Repeal the Eighth: putting intersectionality into practice

A long-established conservative media frames the terms of abortion politics in Ireland. The pro-choice activism challenges dominant discourses with the inclusivity and diversity of the movement demonstrating intersectionality in practice.

Harriet Burgess
17 October 2016

March for abortion rights. Image: Abortion Rights Campaign/Facebook.

“The better we understand how identities and power work together from one context to another, the less likely our movements for change are to fracture”.

On Saturday the 24th of September, an estimated 20,000 people took to the streets of Dublin to protest against Ireland’s oppressive abortion laws. This represents a near ten-fold increase in attendee numbers since 2012. Who exactly marched for choice that Saturday? Are their views reflective of that of the general Irish body politik? Or are they the ‘usual suspects’, as some might say -‘liberal students from Dublin universities’, ‘Trotskyites’?

‘Hey hey, mister mister, get your laws off my sister!’ ‘Not the Church, not the state, women must decide their fate!’, ‘Get your rosaries off my ovaries!’

The media has painted a picture of pro-choice campaigners as, quoting, a “Shrill Repeal Sisterhood”. Representatives of the Church have also implied that reform is only wanted by a particular section of society. Describing Ireland’s stance on abortion (found in the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution) as ‘precious and wonderful’, Catholic Archbishop of Armagh Eamon Martin set out that the Church ‘would wonder if this is really the big issue that people on the doorsteps of Ireland want to talk about.’

Comments such as the above ignore the lengthy trajectory of reproductive rights activism in Ireland: members of the Church, journalists and politicians continue to shirk away from acknowledging this movement’s ever-growing momentum. The McGee case marked a key moment for Irish women’s reproductive rights, when in 1973, a challenge was successfully brought against legislation that criminalised the use of contraceptives. Mrs McGee was a mother of four, living on a small income in a mobile home with her husband and four children. Facing a considerable risk of death were she to become pregnant again, she sought to import contraceptives from the UK, which were seized by the Irish immigration authorities. The Supreme Court held that the legislation violated her right to marital privacy,

“by frustrating and making criminal any efforts by her to effectuate the decision her husband and herself made responsibly […] on medical advice, to avail themselves of a particular contraceptive method so as to ensure her life and health as well as the integrity, security and well-being of her marriage and family”.

The decision generated national debate, and it took six years before contraception was legislated for. Even then, the Health (Family Planning) Act 1979 only allowed for contraception on prescription, and only for ‘bona fide’ family planning purposes. The import of this was that only married couples were legally able to access contraception. It was famously described by then Minister for Health Charles Haughey as an Irish solution to an Irish problem: a compromise between dominant Catholic conservatism and emerging liberal ideals. It was only in 1994 that contraception became freely available in Ireland, 21 years after Mrs McGee successfully brought her claim.

Abortion remains illegal in Ireland, save where the continuance of a pregnancy poses “a real and substantial risk” to the life of the woman. Access to abortion under these circumstances 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. However, in the absence of any supporting guidelines accompanying the legislation, it’s unclear how many, if any women can in reality get an abortion in Ireland. A woman would have to undergo a minimum of three medical assessments, from two psychiatrists and one obstetrician, in order to ‘certify’ that she meets the requirements for a lawful abortion in Ireland. Often, politicians frame arguments in terms of morality, rather than acknowledge the healthcare and medical aspects of legislating for abortion: “I consider myself to be pro-life in that I accept that the unborn child is a human life with rights. I cannot therefore accept the view that it is simply a matter of choice”. Irish political cowardice has resulted in half-baked legislation that is practically unworkable. Dominant discourses continue to cloud real issues in the abortion debate, in 2016 much the same as in 1973.

A challenge to such conservatism can be found in the diverse and dialogic narrative of the pro-choice movement. The terms of the abortion debate are shifting from moral arguments of (male) politicians to the personal accounts of all those uniquely affected by Ireland’s abortion laws: Repeal the Eighth makes for an example of what a true intersectional movement looks like. Intersectionality is a theory about how oppression operates in multiple, overlapping ways. Crenshaw’s theorisation of the particular position of black women proved that a single axis framework analysis focusing on race, gender or class in isolation limits inquiries into complex phenomena, by erasing the experiences of those who exist at the intersections of interlocking systems of oppression. Repeal the Eighth as a movement deploys intersectionality, by drawing attention to the diversity of the Irish population that is calling for change. Following reductionist portrayals of pro-choice campaigners as ‘militant feminists’, the twitter hashtag, #KnowYourRepealers gained traction:  

" Proud dad. Lost one child and nearly mum during a pregnancy. Doctors should be making healthcare decisions, not solicitors".

" 44yr old mam of 2 teen boys, youngest ASD. Divorced. Live in close knit farming community. Self-employed. Floating voter".

" 43, mam of 2 boys and Sadhbh who wasn't for this world. Health care professional. No political leanings".

" Born in 1978. Adopted in 1981. Met biological mother who couldn't keep me. Still 100% pro #repealthe8th. I trust women".

The current phase of the movement highlights the multiple ways in which Ireland’s abortion laws oppress, across different sections of society. Examples were voiced at the march, one speaker discussing how as a disabled Irish woman she is affected by the Eighth Amendment:

“When you are physically disabled you have to make very specific choices your entire life. So if I become pregnant, I want to know that the medical support I’ve had for all my life wasn’t for nothing. My body is my body and I don’t want that to change just because I’ve moved from the orthopaedic ward down to the maternity ward.”

Representatives from the Asylum Seeker Movement spoke at the march, highlighting how abortion laws disproportionately impact refugee women living in Ireland. Direct Provision is a state-run welfare system to house asylum seekers and their families waiting on asylum application decisions. Asylum seekers receive 19.10 euro a week, and until recently, were barred from working. Travelling to the UK to access abortion becomes a monetary impossibility under such circumstances. The Y case concerned a young migrant woman who had been raped in her home country. She repeatedly requested an abortion in an Irish hospital, expressing suicidal thoughts to doctors. She was ultimately subject to an order of forced hydration and birth by caesarean section.

“It was very difficult for me. I cried. I said I am not capable of going through with this. I said I could die because of this... They said to me abortion was not legal here, but people like me are sent to England for abortions . . . I asked to go and they said they would have to arrange the documents and that could take six weeks.”

These voices show that Ireland’s stance on abortion is a race and class issue. Women caught between state systems – of asylum-seeker welfare provisions and abortion legislation – experience a unique form of racism and patriarchy. The Y case reportedly occurred after the enactment of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013, demonstrating just how shamefully unworkable the current legislation is.


Amnesty International Campaign in support of repealing the Eighth.Image:Amnesty International.

By opening the door up for a diverse dialogue, cohesion has been created across this movement. An alliance of organisations marched in solidarity on Saturday the 24th of September: Akidwa, Anti-Austerity Alliance, Anti-Racism Network, Doctors for Choice, Asylum Seekers Ireland, HUN Real Issues, Sex-Workers Alliance Ireland, Outhouse Ireland, National Traveller’s Women Forum, Lawyer’s for Choice, Transgender Equality Network Ireland, Rape Crisis Network Ireland, People Before Profit Alliance, DziewuchyDziewuchom. Further protests were held on Tuesday, October 3rd, outside the Polish consulate in Dublin to strike in solidarity with the #CzarnyProtest.

Feminists theory describes a ‘butterfly effect’ – where a movement brings about positive, unimagined consequences. Repeal the Eighth has the potential to bring about change in Ireland that perhaps the earliest campaigners could not have foreseen. The current phase of campaigning highlights the multiple ways in which repressive abortion laws are felt across the Irish community, making the problems they pose for each of us individually easier to understand. This movement has created an intersectional space where different ideas have converged and new alliances have been forged. “Politics is the action of taking risks in a future that is unknowable because it is being codetermined with all the other actors with whom one must necessarily struggle”. Though the future is ‘unknowable’, these new alliances may allow the pro-choice community to more effectively challenge Ireland’s oppressive abortion laws that affect us all. Acknowledging difference has enriched our political action, and strengthened the momentum for change.


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