As the elections approach next week, Lorna O’Hara, who is studying for her PhD in Maynooth’s Department of Geography, reflects on her involvement in reproductive rights activism in Ireland and in Germany. From a personal perspective, this blog discusses the history of feminist activism in Dublin, some of the challenges of being an activist researcher and feminist geographer, as well as research-relevant insights that emerge from activist practice.
In the late 1990s the 8th Amendment still wasn’t something that people talked about; indeed abortion was something that was only spoken about in a hushed tone. However, I remember, at the age of about 16 or 17, arguing a lot about abortion rights with my boyfriend at the time. Back then he was vehemently pro-life, but I was pro-choice. I recall thinking to myself: “Fine then. If that’s the way you’re going to act then I’ll be damned if I ever tell you if I have an abortion”. In fact, my friends and I made pacts with each other that if we ever became pregnant and needed an abortion that we’d help each other get to England – a coping mechanism for a sad reality that is the way Irish law continues to control women’s bodies. Before self-identifying as a feminist or activist, I already realised then that an anti-choice atmosphere only forces people to do things in secret and with the weight of stigma.
In Ireland, the secret travels by women who are forced to go to cities such as London, Liverpool and Manchester or even further afield are staggering. Between January 1980 and December 2014, roughly 163,514 women and girls travelled from the Republic of Ireland to access safe abortion services in another country. In fact 12 women leave Ireland every day to access abortion services (IFPA, 2014). These figures only include those who travelled to the UK; it does not include those who travelled to other countries in Europe or even North America, which many do. In addition, these statistics only take into account those women who provided an Irish address, which many women refuse to provide because of the stigma attached to abortion in Ireland.
The control and discipline of women’s bodies must be taken into account in order to understand structural, economic and political inequality between the rights of men and women (Roberts, 2003). The very existence of the 8th Amendment, which equates the life of a woman to that of a foetus, and the unworkable nature of the law on abortion in Ireland strips women, particularly pregnant women, of their right to appropriate healthcare. Restrictions on their reproductive choices denies women bodily and individual autonomy.
The author at the March for Choice, Dublin 2014 (Source: Paula Geraghty Photography)
My pro-choice beliefs are what led me to my first encounter with feminist activism. I can’t remember a time when I hadn’t believed it was a woman’s right to choose when it came to abortion –all my friends had always been very pro-choice as well – it just seemed like common sense to us. This was long before any of us self-identified as feminists. And then…those infamous Youth Defence posters appeared in the summer of 2012.
At first I didn’t know who this group was; their misleading and deeply upsetting posters seemed to pop up overnight all over the city. Youth Defence, a religious anti-choice group are known for their campaign: “Abortion tears her life apart”. The billboards and posters featured that slogan and also text stating that “There’s always a better option”. This was accompanied by images of a troubled woman or an 18-week old foetus ripped apart. The advertisements created a public outcry, with petitions created to lobby the advertisement company JC Deceaux to stop the propagation of misleading information. For Senator Ivana Bacik: “They depict a foetus at more than 18 weeks, although 89 per cent of abortions take place before 13 weeks. The advertisements are grossly offensive” (quoted in O’Connell, 2012). In a way, you can say their despicable tactics were one of the greatest catalysts for the pro-choice movement in Ireland for thousands of women and men.
Humble beginnings: Anti-Youth Defence Protest outside the Dáil, July 2012. (Source: Author)
2012 marked a sort of renaissance in feminist activism in Ireland. Debates started on Facebook. People connected over it; plans were made; groups were set up; and a movement began to take shape. For example, Sinead Redmond, a friend of a friend from Maynooth, set up the Facebook page “Unlike Youth Defence, I trust women to decide their lives for themselves.” Through social media, pro-choice activism was quickly coordinated; many followers and moderators of that page would later become founders of the all-Ireland pro-choice group Abortion Rights Campaign (ARC). In 2012, many Irish women, including some friends and I, went to Belfast to participate in the counter-demo against the ‘All Ireland Rally for Life’, fuelled by our collective disgust over the Youth Defence posters that plastered the city streets. A group of friends and I also decided to set up a small feminist discussion group at the time, the South Dublin Feminist Society, which sadly, due to the emigration of all the founding members, would fall apart a year later in 2013. Many other pro-choice protests and marches were organised; the early meetings and events that would lead to the foundation of ARC took place. The place was buzzing!
At this time, I was in the middle of my Master’s degree (in European Studies) and struggled to find the time to be more involved in these initiatives. This remains an issue to this day: how to do you strike a balance between academia and activism? I would later learn through my PhD research in Geography that you don’t need to be just an academic or just an activist – that you could be both! Many human geographers are socially engaged scholars. Throughout my undergraduate degree I had been exposed to themes which illustrated uneven development, inequality and injustice in the world around me. As both a geographer and an activist, I was able to put research and activist practice together through Feminist Participatory Action Research (FPAR), feminist methodologies, and activist research designs. Through this kind of research, projects are either created in collaboration with a civil society group, or they can emerge from the insights provided through activism and activist research in practice (Gatenby & Humphries, 2000; Kindon, Pain & Kesby, 2007). In addition to providing in-depth information about various groups, such an approach allows you to “give back” to these groups by sharing data and collaborating on research tasks as well as their projects, an ethical practice in FPAR that helps build relationships of trust (Cole, 1991).
In 2014, I found myself in Berlin, working in an unsatisfying job to make ends meet. I now had the energy to get more involved and wanted to find my fellow feminists. But where were they? I had just left behind the excitement of the renewed feminist movement in Ireland, and now I felt cut-off from them. How could I make myself useful in the struggle? This was Berlin and it didn’t take long to find them and become involved in pro-choice activism. I met the founders of Berlin-Irish Pro Choice Solidarity (BIPCS) at a LaDIYfest 2014, a feminist DIY festival that I had become involved with when I arrived in Berlin. I helped organise the small group with two Irish women who had originally set it up after news of the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar spread throughout Europe and the world. Then, they stood outside the Irish Embassy in November 2012 and said “Never Again!” Unfortunately, we had to take to the streets once more when the shocking news of Ms Y broke.
Berlin Irish Pro Choice Solidarity protest outside the Irish Embassy in Berlin following the Ms Y case.
One important aspect of feminist social networks is personal networks and the role of social media, as I described above; but forms of solidarity also happen at multiple scales to challenge the policing of women’s bodies by crossing legal, political and other boundaries. For example, after the BICPS’s Irish Embassy protest at the horrendous treatment of Ms Y, I found myself at another counter-demonstration, still facing people who had no problem forcing their “morals” on to women in an attempt to take away basic human rights that they’ve fought for and won. I had never seen anything quite like this counter-demo: the German pro-life marchers were all holding big white crosses and police in riot gear stood around menacingly (something protesters in Berlin seem to be well acquainted with, but always a bit of a shock to an outsider). The German pro-choice activists gave it their all, chanting “Kein Gott, kein Staat, kein Patriachat” [No god, No state, No patriarchy], and defiantly sat down, successfully blocking the path of the (notoriously) sexist, racist and homophobic Christian fundamentalists. However, it wasn’t long until the police began to roughly grab and blatantly use force against the activists. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The pro-choice activists continued undeterred. We marched in solidarity with German women, Spanish women, Polish women, Irish women – for women everywhere whose right to choose is still under threat. Here I learned the power of connecting internationally: to help each other, to learn from each other, and to fight for free, safe, legal abortion for all.
Berlin Irish Pro Choice Solidarity at the counter demo for Marsch fur das Leben (Source: James Fancourt photography)
Following the protest, the Bündnis für Sexuelle Selbstbestimmung [translation: Alliance for Sexual Self-Determination], an association of German pro-choice groups and political parties, had organised for activists from various German and international groups to speak in front of the Brandenburg Gate. Our tiny group had nothing prepared, but we felt it was important that people knew what was happening in Ireland, so I was urged to get up and say a few words. Deathly afraid of public speaking, I faced a crowd of 1,000 people completely unprepared. But I managed to speak. The response was amazing, so many amazing women (and men!) from all over the world, applauding and showing their support in the international struggle to protect reproductive rights.
A year later some of us from the Berlin Irish Pro Choice Solidarity group went to the German-Polish border to show our solidarity with Polish Pro-Choice activists, Cioca Basia, and Dutch/International pro-choice activists Women on the Waves. The latter organised an “abortion pill drone” that delivered the abortion pill over the Oder river (German-Polish border) to the Polish activists and women. An incredibly inspirational action. The Women on the Waves group hopes to do something similar in Ireland very soon.
“The Abortion Drone” action at the German Polish border, Frankfurt am Oder, July 2015 (Source: Author).
I also learned about the power of art and humour in activist practice. My last few weeks in Berlin were spent with BIPCS organising a fundraiser in Berlin in aid of the Abortion Support Network (ASN), a London based group that helps Irish women acquire abortions in the UK by providing them with money, support and even accommodation. With the wonderful support of the queer feminist bar, Silver Future, and a number of talented performers and activists, the night was a huge success and we managed to raise over €550 for ASN. We created a really beautiful night, filled with spoken word and music that had strong pro-choice messages by Irish and Polish artists who came together in solidarity. The event even got picked up by Vice Magazine, further raising awareness of the abortion situation in Ireland on an international scale.
Knickers for Choice action at BIPCS fundraiser, September 2015. (Source: Maansi Jain, Vice Magazine).
Through these experiences, I developed an international comparative PhD proposal to study street harassment and fourth-wave feminist movements in European capital cities. After doing structured research with and about feminist groups in Berlin, I returned to Dublin to do coursework and research (Autumn 2015) and am happy to learn how much has changed in two years since I’ve left – so many new faces, groups, and alliances have formed within the larger pro-choice movement. There are many reasons why people decide to support the movement to repeal the 8th Amendment. These groups and alliances allow individuals to participate in numerous forms of activism.
Nevertheless, larger international cross-group solidarity actions remain critical. One week after my return I attended the fourth annual March for Choice, which took place in Dublin on 26th September, co-ordinating with the 28th of September Global Day of Action for Access to Safe and Legal Abortion. The Global Day of Action for Access to Safe and Legal Abortion was chosen in 2011 by the Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights (WGNRR) but September 28th has been a day of action for Latin American and Caribbean abortion rights activists for the past two decades (WGNRR, 2014). Back in Dublin, I worked as a volunteer and helped set up the post-march afterparty and exhibition. On the eve of the march, volunteers were invited to attend a seminar called “All of Us”, which focused on international solidarity in pro-choice activism at The Complex on Little Green Street the previous evening. The seminar focused on what had been done and what could be done to ensure access to safe and legal abortion on a European-wide basis. European activists, mainly from Finland and Spain, as well as some European MEPs, underlined the importance of activism in the fight for legislation in the European Parliament. Belgian MEP Maria Arena stood up and stated: “We in parliament need you. We need your support”. The talk was inspiring and rousing. To me, it really demonstrated the importance of international connections among feminist activists; to strategise in the fight for political change, such as the possibility of ‘scale-jumping’ to enforce civil rights laws for people at the international scale and override laws at the national level.
Thousands march down the O’Connell street at the March for Choice, 2015 (Source: Author)
The sun shone on the day of the March for Choice and over 10,000 people came out, making it the biggest march yet! The crowd was socially mixed: families marched alongside men and women of all ages. Onlookers on the streets stood and clapped as we walked by — it was then that I realised that things had really changed, even since the first March for Choice four years ago. This year, when we got to our destination at Merrion Square, talks were given by a variety of people. The most thunderous applause was for the spokeswomen from AkiDwA (a women’s network for immigrant women) and the Travelling community. It was truly wonderful to see more diversity and support for those who often get marginalised, even at feminist events.
At the march we joked about the numbers that the conservative Irish media would report had attended the march, having grown accustomed to them either ignoring the march altogether, or presenting grossly underestimated figures in previous reports on pro-choice marches. You can imagine my surprise when the march made the first segment on the RTE evening news – something that had never happened before! For me it is a sign of change when a conservative state media organisation acknowledges the true size of a movement. Part of the national media recognition may also reflect the overwhelming Irish support of the Marriage Equality Act earlier this year.
Still, very large challenges remain for activists, especially in the run-up to the general elections. ARC have launched their My Body, My Choice, My Vote general election pack in order to help people find out their local candidates’ position on the 8th Amendment. In addition to organising some incredibly innovative training sessions on how to speak to your local representatives about their views on abortion rights, they’ve also made the pack available online for everyone to download and use during the run-up to the general election. Other recent projects, such as The X-ile Project, are also creatively using the internet to gather images and create an online gallery containing the faces and stories of women and trans-men who have been forced to travel abroad in order to access abortions services. The project aims to tackle the continuing stigma around abortion in Ireland by giving “a much-needed face to women* who have effectively been exiled from Ireland and ignored due to unduly restrictive abortion laws” (The X-ile Project, 2015).
One thing is very clear: Repealing the 8th Amendment and ensuring access to safe and legal abortion is, and will remain, a major political issue in Ireland. Reproductive rights stand alongside other important issues such as the housing crisis, water charges, and health care reform in this year’s general election — and next week citizens will make their voices heard.
* The X-ile project is inclusive of members of the transgender community
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The X-ile Project (2015) Our Mission [Online] Available at: http://www.x-ileproject.com/new-page/ (accessed: 20th Feb, 2016).
Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights (WGNRR) (2014). Herstory [Online] Available at: http://www.september28.org/herstory/ (accessed: 20th Feb, 2016).