Image by Grace Wilentz

Now That Gay Marriage Is Legal in Ireland, It Looks Like Abortion Could Be Next

The Irish people voted on same-sex marriage in May, and the country's newfound appetite for progressive change has now rolled over into the ongoing fight for safe and legal abortions.

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Aug 18 2015, 3:10pm

Image by Grace Wilentz

The marriage equality referendum in May this year saw Ireland vote in favor of same-sex marriage, a powerful statement of intent for a newly progressive country ready to shrug off its Catholic heritage.

But even as plans for the first post-referendum weddings are made, the Irish Abortion Rights Campaign (ARC) is preparing for the country's next big issue, one that will unearth uncomfortable truths about a nation not quite free from its history--a history filled with the institutionalized oppression of women and criticized even now for its denial of human rights.

Abortion remains illegal in Ireland, completely inaccessible even in cases of rape and incest, unless there is a "real and substantive" risk to the mother's life--or if the woman in question is suicidal and willing to sit before a panel of obstetricians and psychiatrists to prove it. The vast majority never do, opting instead to travel to England or further afield, or ordering pills from the Netherlands-based service Women on Web to abort at home.

But the ARC remains active, in constant preparation for a public vote on legalizing abortion, which it sees as inevitable. This month it is holding an open meeting, preparing for its fourth annual March for Choice, and moving into the office occupied up until recently by the Yes campaign for marriage equality. It's an auspicious move, to the space where the plan to rehabilitate Ireland from fire-and-brimstone Catholic stronghold to LGBT-friendly new country was formed.

For someone involved with the political left to experience a win, I think it's really rare and galvanizing.

I met members of the ARC in their current office near Temple Bar in Dublin, across the street from where a huge pro-equality wall mural by artist Joe Caslin famously appeared during the referendum campaign, to talk about how support for the marriage referendum might give way to support for abortion rights.

"There's a big crossover in terms of social justice, and the people who want to progress Ireland beyond where we currently are," says Claire Brophy, an ARC activist. "The first time we saw it for certain was at our June monthly meeting. Normally attendance is fifty people or so, but this time over 700 showed up. We had the biggest room in the building, and it was full. There was this really great atmosphere, the kind we had at the beginning of ARC when we were just starting up. "

"This month, again the open meeting was full," she continues. "We even had people standing at the back."

Alongside a groundswell in Dublin, new ARC branches have formed outside the capital, in Galway, Limerick, Cork, Sligo, and in Belfast. Despite the latter city being part of Northern Ireland and hence part of the UK, abortion is still illegal there and women must travel to England and pay for their abortions.

Cathie Doherty, also an ARC campaigner, describes the movement's new supporters. "They're from varied backgrounds--trade unionists, people from different political organizations and parties, people who had never been politically active prior to the referendum--all brought together by the Yes campaign," she explains. "For someone involved with the political left to experience a win, I think it's really rare and galvanizing."

Protesters on a pro-choice march in Ireland. Photo courtesy of the Irish Abortion Rights Campaign (ARC)

Hours after Ireland voted yes to the right for same-sex couples to marry, tweets began to appear calling for the next referendum to be one repealing the Eighth Amendment, which bans access to abortion. Less than a month after the same-sex marriage referendum, Ireland passed the Gender Recognition Bill. Though admittedly imperfect, it grants trans people the right to change their legal gender based on self-identification alone. A more progressive Ireland is taking shape, buoyed by public support and approving international headlines.

But it's easy to forget recent history: Gay sex was still illegal in Ireland up until 1993; the country voted on divorce in 1995; marital rape was only formally recognized by law in 1990, and before 1973 Irish women had to stop working after they were married. Similarly, the sale of condoms was banned up until 1978, whereupon it was made available only on prescription until 1985. "Women have really been 'kept in their place' in Ireland," says Doherty. "The Catholic Church still has a lot to answer for."

Today the country continues to send twelve women on average every day to the UK for abortions.

As with same-sex relationships and sex with forbidden condoms (smuggled over the border, circulated on college campuses and dispensed by rogue rural chemists), abortion rights in Ireland have a nearly invisible history--one willfully silenced in a country where every town sent its 'fallen women' to be incarcerated in a Magdalene Laundry, and where every family has some forgotten daughter or scandalous great-aunt. Today the country continues to send twelve women, on average, every day to the UK for abortions, along with the countless undocumented at-home abortions conducted with illegally obtained pills from Women on Web.

The abortion referendum, when it eventually happens, will be about making these practices visible and de-stigmatizing them, in the same way that the Yes equality campaign won support by grounding its campaign in personal storytelling. Much of the referendum was won by sending campaigners door-to-door, where they would explain in person how much the constitutional change would affect their lives.

But this method might not transfer so easily to reproductive rights. "Marriage equality really is the happy, homogeneous face of the word 'love.' That's something all of us who campaigned for a yes vote were very conscious of," says Rita Harrold of ROSA (For Reproductive Rights, Against Oppression, Sexism and Austerity), a campaign group initiated by women in the Socialist Party. "There's so much taboo [around abortion], and everyone experiences it differently. As much as abortion isn't the terrible thing portrayed by anti-choice advocates, it's still difficult to go through."

Beyond the illegality of the process in Ireland, it also remains technically illegal to explain to someone how to have an abortion, or to even share the name of a clinic abroad. Irish abortion-seekers are condemned to silence from the start. And yet these laws are rarely enforced, with Women on Web posting abortion pills to Irish women from the Netherlands, where it is legal (a reported 200 to 250 Irish women contact the organization every month). This continues partly because politicians understand that, if they were to cut off all access, it would result in enough suicides and botched abortion attempts among Irish women to create a national emergency.

ROSA's abortion pill train last year brought pills from Belfast to Dublin, and saw activists consume them in front of news cameras to demonstrate the pills' safety. "People are using the abortion pill very safely at home," says Harrold. "It makes a mockery of the idea that they're even able to tell us what to do, let alone whether they should tell us."

Other organizations have staged similar interventions, including Speaking of IMELDA (Ireland Making England the Legal Destination for Abortion), a feminist performance group whose name invokes the code name once used in the 80s by the Irish Women's Abortion Support Group.They disrupt events like the St. Patrick's Day parade and the twee female beauty pageant the Rose of Tralee in order to point to the absurdism and tragedy of laws that give women no option other than to be criminals.

The reality is that if you are pregnant here, your body is not your own. The state owns it. A religious doctor owns it.

"For us, the cause of gay rights--including gay marriage, although some of our members feel that there are ongoing problems with marriage as a conservative, social institution--clearly overlaps with the cause of ensuring that there is safe and legal abortion available in Ireland," says one Speaking of IMELDA activist, who preferred to remain anonymous. "Some of our members were directly involved in the gay marriage campaign in Ireland, and we closely observed how the campaign was managed, both at the grassroots level and in terms of national media."

One symbol that surfaces again and again in the battle for Irish reproductive rights is that of the suitcase, packed and ready to leave for England, implying exile and the country's history of shame as national export. But travel is also an economic issue, and the Eighth Amendment harms those marginalized in society the most. "For someone in Ireland on Direct Provision [the status afforded to asylum seekers, which gives them €19 per week to live on and forbids them from seeking employment], they can't travel, and they're terrified of being criminalized," says Brophy.

For these women, the obstacles the government imposes on their bodily autonomy are harder still to overcome--a social failing that played out in the horrifying events of the Miss Y case last year, in which a young refugee woman who said she had been raped in her own country before seeking asylum in Ireland was denied an abortion abroad. She subsequently went on hunger strike, culminating in a C-section performed against her will in an Irish hospital.

"It's women in chains for having had sex," says Harrold. "It's not just bodily autonomy about having an abortion, it's bodily autonomy about having sex. Pro-life arguments say that they want women to have alternative options, but removing the option of abortion is not the way to do that. The reality is that if you are pregnant here, your body is not your own. The state owns it. A religious doctor owns it."

Even as attendance at Catholic Mass dwindles year upon year, the reach of the Church extends in some small way to every institution. In schools, the failure to address gay rights parallels the failure to address sexual consent and reproductive rights. Teachers are made to observe a 'don't ask don't tell' rule. Bizarre demonstrations involving sellotape as a metaphor for the dangers of sexual activity are permitted, but workshops to prevent homophobic bullying are not.

Irish media is also made to observe a '50-50' broadcasting rule, that specifies that both sides of a debate must be represented. The same advocates of conservatism surface again and again as talking heads, specters of old Ireland exhumed from the Iona Institute, a 'socially conservative advocacy group' contested for their murky use of the research term 'institute' and their status as a charity.

The final days of the debate on marriage equality revealed these spokespeople as cartoon villains, reliant on red herring arguments and a definition of marriage that managed to alienate anyone born outside the narrowest definition of a nuclear family. The choice was clear--even if the final result, with 62.1 percent voting yes, wasn't quite the landslide it was billed as. Repealing the Eighth will shake Ireland further out of its comfort zone yet, forcing Ireland to curtail its ongoing track record of secrecy and shame.

A poll conducted this year in Ireland by Amnesty International found that 81 percent wanted to expand the grounds for legal abortion.

"It plays on the idea of shame from families and society, that there's something inherently negative to female sexuality," says Harrold. "If you look at rape sentences in Ireland over the last few years, it's clear that the idea of women having agency just hasn't hit home."

"There is no good abortion or bad abortion," says Emily Waszak from ARC. "All stories are welcome here... We're talking about a basic right to self-determination, and that's true of the LGBTQI movement, migrant rights, the Traveller community. All these issues are connected."

"It's an information campaign," Brophy adds, "and when people see the facts they'll understand." Some of these facts might include that 5,469 abortions were performed on women resident outside England and Wales in 2013--67 percent of whom came from Ireland and 15 percent from Northern Ireland. A poll conducted this year in Ireland by Amnesty International found that 81 percent wanted to expand the grounds for legal abortion, with 67 percent agreeing that we should decriminalize abortion entirely.

Protests for marriage referendum and now the repeal of the Eighth Amendment loom large in the national conscience, uniting Ireland with a previously absent sense of urgency. Social issues now take precedence over allegiance to political parties like the center-right Fine Gael and the conservative Fianna Fail, which Irish young people have grown to view as indiscernible from each other. The same goes for the Catholic Church. "A few months ago," Harrold tells me, "an elderly man came up to the stall and told me. 'Well done for what you're doing, because when I was young everything was a sin.'"

"We're on the right side of history," says ARC representative Doherty. "I don't think we're going to be offered a referendum for free, safe and legal abortion next year or the year after. It's going to be the same as with marriage equality--first there was decriminalization, then civil partnership, then marriage equality." Still, she remains optimistic. "Repealing the Eighth is the next step, but it won't be the last step. First that, then abortion, then full matriarchy...."