Repealed: a cause for celebration

(The referendum happened over four weeks ago and I have spent almost that long writing this blog post. When I started writing about this, I discovered that I had a lot to say on the issue and it took some time to wrangle all those words and feelings into something interesting and coherent and not 5,000 words long, but it felt worth doing.)

There has been so much written about the results of the referendum on May 25th and the work that was done in the lead-up to it, much of it incredibly heartfelt and very moving. There was also some sniping about how the (incredibly successful) campaign was run and how “inappropriate” and “disrespectful” it was to celebrate that glorious, surprising victory on May 25. I find it incredible that something thinks they can tell people not to celebrate after years of hard work, of time and energy dedicated to removing something that has caused so much hurt to so many people. It takes a certain type of personality to dictate to anyone what an “appropriate” reaction looks like, and I believe if the photos taken in Dublin Castle on May 26th were not predominately of young women, those articles would not have been written.

I’ve written a number of posts about the Eighth Amendment, about the Citizen’s Assemblymy own feelings about abortion and reproductive rights and the Artist’s Campaign to Repeal the Eighth Amendment and so it felt important, and appropriate, to write something about the result of the referendum. I also wanted to write about why this referendum result is something to be celebrated, and how people in power would do better to listen to women instead of telling them what is and isn’t appropriate.

In her essay I Wish Ann Lovett Were Out Buying a Swimsuit for Lanzarote, Emer O’Toole writes beautifully about the Ireland that existed when the Eighth Amendment went in to the Constitution and the journey the country has taken since then. I’m not going to go back that far. For a long time the changes in Ireland they were hard fought and incremental but also slow and gradual. It feels like they started to pick up speed in 2012.

In February 2012, recently elected TD Clare Daly brought a bill to the Dail to legislate on the X case and allow for abortions in limited circumstances. There was little interest from the rest of the government and the bill went nowhere. Six months later in September 2012, the first March for Choice was organised by the newly formed Abortion Rights Campaign. It was pretty small. We lined up at the Spire, in the middle of O’Connell Street, and heard a few speeches before marching to the Dail. It was a warm, sunny day and a good-spirited march. It couldn’t have been more different to the protests held in response to the death of Savita Hallpanaver later that year.

I remember standing in my kitchen, hearing for the first time how Savita died. I remember feeling both heart-broken and furious that this had been allowed to happen to her. There was also the question of how many other women had this happened to? I walked into work that morning feeling furious. That fury didn’t go away and after work I went down to  the Dail with a couple of friends, joining the many who had gathered there already, in the cold and the dark. A hastily organised gathering; we didn’t know what to do but knew we had to do something. It was the first of many protests that winter, the numbers growing week by week as we stood in the dark, holding candles, feeling the cold damp through our shoes, chanting Never Again.

SavitaProtest
Protest outside the Dáil in November 2012.

The death of Savita and the public outcry that followed forced the government’s hand on abortion. Twenty years later, they would finally legislate on the X Case. It was not something that would have saved Savita or any other woman in her situation,  but as we learnt over the next five years, very little could be done through legislation while the Eighth Amendment was in the constitution.

The debate around that legislation meant more protests outside the Dail the following summer and resulted in the woefully inadequate Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act. This made abortion possible if the woman’s life was at risk due to suicide, as a result of the pregnancy. It came with a number of restrictions, and also stuck in the fourteen year jail sentence for anyone who has an abortion in the State if their life was not at risk, and seven years for anyone who helped them.

There was also the distraction of “Lapgate“; the incident in the Dáil when a female TD as pulled into a lap of a male colleague, he described it as “horseplay”. That this happened in a work place, during a debate about female health that was being broadcast live on tv (the incident took place at 3am but a sharp-eyed viewer caught it and shared it online) gives an insight into how the Irish state and members of government viewed women at the time. The night of the debate was also one of the most profitable nights for the Dáil bar that year.

PLDPBillProtest
Pro and anti-choice protesters outside the Dáil during the legislation of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy bill in July 2013.

A few months after the bill passed, the devastatingly sad case of Ms Y showed that it was not fit for purpose. Ms Y was a refugee who came to Ireland seeking asylum. When she arrived in Ireland she discovered she was pregnant as a result of rape in her home country. She asked for an abortion and was refused. She was suicidal as a result of the pregnancy and the lack of help she had received from the place she had fled to seeking shelter and compassion. She was suicidal enough to be locked in a psychiatric ward but not enough to “qualify” for an abortion, and eventually, the State performed a C-section at 25 weeks. A caesarean section is a major surgical operation. It has a much longer recovery period than a medical or even surgical abortion, and it was a treatment she only consented to under enormous pressure because she didn’t want to be pregnant anymore. The Irish State really has an incredibly long track-record of torturing women, particularly the women in its care. Earlier this month the HSE has admitted liability and said it is willing to compensate Ms Y for failing to provide her with an abortion when she first sought one.

Then at the end of 2014, we learnt of Ms P, a woman being kept on life-support because she was pregnant and doctors were unsure if they could withdraw treatment under the Eighth Amendment because it would end the pregnancy. Like in Savita’s case, the pregnancy was never going to end in a successful delivery but because there was a fetal heart-beat the doctors’ hands were tied. This was always the big problem with the Eighth Amendment; it didn’t allow for a case by case assessment of the situation, for doctors to use their own judgement. Once there was a fetal heart-beat, doctors were limited in what they could do for the woman, her life and health immediately had to be balanced with that of the “unborn”.

These were the most public instances of the hurt and distress caused by the Eighth Amendment over a three years period but they were not the only ones. In 2015 other women started sharing their experiences with the Eighth Amendment. The X-lie Project began collecting and sharing stories and images of Irish women who had had abortions. Within a few weeks of each other in September of that year, Tara Flynn and Roisin Ingle spoke publicly about their abortions. Maser’s mural went up on the wall of Project Arts Centre and was removed after a couple of weeks, which got a lot of people talking. The Repeal Project was launched and those stark black jumpers starting appearing all over the place, and starting conversations. Una Mullally made a radio documentary for the Irish Times Womens’ podcast called The Year The Converstaion Changed, which captures the shift in attitudes towards abortion and the need for change.

But the big moment in 2015 was the success of the Marriage Equality Referendum. Ireland was finally coming out of the long shadow of the church and it felt like change was possible in a really tangible way. It galvanised people to push for change in other areas. The government couldn’t keep pretending abortion wasn’t a political issue. They couldn’t just keep hoping it would just go away. At the same time, it was still a contentious issue that nobody wanted to make a decision on, so they gave it to the Citizen’s Assembly.

March4Choice
The crowd gathered on Merrion Square at the end of the 2016 March for Choice. It was a miserable wet day, and there was a bus strike on in Dublin but it the people still turned out for it.

Though derided as a delaying tactic, the Citizen’s Assembly turned out to be pretty amazing. There was an incredible investment from the citizens themselves; when they asked for an extra weekend to be added to the schedule and when on the final day, they ran over time as they added more questions to their ballot on issues such as abortion for socioeconomic reasons. I was surprised and amazed and delighted with the final results when 64% voted for unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks. I love Ellen Coyne’s article about some of the citizens on referendum day, when a similar result was returned.

The result from the Assembly was very clear. They were clear that the Eighth Amendment (or article 40.3.3 which was what they actually voted on, and which contains the Eighth Amendment) was not adequate, and they were clear about what should replace it. However, the government were not convinced by it and set up the Joint Oireachtas Committee to look again at the evidence. The majority of the Committee came to the same conclusion and the date for the referendum was finally set for May 25th, thirteen months after the Citizen’s Assembly returned their findings.

Once the referendum date was announced, campaigning could officially begin and Together For Yes was launched. Abortion Rights Campaign and Repeal groups around the country quickly came under the Together for Yes banner. This meant the campaign had a country-wide reach within days. These local groups organised training sessions for canvassers where they collected names and numbers for Whatsapp groups so people could keep in touch with others in their area and create their own canvassing groups. It truly was a grass-roots campaign with local groups and people on the ground empowered to get out there and make things happen.

For me, one of the most memorable and moving days of the campaign was the launch of Together for Yes’s crowd-funding campaign. The original aim was to raise €50,000 in seven days. It was done in less than an hour. The target was raised and smashed again and that kept happening over and over again throughout the day. It was incredible to watch the money pouring in. You could press refresh and watch the total jump €100 every 30 seconds. This was tangible proof of the support for the Together for Yes campaign and it was so uplifting to see. It was particularly satisfying coming a couple of days after an article in the Irish Times saying there was “No sense of urgency” in the Yes camp. Other voices in the media described the Yes side as complacent. This outpouring of money, in small amounts and big, did not lack urgency. The car-share groups heading out of Dublin to canvass in other smaller towns did not feel complacent. The fundraising to bring people home to vote did not feel complacent. The anxious and urgent conversations being had at home and at work did not feel complacent. It felt good to watch the total rise and read the comments people left and know that it wasn’t just your family and friends who felt like this, there were lots of others out there who felt as strongly.

Many of those people did much, much than donate a few bob to a crowd-funding campaign. There were people out canvassing around the country every night of the week, others working in the Together for Yes HQ, all finding time around work and family commitments to volunteer. They did it because this was important to them. They didn’t want to live in a country that would let a woman die in pain rather than perform an abortion, or one that could commit a woman to a mental hospital for wanting an abortion, or that would torture a grieving family by insisting that their loved one had to remain on life-support because of her pregnancy. On May 26th 2018 we moved away from being that country, and what’s worth celebrating.

That Saturday, the Taoiseach described the success of the Yes campaign as a “quiet revolution”. Those involved in the campaign have loudly shouted down this assessment. It wasn’t quiet when thousands took to the streets for the massive March for Choice in 2016. It wasn’t quiet on O’Connell Bridge during Strike for Repeal in 2017. The hum of anxiety we felt during the last week before the Referendum didn’t feel quiet. And there was nothing quiet about the hundreds of women who told their stories over and over again; stories of being abandoned by the medical profession, of being forced to travel for health care, of not feeling welcome in their own country. Those wonderful women gave up their privacy because they wanted to make Ireland a better place and I am so grateful to those women. I am grateful to women in the public eye who “came out” about their abortions and heart-broken that they suffered vicious attacks as a result.  I am grateful to women who shared their stories online in the last few weeks of the campaign in the hope of changing a few minds. Their willingness to share their private, painful memories are what won the referendum. 66% of people who voted Yes said that it was because of the personal stories they heard.

Strike4Repeal
Strike 4 Repeal taking over O’Connell Bridge on March 8 2017. It was a Wednesday lunchtime and it closed all the roads leading on to the bridge.

Describing all that as “quiet” just means Leo Varadkar wasn’t listening. Let’s hope that when they are drafting the abortion legislation, he will listen a little more attentively to the people it’s going to affect. The fight for free, safe legal abortion is far from over and that’s another reason why it was necessary to celebrate on May 26th. The referendum was one major hurdle that had to be passed but there is still so much to do. May 26th was a brief breathing space before we got on to the next thing.

The next thing is getting good, working legislation that makes abortion accessible to all, particularly in terms of cost and location. There are many things that still need to be decided on, things like exclusion zones, waiting periods and conscientious objectors. We need to keep the pressure on to ensure that abortion services are available by the end of the year. That is still the government’s aim, but we now know that the legislation will not be introduced to the Dáil before the summer break.

The next March for Choice is on September 29th and the Abortion Rights Campaign will be holding open meetings about the organisation of the March over the coming months. Dates and venues are usually listed on their Facebook events page. Of course, until the legislation is in place, women will still be forced to travel and the Abortion Support Network is still taking calls from women who need their help to do that. You can support their work by donating here.

March for Choiec - 29th Sept 2018 - Save the Date.

Repealing the Eighth Amendment was a glorious thing. It was a wonderful thing to be part of and definitely worth celebrating. It is also a great reminder that change is possible. In 2012, the majority of TDs in the Dáil had no interest in making abortion accessible to Irish women. It was hard-working and persistent campaign groups and ordinary people who made them take an interest, made them call a referendum and made sure that we got the right result!

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Tackling climate change

Climate change is a hard topic to get your head around. It’s depressing thing so we avoid thinking about it. It can make you feel powerless. I don’t know much about climate change but I know it’s happening and that we are causing it. And because it’s caused by us, we also have the power to fix it.

We are already seeing the effects of a changing climate in Ireland. Last month we had a major weather event that put the country under lock-down for two days. The Beast from the East was compared to the heavy snowfall of 1982 but just because this has happened before doesn’t mean climate change isn’t to blame. Climate change causes these once in a generation events to happen much more frequently. We’d already had a status red-warning in October 2017 for Storm Ophelia, which started off as a hurricane in the Pacific Ocean. We don’t generally get a lot of hurricane warnings in Ireland. These aren’t the first extreme weather effects in Ireland but they do seem to be becoming more frequent.

Lahinch

A week before Storm Ophelia the Citizen’s Assembly gathered in Malahide to discuss climate change. The topic they had to consider was “How the State Can Make Ireland a Leader in Tackling Climate Change.” This was an extremely ambitious proposition. According to the 2018 Climate Change Performance Index, a report of countries taking action against climate change, Ireland ranked 49 out of 59. It was the worst performing county in Europe, dropping 28 places from the previous year. We have a long way to go before we can hope to be considered a leader in tackling climate change.

All the presentations from the Citizens’ Assembly are available here and here. (Links to the agendas for the two weekends, the recommendations and the presentations slides are here.) It is a wonderful information resource if you want to learn more about climate change and it’s effects. If you are not sure if it’s real or that human activity is to blame, this presentation should convince you otherwise. It’s also demonstrates what the rising temperatures mean for the future.

I like the Citizens’ Assembly. I believe putting a group of non-politicians in a room, educating them on the topic at hand and asking them to consider it from all angles before making their recommendations is a good thing. I admire those who take the time to ask questions and interrogate the issues. I love that it’s all streamed online and available to watch in any part of the world. (Except in areas of rural Ireland where the internet probably wouldn’t cope with streaming video.) But it is a process set up with restrictions, so while I was very optimistic about the kind of ideas that might come out of a Assembly with such an ambitious title, I was disappointed that the recommendations the citizens were asked to vote on were all pretty small, sometimes vague measures.

The Assembly focused on three areas – Energy, Transport and Agriculture. Members voted to accept all the recommendations by a high margin. The lowest vote was the 80% of Members who said they would be willing to pay higher taxes on carbon intensive activities. One hundred percent of the Members recommended that the State should take a leadership role in addressing climate change. The full list of recommendations can be found here. They included things like increasing investment in public transport, reducing food waste and taxing greenhouse gas emissions. They are all small changes but they would be better than nothing. Of course, the government does not have to take on any of the recommendations just because the Citizens’ Assembly says they should.

The two most dangerous myths around climate change are that it’s something that’s going to happen years and years from now and that there’s nothing we can do to stop it. We have seen that it is already happening; we know that it’s a threat now. There are also a lot of things can we can do to stop it. All we need to do is reduce the carbon we are putting into the atmosphere and we can start doing that right now.

There were optimistic presentations at the Citizens’ Assembly about the changes to be made to tackle climate change. Brian Motherway’s presentation describes the low carbon home – a warm, well-insulated house with solar panels to heat the water and where the electricity bill is about €200 a year.

He describes how newly built homes, ones that adhere to building regulations, produce 30% less carbon on average than older homes. It doesn’t cost that much more to achieve this standard when building a home from scratch. However it costs more to add them later, so it’s really important that those regulations are not ignored as we struggle to keep up with the demand for new homes. The government needs to make sure that the regulations are met. The bad habit our politicians have of trying to keep the builders and property developers sweet could adversely affect the amount of carbon we produce in the future. There are lots of examples where playing politics could have a significant effect on our future climate.

We’re told that tackling climate change will mean giving up thing for the intangible, distant benefit of the not making the planet inhabitable. But having a warm, well-insulated house is a good thing. Creating renewable energy jobs in Ireland instead of getting all our carbon heavy fuel from overseas in a good thing. Better public transport is a good thing. Tackling climate change will have positive effects but it will mean making changes. Change is hard, we tend to resist it. However life of earth is going to change whether we like it or not and it’s better to make the change than have the change happen to you.

We can all do our bit to reduce our carbon emissions, but the big changes have to come from government policies and changes to transport and infrastructure. We need to tell the government that this is what we want and we are going to have to be willing to pay for it with our taxes. It has to be done. I want to believe in a kind, empathetic society that is capable of doing things for the greater good, even though it may be difficult and uncomfortable.

Tips for Taking Action from  Brian Motherway’s presentation:

- Start with strong, visible actions. - Our behaviour matters, but it's not about guilt. - It is about our decisions as a society. - Doing nothing is not an option!

The Citizen’s Assembly and Strike4Repeal

Last weekend, the Citizen’s Assembly met for the third time to listen to experts and discuss the issues around the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. I watched some of the proceedings online. The presentations are still available on the website. The whole thing looks like a staff think-in for a big organisation. Each table has a facilitator, who stood up to speak for the table. It seems to have borrowed the whole set-up from the business world. It’s an interesting entity as a part of democratic process. I like the idea of consulting experts, looking at statistics and having an open, informed discussion about the issue of abortion and reproductive rights but I wish it was happening throughout society and not just in a hotel in Malahide. It’s hard not to see it as anything other than a delaying tactic from a government that does not want to call a referendum on abortion. In the article in the Irish Examiner “Credit where it’s due… and that’s to 99 members of Citizens’ Assembly” about where things stood after the first two meetings it sound very likely that the Assembly are going to recommend a referendum be held, though the terms of that referendum are still up for debate. But I looked at the small print on the Citizen Assembly’s website and it doesn’t seem like the government have to follow the recommendations of the Assembly. The final line on this page says: “the Government will provide in the Houses of the Oireachtas a response to each recommendation of the Assembly and, if accepting the recommendation, will indicate the timeframe it envisages for the holding of any related referendum.” In short, don’t hold your breath waiting for a referendum.

The Irish government have a history of dragging their feet on around abortion. The only abortion referendum that I’ve voted on was the very confusing 2002 one when the government tried to overturn the results of the X case. You had to vote No to leave things as they were, and Yes to make things more restrictive. To confuse matters further Youth Defence came out for a No vote. They didn’t feel it went the wording went far enough because there was no mention of the protective of live for embryos before implantation. (In Irish law, life begins with implantation. That’s why the morning after pill is available though abortion is not.) The amendment was defeated by 51-49% but no legislation on the X case followed. It took 12 years and the death of Savita Halappanavar (and who knows how many other women) before the flawed Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill became law.

Savita’s family did us a great service in talking publicly about her unnecessary death, as did Amanda Mellet who took the case against the State to the UN Court of Human Rights, as did the women known as A, B and C who took the State to the European Court of Human Rights on this issue. These public cases make it difficult for the  government to ignore the concerns around reproductive rights. And the campaigners mean the public can’t ignore it either. Five years ago I knew nothing about the Eighth Amendment or how it restricted women’s bodily autonomy. Now everyone seems to have an opinion on it and that’s down to the amazing work of a whole host of campaigners, including many who campaigned against the Amendment when it was first proposed 34 years ago.

At the end of the summer, Una Mullally made a documentary for the Irish Times Womens’ Podcast called ‘The Year The Conversation Changed‘. It’s a really great listen and covers the massive shift in public perception around the Eighth Amendment in 2016. It covers everything from the Repeal jumpers, to Maser’s mural outside Project, to the Rose of Tralee getting political, and at least half a dozen other things that I’m forgetting because so much happened last year!

Things are changing. Attitudes towards abortion are not the same as they were in 1983 when the Eighth Amendment was voted into the Constitution or even the same as they were in 2002 when we last had a referendum on abortion. The government is slowly catching up with that fact, but not quick enough. We need a referendum and it needs to call for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment. There should be no replacement and no rewording that makes it impossible to vote for. To reword it would be another delaying tactic. We need to repeal the Amendment because the constitution is not the place to define medical care. And again there are wonderful activists making that position clear. This time with the Strike 4 Repeal on March 8th. There will be no referendum set before then, the strike will definitely go ahead and it feels important to tell the government that there is an appetite for a referendum and that referendum should call for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment.

Change moves slowly in Ireland, at least at government level. Don’t forget it took them six weeks just to form a government last year. It’s like change isn’t useful to them. It’s not what they want. Our politicians would prefer to be eternally debating things and flinging insults at each other than actually take a political stand or making bold changes. The lack of action on the homelessness crisis and the continued existence of Direct Provision is shameful. Enda Kenny’s strongest stance recently has been to keep things as they are – of course he’s going to the White House for St. Patricks’ Day, it’s traditional. They are meant to represent us but they need a push in the right direction.

Change is happening, whether they like it or not.