Politicking periods

Irish women are tweeting details of their menstrual cycles to Taoiseach Enda Kenny, to protest the sense of entitlement the Irish state demonstrates towards Irish womens' bodies.

Harriet Burgess
5 December 2015

Women in Ireland are tweeting the details of their menstrual cycles to Taoiseach Enda Kenny. The tweets arose in response to the head of State’s casual dismissal of abortion law reform, or repealing the eight amendment to the Irish constitution, Article 40.3.3, which equates the “life of the unborn” to the “life of the mother”. The #repealtheeighth campaign has now garnered international attention. The tweets detail different stages of different women’s menstrual cycles- heavy flows, occasional spotting, sore breasts.

Why is it that these women think the minutiae of their menstrual cycles is of any concern to the Taoiseach? Indeed, why is it any of the Irish state’s business as to what goes on in an average woman’s uterus? Irish women live-tweeting their periods to the head of State follow the government’s current stance on abortion to it’s logical conclusion: If the state is going to remain in control of Irish women’s bodies, then the head of government should know all about the everyday grind of having a vagina. As Grainne Maguire argues, since the Irish state feels so entitled to get involved in what goes on inside women’s reproductive parts, the least Irish women can do is provide the Taoiseach with all the details.

By the same token, to those who counter-argue that many Irish women wouldn’t talk about their periods to their partners (let alone the head of the Irish state!) – they have flagged part of the wider problem. Women in Ireland are made feel shame about their bodies. This is evidenced in the everyday of Irish society. Breastfeeding in public is frowned upon. Talking frankly about our menstrual cycle is out of the question – using weird and secretive synonyms is more culturally acceptable: ‘on the rag’, ‘on the blob’, ‘in the red’, ‘riding the crimson wave’, ‘time of the month’, ‘tom’s visiting’, ‘aunty flo’s arrived’. If we can't speak plainly about our periods, then how are we ever going to have a proper discussion about reproductive rights? This twitter campaign highlights that women speaking frankly about their bodies, and moreover, their bodily rights, is taboo in Irish society.

Treating matters glibly

Women’s bodily rights are an issue that successive Irish governments have chosen to ignore. Enda Kenny, following the tradition of Irish (male) heads of state, casually dismissed the possibility of any reform to Irish abortion law, when speaking at a conference in January. Abortion law reform was cast as a ‘sensitive and controversial issue’, ‘to be dealt with in the future’, ‘a matter to be considered by the next government’. Kenny stressed that these are matters that ought not be ‘treated glibly’.

This twitter campaign arose in response to such comments. When the head of state chooses to focus on ‘personal tragic cases’, he dismisses the everyday shame and frustration felt by women in Ireland. He brushes under the carpet the cultural shaming women in Ireland experience about their bodies.

The legal status of abortion in Ireland

Abortion is against the law in Ireland, save in limited circumstances where the continuance of a pregnancy poses “a real and substantial risk” to the life of a pregnant woman. Access to abortion in such cases was legalised under the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013, following the death of Savita Halappanavar, who died whilst undergoing a miscarriage at Galway University Hospital. Halappanavar was denied an abortion, with one doctor providing the reason that Ireland was a ‘Catholic country’. This generated public outrage, and highlighted the legal quagmire facing Irish doctors: what constitutes a “real and substantial risk” to a pregnant woman’s life?

rally in dublin.jpg

Rally in Dublin in memory of Savita Halappanavar. Photo: William Murphy via Flickr, some rights reserved.

Given these limited circumstances in which doctors can lawfully terminate pregnancies, thousands of Irish women must travel abroad to access abortion services. Last year alone, the U.K. Department of Health reported that 3,735 Irish women and girls attended U.K. abortion clinics. The age categories listed range from ‘under 16’ to ‘40 and over’. The retention of constitutional clauses that criminalise abortion in Ireland fuels hypocrisy- that no Irish women access abortions. Refusing to legislate on abortion means that the emotional, financial and practical difficulties facing the thousands of women who travel are ignored. The humiliating journey Irish women have to undertake alone is brushed under the carpet, by politicians who would bury their heads in the sand, rather than confront the issue: Ireland is not abortion-free.

Growing pressure 

Lobby groups, like these 838 doctors and health professionals, are adding to the growing pressure for the decriminalisation of abortion in Ireland. In the absence of any political leadership on legislating for abortion, a Northern Irish High Court judge this week ruled that the outright ban is ‘incompatible with human rights’. Whilst this ruling is not binding in the Republic, it has reignited debate as to when, or in what circumstances, abortion should be decriminalised. In politics, Dr. James Reilly, the deputy leader of Fine Gael, has publicly called for a referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment. Kenny responded, promising to convene a ‘citizen’s convention’ before the end of next year, allowing citizens and politicians to discuss abortion in a ‘thorough, broad, respectful and comprehensive manner’. This directly contravenes his previous statements; whether or not Kenny is acknowledging the growing momentum to #repealtheeighth, or whether it amounts to pre-election political spin, remains to be seen.

Still yet, Enda Kenny has failed to issue a reply to the menstrual cycle tweets directly addressed to him that have now received international attention. Interestingly, the semi-state broadcaster RTÉ has yet to cover the twitter campaign once. This twitter campaign reflects the growing political, judicial and lobby group pressure on a state that refuses to legislate on abortion. Irish women are no longer going to hush up about their periods, and moreover, nor are they going to sit and wait patiently for equal rights.

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