ of women travelling to England and other jurisdictions” for abortions. According to the UK Department of Health Statistics, between 10 and 12 people living in Ireland travelled to England or Wales for safe abortions every day. As shocking as it is, this is probably a drastic underestimate as many do not give their Irish address at the clinics, to preserve their anonymity, and many travel to Scotland and other countries for abortions. Overall, Amnesty International reports that “the Republic of Ireland forces around 4,000 women each year to travel abroad in order to obtain an abortion”.

The question was brought to the forefront of public debate this August when an Irish woman who was forced to travel to England to access a safe abortion decided to make a powerful political statement out of her personal ordeal. Together with a friend who accompanied her, she used the handle @TwoWomenTravel to live-tweet the journey, tagging the Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny in each tweet. Though Kenny failed to respond, the #TwoWomenTravel story was not ignored. Their posts got up to 2.3k re-tweets, made headlines all around the world and public figures — including the Irish Health Minister, Simon Harris — joined the conversation.

In showing the grim reality of travelling for an abortion, #TwoWomenTravel made a huge dent in the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality of the Irish lawmakers. But we must also remember those who are unable to travel. This unspoken policy of out-sourcing the ‘problem’ of abortion doesn’t only affect who have to travel, it also has devastating consequences for migrants, asylum-seekers and those living in poverty. Stranded in Ireland, many have to face the options of carrying an unviable or unwanted pregnancy to term or resorting to clandestine and often life-threatening measures.

An important year for abortion rights in Ireland

Despite the dire situation in Ireland, there is cause for optimism. With the amazing turnout for the Rise and Repeal march, the overwhelming response to the #TwoWomenTravel story and the outcry following the censoring of the ‘Repeal the 8th’ mural in Dublin, access to free, safe and legal abortion has been a topic of public conversation all year.

The Repeal mural, by Irish artist Maser, was removed from the wall of the Project Arts Centre following a warning notice from Dublin City Council. Photo from her.ie

The most significant thing to happen for Irish abortion rights this year was the historic United Nations ruling in June. The UN Human Rights Committee ruled that Amanda Mellet’s human rights had been violated when, after receiving a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormalities in 2011, she was forced to decide between carrying the pregnancy to term or travelling for an abortion. It was a groundbreaking move from the UN, but Prime Minister Kenny failed to give any meaningful response. He merely announced that he would move plans for a citizen’s assembly on abortion forward. However, the ruling did spark a real response in other members of the Irish parliament. Mick Wallace TD proposed a modest bill which moved to decriminalise abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities. The constitutional ban on abortion prevented this proposal from becoming anything more than symbol of resistance, but that didn’t stop it from gaining some support in the Dáil, including an important revolt from three Independent government ministers. Following the vote, Ruth Coppinger TD moved a bill for a referendum on the repeal of the Eighth Amendment, which will be brought before parliament in October. It may seem like things are moving slowly — with the process of bill proposals, parliamentary debates and votes — but this latest proposal is really exciting and many commentators are predicting a referendum on the Eighth Amendment as early as 2017.

What’s next and what we can do

The idea of a referendum is so exciting because there is already a huge amount of support for abortion rights in Ireland. A recent Amnesty poll shows that 87% of people want access to abortion to be expanded and that almost 60% of people would vote to repeal of the Eighth Amendment. These figures are very encouraging but, as recent events in Poland have shown, to actually achieve the breakthrough which women in Ireland need, marches and demonstrations — no matter how amazing the turnout — may not be enough. A lot of pro-choice voices in Ireland have started to consider a women’s strike, after action in Poland led to a u-turn on a proposed near-total ban on abortion there. Strike or no strike, one thing is clear to pro-choice campaigners: we all need to do everything in our power to build the pressure on parliament and keep reproductive rights at the forefront of public debate.

So, here are a few links to things we can do:

  • Sign this petition from The Abortion Rights Campaign, which calls for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment
  • Follow the direct action feminist performance group Speaking of I.M.E.L.D.A on Facebook to keep up to date with their latest news and join them on their next action
  • Buy a REPEAL sweatshirt (when they’re back in stock…) and then wear it everywhere you go. They look great and all proceeds go the The Abortion Rights Campaign.
  • Follow Women on Web, read and share their news and testimonies, smash the taboo and keep informed on pro-choice movements around the world.

By Ellioté Long

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