Repealed: a cause for celebration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!

Advertisements

Art and censorship

On April 23 2018, Maser’s Repeal mural was removed from outside Project Arts Centre for the second time. You know the one I mean. It was commissioned by the Andrea Horan of the HunReal Issues in 2016 and since then it has appeared in hundreds of profile pictures, on t-shirts, in windows, on badges and stuck to lamp posts around Dublin and beyond. I’ve often seen it above articles about the referendum in Irish and international press. It was only on the wall in Temple Bar for a couple of weeks but it has spread across the world.

In 2016, Project were told to remove it because they didn’t have planning permission. When the date for the referendum was announced, planning permission was no longer necessary and it went back on the wall. Less than a week later, they were told to remove it again. This time it was the Charities Regulator who had taken issue, and in a very murky reading of the Charities Act deemed the mural not in line with Project’s charitable purpose, and told them their charitable status was at risk if they did not cease “political activity”. Project is an arts centre. Their purpose is to present and develop contemporary art. They presented a mural by Maser, an award-winning artist that has displayed work around the world.

RepealBook

A week after Project received the order from the Charities Regulator, author Una Mullally was told by Dublin City Council that they were canceling her event in the International Literature Festival Dublin. The event was a panel discussion with contributors to Una’s Repeal the 8th Anthology. The anthology is a beautiful collection of stories, poems, essays and photos about the repeal movement and the effect of the 8th amendment. (Available in all good bookshops now!) The reason given by Dublin City Council was that they could not give a platform to one side of a referendum debate. That makes some sense, but the festival programme was announced on April 11th, two weeks after the date for the referendum was set. If Dublin City Council had a problem with the event, why was it programmed? To pull it after tickets were sold feels reactionary and I wonder if the disciplinary action that Project were threatened with affected the decision making process.

But censoring art doesn’t make it disappear. Maser’s mural is everywhere. Since Project painted over (most) of their mural last month (an act that Artistic Director Cian O’Brien described as “defiant compliance”), the image has already popped up on the Amnesty building and currently adorns the windows of Panti Bar. That gorgeous Repeal heart is not going anyway.

AmnestyRepealHeart

The cancelled Repeal event took place last Monday, though not as part of the Literature Festival. Smock Alley Theatre, where is was scheduled to take place, offered to host it as a separate event. I am very glad they did because it was a great discussion. Censorship and gate-keepers came up, as well as stories about people being bullied or shamed into silence by those in power. There were also readings and performances from pieces in the book and it didn’t feel at all like a political meeting.

I’ve been to a few events in the Literature Festival and the referendum has come up more than once. I’ve seen lots of Yes badges and Repeal jumpers on and off stage, perhaps in a show defiance against the cancellation and perceived censorship. Pushing back against censorship is so important. The alternative is a climate of fear that becomes more fearful with each act of censorship and before long, people start to police themselves.

This week, Not At Home, a touring art installation about women who travelled for an abortion, had venues cancel on them days before they were due to exhibit. This is particularly egregious because one of the aims of the piece was to share the stories of women who had been silenced by shame and stigma. Now their voices are being silenced again. The venues quoted the same Charities Act that was used against Project Arts Centre as their reason for cancelling the event. The venues didn’t wait to be told if they were in breach of the law, they pulled out in case it became an issue. In Galway a publicly-funded organisation and two private venues pulled out of plans to present the exhibit. It was supposed to take place at Crawford College of Art and Design’s gallery (in partnership with UCC and Cork Opera House) but the invitation was withdrawn at a late point. The Gallery cited Charities Regulator guidelines and a wish not to “jeopardise” its charitable status or “become a focus for such controversy”.

NotAtHome

Does this mean that artists now have to  wonder if the art they want to make will be acceptable to venues, or if they might decide it’s not worth jeopardising their charitable status for? What happens if artists don’t feel able to take that risk and instead avoid political issues or “controversial” opinions. It’s not that long ago that talking about abortion or calling for repeal of the 8th amendment was considered a controversial opinion. It’s because people spoke up and refused to be silenced that we get to vote on that issue this week.

Art has to be allowed to be political. It has to be able to explore controversial territory and rail against the status quo. Good art helps spread ideas. It opens minds and helps us see things in new ways. It makes change possible because it shows us new ways of doing and thinking and being. Artists need to be supported and encouraged to do that. We have brave venues that are willing to support risky work but we need more of them, especially outside Dublin.

We should all do what we can to support anyone who speaks up against injustice, whether they are artists or journalists or whistle-blowers. We need to listen to them and do what we can to amplify those voices.

A Yes Vote on May 25th is one way to change the status quo a little bit, and a way to thank those who have spoken out.

VoteYes

Together for Yes

At this stage (18 days from the referendum), you probably have to be living under a rock to be online and not know what Together for Yes is; particularly after their huge crowd-funding campaign when they raised half a million euros in seven days. But in case you missed all that, Together For Yes is the National Civil Society Campaign to remove the 8th Amendment from the Constitution. It’s an amalgamation of lots pro-choice organisations who have come together to get a yes vote in the referendum on May 25th.

TogetherForYes

This could be a once in a lifetime opportunity to make Ireland a safer place for pregnant women and to give the women of Ireland control over their own reproductive rights. This yes vote is my no means a done deal. The vote will be very tight and we all need to do our bit to get it over the line.

And really, it should be a yes vote. The only reason to vote no is if you are against abortion in all circumstances and cannot imagine any possible scenario where abortion might be the right and necessary choice. If you feel that’s true, beyond any reasonable doubt, then vote no. But if you do feel that sometimes abortion is an acceptable option, for women who are pregnant as a result of rape for example or when the woman’s health is at risk because of her pregnancy or if there is a diagnosis of fatal foetus abnormality, then you should vote yes. Do it for those women.

And it you know that a yes vote is the only compassionate option and want to see Ireland embrace the compassionate choice, there’s lots you can do to make that happen.

1. Vote! And encouraging others to vote.
Tuesday 8th of May is the last day to register to vote. The form must be stamped by a Garda and be with your local authority by 5pm today. There is still time to get registered, but not much. All forms can be downloaded here.

If you already have that sorted, the most important thing is to go out and vote on May 25th. It’s a Friday. The polls will be open from 7am until 10am. And encourage other people to do it too. We’re a small country, every vote really does count. We cannot assume anything about how this vote is going to go so please talk to friends and family, figure out how and when you’re all going to vote on May 25th.
2. Go canvassing or have the chats at work or at home.
Together for Yes have local groups all over the country going out knocking on doors and talking to people about why they should vote yes. Find your local group and give them a hand. It will mean giving up a few evenings and maybe having a few awkward conversations but it will move us towards a yes vote.

If you can’t go canvassing, maybe have a conversation with work colleagues, friends of family. See how they’re feeling about the referendum, suss out if they have any concerns and maybe make sure they have the correct information. Big areas of misinformation seem to be the fact that the law as it is currently does harm pregnant women, even in a wanted pregnancy and those unrestricted 12 weeks. “Unrestricted” is not the right word to use. A woman will still be making that decision with her doctor, and right now women are buying abortion pills off the internet and taking them up to 12 weeks, which is to my mind is more unrestricted and more dangerous than doing it with the support of a medical professional. Together for Yes have all the facts.

3. Wear a Together for Yes or Repeal badge, t-shirt or a jumper.
If you aren’t able to canvas or feel uncomfortable initiating conversations about the referendum, for whatever reason, wearing a badge is a great way to support the cause and let conversations come to you. Wearing your political intentions on your chest whether it’s a Together For Yes badge or a Repeal jumper tends to get your a few smiles and nods and might even start a conversation or two. It’s a gentle way to support the campaign but there is a great solidarity in seeing all the badges around the place!
Badges and other supportive paraphanilia is available from shops in Dublin, Cork and Galway and from the online shop.

4. Donate.
Donating to Together for Yes will help them to print leaflets, hold events and do things like the Conversations Tour which is bringing Together for Yes around the country for the next two weeks.

We need this change to the constitution and we can all do a bit to make it happen. The vote is less than three weeks away. We are ready for this change, we’re been ready for a while. We just need the last little push to get it over the line.

Artists to Repeal the Eighth

On Saturday August 26th, Artists to Repeal the Eighth are taking over Project Arts Centre and offering a smorgasbord of art in response to the Eighth Amendment. A Day of Testimonies starts at 11am and includes film, live performances, music, installations and discussions. I think it’s going to be a really special day; a galvanising day and hopefully a supportive, buoyant one for those who have had to travel for a termination. The focus is on their words and experiences, it’s their testimonies we will hear, but it’s also saying that they shouldn’t have had to make that journey.

Real people’s experiences should be at the crux of any debate around the Eighth Amendment. Then we have to ask ourselves – do we want to be part of a part nation that treats people like that? We hear often about the 12 women who have to travel every day for a termination, but it’s important to remember that each of those women is an individual with a story to tell and a reason why they have chosen to terminate the pregnancy. I’m grateful to those who choose to share their stories. I don’t think it’s an easy thing to do, and I don’t think it’s something they should have to do. It is a generous thing to do. I want to be there to recognise that generosity, and to bear witness to their stories.

ArtistAgainstEighthOne way these stories will be told during the day is through a number of short films. Entry is free, donations are encouraged. The full line-up is here. I’m very interested in the older films being shown at 1pm and again at 5pm, 50,000 Secret Journeys from 1994 and Statistic from 1983. It’s always interesting to see how far we’re come, or not as the case may be.

I’m also interested in the Bus Stop event – How to Talk About the Eighth. This is happening from 11am – 4pm and it’s informal discussions and debates facilitated by Amnesty International Ireland and Union of Students in Ireland. I imagine it will offer a few tools for talking about the Eighth in the lead up to the referendum which is finally on the horizon. There will also be tea, and maybe a few biscuits!

Anu are performing a new piece called COLONY, every hour on the hour from 11am until 6pm. There’s also an impressive line-up of special guests for the evening programme which starts at 7.30pm. This is only ticketed event on the day but there are still tickets available from Project Arts Centre.

I think it’s a wonderful idea. It offers a chance to connect with others, bolster yourself as we get ready for the next March for Choice and the referendum beyond that. It’s about connecting with people in the real world. For all those people who complain about online activism, here is a real world event that will let you talk to real people in the real world and experience something in real time with other people.

Strike 4 Repeal

Tomorrow, March 8th is International Women’s Day. I like to do something to mark this day each year, usually something small like going to see a female-led play or film. This year I’m doing something bigger. I’m taking the day off work to join Strike 4 Repeal on O’Connell Bridge to protest the 8th Amendment. I know that I’ve written about the 8th Amendment very recently, but I still have more to say and feel like I will continue to have more to say about until it is removed from the Constitution.

Over the weekend when the news was full of the Tuam babies scandal and the Citizen’s Assembly sat again to hear personal stories from people affected by the 8th Amendment and from advocacy groups and representative organisations. All of the presentations are available on the website, including the Q&A sections which I found really interesting because they allowed us to hear from the citizens in the room. They had a long weekend in the hotel in Malahide with two full days of presentations and I am grateful to those citizens who are giving up their time to take part in the Assembly. Even though it seems unnecessary because it’s blindingly obvious to me that we need to hold a referendum on the 8th Amendment. (Minister for Health Simon Harris agrees with me, as he told the World Congress Women’s Mental Health on Monday.) Maybe the Citizens’ Assembly is more suitable to the other, massive and difficult subjects they also have to discuss, such as the problems facing an ageing population and climate change. Those topics do not have the easy, obvious solution.

Legislating for abortion in Ireland will not be easy but we know that what we have now isn’t working. It doesn’t stop Irish women from having abortions, it just makes it more difficult, more expensive and more dangerous for them to do so. I want to see the repeal of the 8th Amendment and the introduction of safe, legal abortion in Ireland. I am pro-abortion. I am happy to live at a time when medicine and science have come up with a way to safely end unwanted pregnancies. There always is and always been a need for abortions by women experiencing unwanted, unexpected, impossible pregnancies. Safe, legal abortion means those women don’t have to throw themselves down the stairs or get into a hot bath with a bottle of gin and “hope for the best”. In this outdated scenario, the “best” is a miscarriage that doesn’t kill them.

But while I am unashamedly pro-abortion, I am also pro-choice. I don’t think abortion is the only solution for every unexpected, “inconvenient” pregnancy. Nobody should be forced to have an abortion. I support women who know that they cannot continue with a pregnancy and I also support women who choose to delay cancer treatment so they can continue their pregnancy, or women who know their child cannot survive outside the womb but want to carry that baby to term so they might get to hold him or her, even for a short time. I support women who find themselves unexpectedly pregnant and surprisingly delighted. I support women who are pregnant as a result of rape and want to have the baby because they see it as a way for something good to come out of a terrible experience. I think our government and our society should support and help those women. But we also have a duty of care to women who don’t want to have a baby. No women should be forced to remain pregnant when she doesn’t want to be. I agree with Amnesty and the United Nations that access to abortion is a human right. I am embarrassed by my country which does not allow it.

To me, abortion is a kindness. Women who have had abortions often describe feeling extremely grateful towards the medical professionals who helped them out, as Lindy’s West’s thank-you letter to an abortion doctor demonstrates. For Irish women, this gratitude is directed as those who looked after them when their own country turned their back. Abortion Support Network, who support women traveling from Ireland to the UK to access abortions are a magnificent organisation. It’s the most grassroots charity you could possibly support because the main thing they do is give money to women who need it. They also offer a confidential helpline, a lift to and from the clinic, sometimes a bed for the night. Such kindness and such generosity. I sometimes feel teary-eyed with gratitude when I think about how the Marie Stopes clinics in the UK offer discounted rates for Irish women, who have the extra cost of travel. I am grateful to the British Pregnancy Advisory Service who last year set up a helpline for Irish women who take abortion pills they got through the post and might need to ask someone what’s normal and to be expected, and what’s dangerous and requiring medical attention. This is important because going to the doctor is a dangerous thing to do in a country where taking these pills is illegal and could led to a 14 year prison sentence. You can see why they might need some non-judgmental medical help in what could be a life and death situation. And suddenly it feels like Ireland really isn’t all that far away from women throwing themselves down the stairs.

Abortion will not be the right choice for everyone but it’s a choice that everyone should have the right to make. It would be wonderful to live in a world where abortion wasn’t necessary, a world where every conception resulted in a healthy, happy child born to parents who had the emotional and financial capacity to love and care for them. A world where every child was wanted and cherished. But that’s not the world we live in. We live in a world with rape and domestic abuse, where contraception is never 100% reliable and where people make mistakes. We live in an imperfect, human world where abortion is necessary and should be free, safe and legal.

Making abortion legal and freely available does not increase the rate of abortions just as making abortion illegal does not stop people from getting abortions. There are better ways to do that. Improving sex education in schools and making contraception more available would probably help. So would building a society that values young women for more than just their sexuality; a society that offers more support to mothers, particularly single parents and parents of children with disabilities.

There are lots of improvements that could be made to Irish society. Repealing the 8th Amendments is one of these improvements. I’ll be on O’Connell Bridge at 12.30 tomorrow calling for it’s repeal.

A society should also be able to house it’s citizens, and the government should be doing more to end the housing crisis so that Irish children don’t have to grow up in hotels and everyone has access to somewhere safe and warm to sleep. In the meantime, to help the homeless this IWD, I will be donating period paraphernalia to the Homeless Period. They have top-off points around Dublin, in DIT student unions, Tropical Popical on South William Street and the Market Pharmacy in Smithfield.

 

 

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.

Theatre of Change at the Abbey Theatre

At the end of January, I spent three enlightening and inspiring days at the Abbey’s Theatre of Change symposium listening to fantastic speakers from all over the world. I am so grateful for the Abbey for organising the symposia over the last three years. It’s a great way to kick-off the new year and I hope it’s something that the new Artistic Directors carry on with. The line-up for each symposium has been wonderful. One of the joys for me was hearing lots of different voices – different accents, different ages, different genders. I appreciate the Abbey bringing these people to Dublin and allowing me to sit in front of them, hear what they have to say.

It felt like an overtly feminist conference this year. WakingTheFeminists was not only in the programme but it was also mentioned in Fiach’s opening speech. (Not really surprising – it’s hard to talk about the Waking The Nation programme now without mention what isn’t there.) There were a couple of sessions on reproductive rights in Ireland and the role of women in the Rising also featured prominently.

Lian Bell, Eleanor Methven and Loughlin Deegan spoke on behalf of WakingTheFeminists on Thursday afternoon. Eleanor talked about her decades-long battles against workplace discrimination. She was one of the founders of Charabanc Theatre in 1983, set up to provide decent roles for female actors, so she is an old hand at this lark. Loughlin, on the other hand, admitted that although he would always have identified as a feminist, he “has been on a very steep learning curve since my involvement with Waking the Feminists.” He spoke candidly about having his belief that his career achievements were based solely on merit shaken by the stories that came out of the WakingTheFeminists movement. He also talked about patriarchal structures and the damaging Myth of the Great Man. (You can read their speeches in full on the WakingTheFeminists website, links above. Or watch below.)

 

On the Friday afternoon, Emer O’Toole and Susan Cahill presented The Man Problem. This was a performance presentation that looked at the fact that the vast majority of our politicians, political pundits, radio presenters and journalists are male and so when we start talking about abortion, it is rare to hear women speaking about it. We tend to hear the least from those who are most affected by it; those who have to travel, those who need medical attention that is not provided in this country. This is changing as more women are talking about their abortions. It happened that Friday afternoon in the Abbey, when Susan gave a very personal and poignant account of what it was like to discover she was pregnant while en route from Canada to Ireland, for a month long stay here. She described what it was like to be pregnant and not want to be, in a country that was debating the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill. She waited until she was back in Canada to terminate the pregnancy and described how grateful she was to be able to go home to her own bed afterwards, and not queue up to get on a plane full of stags and hens. It was very affecting. Dearbhail McDonald’s potted history of the Eighth Amendment as the introduction to the piece was also very moving and a bit fury-making. Let’s hope that 2016 is the year that this cruel and archaic piece of legislation is removed from the constitution.


The Man Problem

DaysOfSurrenderThere were also a couple of presentations about the role of women in the Rising and how they have been removed from the “official” history. Jacki Irvine read from her book Days of Surrender . She read a piece about Elizabeth O’Farrell’s walk across Moore Street carrying the white flag of surrender. Elizabeth was the owner of the feet behind Pearse in the photograph of his surrender. Her feet were removed before the photo appeared in the newspaper in 1916, and Elizabeth’s role was also removed from RTE’s version of the events, in Rebellion a few weeks ago.

 

 

Over the years, the symposia have never let war be something distant, something firmly in the past. There are many reminders that war and conflict zones still exist all over the world. This year there were speakers from Israel and the occupied Golan. Taiseer Merei runs a theatre as part of the Golan for Development, which exists to resist Israel’s occupation and control. The theatre is locations underneath the medical centre, which is also part of Golan for Development. They offer people health care, education and art as part of a peaceful resistance in a dire situation. The Golan Heights has been occupied by Israel since 1967 because it’s an area with fertile land and lots of water.

Gideon Levy is an Israeli journalist who spoke about the situation in Gaza. He said that the only way Gaza can attract the attention of Israeli or the world-media is by firing rockets, otherwise they are forgotten about. He also made the point that there is precedent of how to bring down apartheid, we saw it in South Africa. Boycott Israel, he said, bring it to understand that the occupation is unacceptable in the eyes of the world. The way to make the Israelis’ feel this is if they lose money. He also talked about the dangers of dehumanising a specific group of people, which is what the Israelis have successfully done to the Palestine and which is in danger of happening to refugees coming to Europe.

As well as looking at the past and the present, the symposium also looked to the future. Emer Coleman’s talk Big Data: Owning Your Own Story looked at the past from the future, when she made the point that if you’re not on the internet, then you don’t exist. Emer worked in theatre at the beginning of her career but said there is no evidence of this career on the internet, so it’s like it never happened. In the future, history will be shaped by the machine. She talked about the “rise of the robots” and how that no longer means physical robots, but the software that has worked itself into every aspect of our lives. Because of the power of the tech companies, “technoethics” have to become more important. We need to make sure that these huge companies pay their taxes and behave ethically because the way things are going, soon they’ll own everything! It’s important to stop behaviour like Uber’s who say that Uber drivers are not their employees, landlords who evict tenants so they can put flats on AirBnb, and companies who fire full-time employees then hire them back as contract workers without any benefits. For anyone worrying about their content being owned by Facebook or other corporations, she recommends Jaron Lanier‘s book about mirco-licensing Who owns the future?

The role of the artist in remembering, celebrating and integrating the past and the world today was also recognised by the symposium, particularly in the first and last panels. The first one, The Body of The State included a number of artists from different disciplines. Visual artists Sarah Browne and Jesse Jones are creating a piece called In The Shadow of the State that will take place in Derry, Liverpool, Dublin and London. They are exploring statehood from the perspective of the female body and a different performance will take place at each location. Choreographer Fearghus Ó Conchúir talked about The Casement Project which explores what types of bodies are acceptable and what is acceptable for these bodies to do.

Sarah Jane Scaife spoke about her work with Beckett’s plays and placing them in the world we live in. I saw the first of these at the side of the Abbey as part of the first symposium, Theatre of Memory and I also enjoy The Women Speak in last year’s Fringe. I really liked how she placed those stories in history, and demonstrated how that history leads to the present.

On the final morning, we heard from Oskar Eustic, Artistic Director of the Public Theatre in New York which sounds like a great place. Their show Hamilton is currently one of the hottest shows on Broadway, but the theatre started out making free theatre, the famous Shakespeare in the Park. He said that the mission statement of the theatre was to “Dislodge theatre from being a commodity and bring it back to being about relationships.” They also do performances of Shakespeare in prisons, which he said that the actors love doing. Once they do that, it’s hard to get them to do anything else. He was obviously very passionate about his theatre and the work they do.

At the end of the three days, I felt very sorry that it was all over and that there isn’t another symposium to look forward to next year. Well done to the Abbey and all the speakers. And the videos from the last three years are all available on YouTube, including this fabulous performance by Penny Arcade.