The Irish Abortion Bus Is on a Cross Country Tour

Abortion rights activists are touring Ireland in an 'Abortion Pill Bus' to raise awareness and change the law.

|
Oct 25 2015, 4:00pm

Google Image

A group of Irish abortion rights activists arrived in central Dublin today on the 'Abortion Pill Bus', returning from a country-wide tour to promote the pill for early-term abortions. Though under Irish law their actions risk a prison sentence of up to fourteen years, they encountered no legal opposition. "The biggest threat we've faced so far from the state was a parking fine," one activist told me as she climbed down the bus steps.

The activists were greeted with cheers and camera flashes from a crowd braving the October cold at Temple Bar in the city centre. They then led a rally outside the Central Bank, with speeches by Ailbhe Smyth, convener of the Repeal the 8th coalition, and Ruth Coppinger, a TD ('Teachta Dala', Irish equivalent to Member of Parliament) for the Irish Socialist Party.

The bus tour was organized by the group Reproductive rights, against Oppression, Sexism and Austerity (ROSA). They stopped in the cities of Galway, Limerick and Cork before returning to the capital. ROSA's goal was to highlight the availability and safety of the abortion pill, and to promote the wider campaign to repeal Ireland's controversial Eighth Amendment which gives equal rights to an unborn child as to its mother. The amendment was passed in 1983, and the campaign to repeal began that same year. Many of its earliest protestors are still campaigning today.

Watch: The Abortion Pill

Coppinger referred to the results of Ireland's recent Marriage Referendum, which legalized gay marriage in Ireland in May and passed officially into law earlier this week, as setting the stage for a new battle: "Obviously there is huge momentum there... we know that the result of the marriage referendum signposted to the future." She also praised a new generation of Irish female activists, saying "it was young people and it was women who swung that referendum."

Ailbhe Smyth of the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth pointed to the safety of the abortion pill, and how she has yet to hear of a doctor refusing to treat a woman who had taken it. Meanwhile Cora Sherlock, Deputy Chairperson of the 'Pro-Life' Campaign, labelled the bus 'irresponsible' and 'a cheap publicity stunt' in the press.

The atmosphere on the bus trip was described as a 'righteous hen party', and the reception at Central Bank was jubilant. However, ROSA members told of some harrowing scenes on the road: a small but very vocal number of anti-abortion protesters turned out to meet their arrival in every city.

Leah O'Mahoney, a seventeen-year-old activist who joined the tour, said "It was very hard at times. The [anti-abortion protestors] were extremely intimidating, harassing the women who came to the bus, and calling us murderers. In Cork an eighteen-year-old woman spoke about how she had been raped at fourteen and sought an abortion, and they shouted that she had no respect for herself." Another activist told me that they screamed the word "shame" over and over, as well as shouting down a migrant woman who told her abortion story in public.

An eighteen-year-old woman spoke about how she had been raped at fourteen and sought an abortion, and they shouted that she had no respect for herself.

Speaking at Central Bank, ROSA members invited any women seeking an abortion to come and speak to them after the rally, so that they could arrange a consultation with Women on Web. The online abortion pill provider is descended from Women on Waves, a group which originally took abortion-seekers out to sea to circumvent laws in different countries. Women on Web help an unknown number of Irish women every year. The number of pills seized at customs is on the rise, and you can find their URL scrawled on the backs of doors in ladies toilets, in bars and nightclubs in every Irish city.

Laura Fitzgerald, an activist with ROSA, highlighted how Irish use of these pills is common knowledge, and so widespread as to be un-policeable. Police failed to stop or even approach them: "Nothing was said to us, because we have the majority of support in Irish society–81% of the nation's support. They couldn't dare take us on. It lays bare the layers of hypocrisy in this state and in our political establishment."

Passing through four cities, the bus was accessed by a diverse number of women: women who already had children as well students, rape survivors and women too poor to travel, even to the UK. Fitzgerald said "We heard some very harrowing stories. Personally I found it very upsetting, listening to what they're going through." Coppinger mentioned her surprise at the number who turned out: "Women showed up at the bus despite being molested and accosted by [anti-abortion protestors]. They were willing to go through that, because they are desperate."

A clinically dead woman's body was kept alive as a cadaveric incubator in order to carry her baby to term.

Only last year a clinically dead woman's body was kept alive as a 'cadaveric incubator', in order to carry her baby to term. A legal quagmire, Irish abortion law was barely altered after the death of Savita Halappanavar, who died in pain in a Galway hospital in 2012 after being told "this is a Catholic country", and that the abortion which would have saved her life could not be performed. Though technically abortion might be accessed if the pregnant woman is suicidal, instances are rare and the laws surrounding it remain cloudy. Coppinger noted in her speech "It's interesting how in Galway we saw anti-abortion placards talking about endangering women's lives. This, in the same city where a woman died because of the eighth amendment."

Transport has played an important role in the underground history of Irish abortions, dating back to the boat used by Women on Waves and the Contraceptive Train of 1971, which saw a team of feminists deliver condoms to an Irish public denied them outside marriage (last year saw ROSA recreate their journey, bringing abortion pills with them instead). We still ship off twelve women per day, on average, for abortions abroad, on Ryanair flights or the ferry or whatever else they can afford.

Read More: Meet the Terrorists in the War on Women

Still, the rally ended on an optimistic note: sidestepping the police, ROSA have successfully spread the word in four different cities. The abortion bus brief trended on Irish Twitter, before reverting to talk about rugby. A few streets away a pair of middle-aged men handed out miraculous medals and leaflets about heaven and hell, but the anti-abortion contingent otherwise refrained from making an appearance.

The speakers concluded that a referendum can only be a matter of time. Fitzgerald listed Ireland's dark history of the denial of women's rights, but pointed to a brighter future: "The incarceration of women in the Magdalene Laundries, the abuse of women in the state that the Catholic church presided over, that's all in the past. We represent the future, genuine equality and the separation of church and state." The Irish anti-abortion brigade doesn't bother her: "Of course they're ready to mobilize against us, because they realize we can win."