- 03 Nov 17
As the Repeal the 8th campaign gathers momentum ahead of next year’s promised referendum, writer, scientist and activist Naomi Elster explains why the movement strives to be all-inclusive – and highlights the duplicity of anti-choice senators Ronan Mullen and Mattie McGrath.
Five years on from the tragic and unnecessary death of Savita Halappanavar, the laws that prevented the abortion which could have saved her life still stand.
Every year, national vigils take place, most notably in Galway, where Savita lived and died. According to their press release, Galway Pro-Choice are this year “holding a candlelit vigil to mark the passing of a brave, intelligent and beautiful woman, whose life was an inspiration and whose death humbled the nation.”
Special care is taken every year to ensure that vigils don’t become protests; events are coordinated with Savita’s remaining family and friends in Galway, and care is taken to respect their wishes. Galway Pro-Choice “hope that the family and friends of Savita find solace in the communal support of the Irish people, and the knowledge that we as a nation are doing everything in our power to ensure that a tragedy like this never happens again.”
On the other hand, less than two weeks before Savita’s anniversary on October 28, Independent Senator Ronan Mullen brought sharp criticism on himself with tactless comments, in which he claimed that, if not for the 8th Amendment, Savita would have had an abortion and would not have been pregnant. The fact is that Savita and her husband wanted her pregnancy; they had even chosen a name.
Friends of the couple subsequently told The Irish Times that Mullen’s comments had caused them distress. Both Mullen and fellow Independent Senator Mattie McGrath have ignored and undermined medical experts to claim that Savita’s death was not caused by Ireland’s abortion laws. It was.
Savita’s death took place just weeks after the first March for Choice. In 2017, the sixth March for Choice drew 40,000 people from across Ireland to protest about both the lack of abortion access in this country, and the 8th Amendment, which makes reform impossible without a referendum victory.
In the six years since the Abortion Rights Campaign was established, we have seen a massive change in the climate around reproductive rights in Ireland – a subject that was more often than not seen as a topic unfit for polite conversation. Veteran campaigner Ailbhe Smyth remembers the shock with which she was greeted in 1992 when she used the word “abortion” in public.
“The government kept referring to abortion as ‘the substantive issue’,” she recalled. “And I was so incensed. I was at this meeting one day and I said, ‘Women don’t go to Liverpool to have a substantive issue, they go to Liverpool to have an abortion’. There was shocked silence, because you didn’t use the word abortion in public, whereas now we all do.”
In addition to Savita, there have been other harrowing cases. In July 2013, the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act was passed, which allows for a 14-year prison term for having an abortion in Ireland. We’ve also had a raped asylum seeker subjected to force-feeding and a forced Caesarean section; a pregnant, brain-dead young woman kept on life-support against her family’s wishes; and a report earlier this year of a teenager sectioned in response to her request for an abortion.
However, in the last six years, we’ve also seen a huge surge in public support, and we now have a much more visible campaign than ever before. Marianne Farrelly, who was involved in setting up the Abortion Rights Campaign (ARC) and is now active with Parents for Choice, said that pro-choice groups had been so small for so long that it was hard to imagine we would get to where we are now.
“The awful tragedy of Savita Halappanavar dying in Galway, in October 2012, really brought home for a lot of people how cruel our laws are,” she notes. “The marches after that got so big. More and more people got involved. More groups formed and ARC became such an amazing, professional campaign group. The March for Choice (coming up this weekend) is getting bigger and bigger. Abortion has gone from being something it was so hard to talk about, to people now wearing jumpers demanding the repeal of the 8th amendment.”
As well as getting bigger, the pro-choice movement has become a lot wider. ARC has several regional groups, who bring the fight for reproductive rights outside Ireland’s main urban centres, to rural areas, which have traditionally been seen as more conservative. We also have several international and expat groups, the most prominent in the UK being the London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign, who are holding solidarity events with the March for Choice on October 30.
Ailbhe Smyth is convener of the Coalition to Repeal the 8th Amendment, of which ARC is a member, along with over 100 other groups incorporating trade unions, refugee and anti-racist groups, youth groups and medical organisations. She explained that, “The whole aim of the setting up the Coalition to Repeal the 8th Amendment was to create the widest and most inclusive platform that we possibly could. And that was based on our analysis that in order to achieve repeal of the 8th Amendment, it would really take a very large movement, really a social movement. Based on our experience going back over the years to 1983, the stronger we are, the wider we are, and the deeper our movement goes, the more likely we are to be able to convince the electorate to remove this highly detrimental clause from the constitution.”
Parents for Choice is one of our fellow members of the Coalition. As Marianne Farrelly explains, “Parents for Choice bust a lot of myths. According to BPAS, over 50% of those who have abortions are parents already. Decisions to have abortions are not made in a vacuum, they are made in homes, in families, in the best interests of the children we already have.
“We know that parenthood is not easy, it should never be a punishment. No contraceptive is 100% effective and we have 40 years of fertility to manage. Denying access to abortion forces women onto paths they may not have personally chosen, and that can have negative ramifications for their whole family. We believe children deserve willing parents who have the emotional, social and financial capacity to be there for them. Every child should be a wanted child.”
Parents for Choice have also highlighted how Ireland’s restrictions on abortion have chilling and far-reaching effects on women who want to be pregnant. In Ireland, pregnant women are the only capable adults who can have medical procedures, including surgery, performed on them without their consent. The HSE (Ireland’s national health body) consent policy names the High Court as the place a judgement should be made if the pregnant person refuses an intervention.
The surge in support for the pro-choice movement is related to wider changes in Irish society that have taken place in the decades since the 8th Amendment was brought in. The Catholic religion doesn’t have the same influence as it once did, and there is a growing movement to make more multi- and non-religious education available in a country where the schools are still overwhelmingly Catholic. In 2015, Ireland became the first country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage by popular vote. Smyth, who was also involved in the Marriage Equality campaign, commented that in the last 34 years attitudes have steadily shifted, to a place where young people are now much more comfortable talking about sexuality and reproductive rights.
“There has been a big shift,” she reflects. “I do think that younger generations are not fearful of speaking about sexuality. They feel horror that this is not available to them as a matter of course. It should be there, simply as an ordinary, normal health procedure available to women.”
Smyth sees the victory for marriage equality in 2015 as a result of this opening up of attitudes – and a push for them to open up even further.
ARC is a grassroots, all volunteer organisation. Merch can be bought or donations made through abortionrightscampaign.ie. People interested in volunteering can email [email protected], or attend one of the commitment-free monthly open meetings (check ARC social media for details).