Maeve O’Reilly from Restless Development’s Global Policy and Practice team highlights the rise of youth-led grassroots campaigning on abortion rights in Ireland, joining the protest at Dublin’s 5th annual March for Choice last weekend.
Despite a city-wide bus strike and Dublin’s signature pouring rain, an estimated 25,000 people gathered at the top of O’Connell Street last Saturday for the 5th annual ‘March for Choice’ organised by the Abortion Rights Campaign Ireland. It’s a sea of umbrellas, raincoats, and soggy cardboard signs declaring ‘Repeal!’, that one word that has come to sum up one of the biggest social issues for this generation of young Irish people.
It refers to the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution – a total ban on abortion which equates the life of an embryo with that of a pregnant woman and imposes a criminal sentence of up to 14 years on anyone who terminates a pregnancy. The Eighth, introduced in 1983, further entrenched an existing ban on abortion in place since 1861. Only in 2013 was legislation introduced to allow for abortion in cases where a woman’s life is at risk. The law has been described by the UN as ‘cruel’, ‘inhumane’ and ‘degrading’ and has been condemned by Amnesty International as well as national feminist and human rights organisations.
A number of high-profile horror stories as well as the bravely shared personal stories of Irish women who for myriad personal reasons have chosen to have an abortion, are forcing people to confront the reality of our laws. An estimated 11 women a day travel to the UK, often in secret and at significant personal expense, to access abortion services. Still more travel to other parts of Europe, while others opt to order abortion pills illegally online.
Young People Leading Change
A poll by the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA) found that 70% of people under the age of 49 are in favour of repealing the Eighth. It comes as no surprise then that strikingly high numbers of young people have turned up to march for choice. Bolstered by the success of last year’s Marriage Equality campaign, more and more young people are taking to the streets to engage with the issues that matter to them. Today they are demanding a referendum on the Eighth Amendment, on which no one under the age of 51 has had an opportunity to vote.
Young people have been leading innovative grassroots campaigns to build momentum for a referendum. Among the colourful home-made signs and banners, hundreds of women and men don black jumpers with the simple white slogan ‘Repeal’. The creation of 26-year-old Anna Cosgrave, founder of the ‘Repeal Project’, the jumpers are designed to challenge the culture of silence surrounding abortion in Ireland. Selling out in just one hour when first launched at a Dublin pop-up in July, they have since been photographed on Gloria Steinem, Vivienne Westwood, and Irish singer Hozier, who also joined the March.
Cementing its status as a symbol of the movement, filmmaker Dave Tynan created a powerful video featuring 80 women wearing the ‘Repeal’ jumper while walking into the sea, reciting a poem by young writer Sarah Maria Griffin that likened Ireland’s abortion law to the ‘trial by water’ imposed on women accused of witchcraft in medieval times. The video was viewed over 250,000 times within 24 hours.
Young speakers kick off the march, among them disability rights activist Louise Bruton, who states plainly that if she were to become pregnant in Ireland, her right to consent to medical treatment that affects her disability would be taken away. Sam Blanckensee, an activist from the Transgender Equality Network Ireland highlights the trans movement’s common struggle for bodily autonomy and the necessity of abortion access for trans men and non-binary people.
Young people are well represented behind the banners of established groups such as the National Women’s Council of Ireland as well as Socialist group ‘Reproductive Rights, against Oppression, Sexism and Austerity’ (ROSA). ROSA gained international attention for their civil disobedience campaigns, risking imprisonment by driving an abortion pill bus around Ireland last year and sending a drone carrying abortion pills, which have been approved for use by the World Health Organisation since 2005, across the border to Northern Ireland, which remains the only part of the UK in which the procedure is still illegal.
A group of young women press ‘Repeal’ signs against the windows from inside the Ambassador theatre, while on the street below, a young man waving the flag of the Vatican heckles the crowd.
But any attempt to counter-protest cannot drown out the messages of solidarity that seem to spring up around us as if from the city itself. ‘Repeal’ is scrawled on litter bins, adorns building walls, is spray-painted to pavements, is stuck to windows. The most recognisable mural in support of Repeal was created by Dublin street artist, Maser. It’s bright red heart and white ‘Repeal the 8th’ slogan against the striking blue wall of the Project Arts Centre proliferated all over social media, until it was removed after a number of complaints were upheld by Dublin City Council, finding it to be in breach of planning law.
Its removal did little to harm its visibility as the design was swiftly turned into a sell-out t-shirt by the HunReal Issues, a campaign site set up by Andrea Horan who had also commissioned the mural. Others transformed Maser’s design into brooches, stickers and even donuts, all proving hugely popular among a generation that refuses to inherit not just the laws, but the silence of Catholic Ireland.
Pink smoke covers the Talbot Memorial Bridge as we cross the River Liffey towards the rear of Trinity College. In the 1990s, 14 Student’s Union leaders, including those from Trinity College, were taken to the High Court for providing information to students about abortion services in the UK. Many Student’s Unions have adopted pro-choice mandates as a result of referendums held on campuses throughout the country, and hundreds of students have joined the March under the banner of the Union of Students Ireland today.
Young Irish people overseas are also having their say. Making headlines with the #HomeToVote and #BeMyYes campaigns during the Marriage Equality referendum last year, the Irish diaspora yet again refuses to allow emigration to stand in the way of their engagement with politics at home. Young Irish emigrants have led and participated in solidarity marches in 25 cities around the world from New York to Kathmandu. In London, 77 women, representing those who travel to the UK every week for an abortion, wheeled suitcases to the waiting crowd of demonstrators at the Irish Embassy in Belgravia. What’s Next
As the March winds down at Merrion Square, thoughts turn to what comes next. A Citizen’s Assembly, chaired by Supreme Court Judge Mary Laffoy and comprised of a further 99 people selected by polling company Red C, will meet for the first time on October 15th to discuss abortion among other issues. The Assembly will produce a report, expected in the first half of next year, outlining their recommendations which may include a referendum on the Eighth Amendment. The recommendation will then go before an Oireachtas Committee followed by a DÃ¡il (Irish Parliamentary) vote.
It is not yet clear whether young people will be well-represented during the Citizen’s Assembly process, although it has been assured that the Assembly will be representative of age, gender and location. I hope that young people’s engagement in this campaign will be seen as an opportunity by our leaders to engage them in more formal political processes that will allow them to participate in shaping the legislation that takes the place of the Eighth, if and when it is repealed. Young people in Ireland – savvy campaigners, no longer at the behest of the parish priest – will be heard even by those with their fingers in their ears. Taoiseach Enda Kenny has so far declined to comment on the March, but leaders would do well to take note, as Ireland’s young people won’t let this issue go quietly.