Abortion movement has been hijacked by the middle class

The Repeal campaign should be challenging political and economic inequalities

‘It was inevitable last weekend the Citizens’ Assembly put it up to the Oireachtas, recommending it finally set a date for a referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment.’ Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

‘It was inevitable last weekend the Citizens’ Assembly put it up to the Oireachtas, recommending it finally set a date for a referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment.’ Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

There was a poster in our house in 1983, used in the campaign that year against the proposed Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. I was 11 and thought it was beautiful.

It was a charcoal drawing of a young woman, her head in her hands in apparent despair. An infant at her feet, crying, tugs at her skirt. The slogan beneath read: “It’s life that needs amending. Not the Constitution.”

If our women, who bore of the brunt of Ireland’s 1980s poverty, were better supported to make positive choices about their lives, unexpected pregnancies would be less likely to provoke crises, and their children would be better supported too. Poverty and inequality needed urgent attention, not the Constitution.

It was, perhaps, too nuanced – too challenging? – an argument for an Ireland still under the cosh of a powerful Catholic elite. The amendment, as we know, was carried handsomely, by 841,233 votes (66.9 per cent of the valid poll), to 416, 136 (33.1 per cent).

Thirty-four years on and Ireland is another country – benign in our embrace of new cultures, accommodating of all levels of ability and a place where women are earning our own money, rising to the top across the professions, arts, politics and academia.

It was inevitable last weekend that the Citizens’ Assembly put it up to the Oireachtas – recommending it finally set a date for a referendum to repeal that Eighth Amendment making way for a liberal abortion regime.

Historic breakthrough

Irish women it seems are on the cusp of a historic breakthrough for full equality. The mood at a fundraising concert for the Repeal the Eighth Campaign in Dublin’s Olympia theatre, the evening of the Sunday those recommendations were published, was celebratory.

A giddy, joyous energy blasted through performances from all on stage, from synth-popsters Le Galaxie, to poet Paula Meehan and 1990s favourite David Gray. Derry’s own Niall Hannon spoke of us all “finally smashing down the pillars of patriarchy”.

I paid €32 for my ticket. It was for a good cause and, like everyone there, I enjoyed the night. I was glad I chose to go.

In October 2012, Savita Halappanavar’s death awakened a new generation to the abortion wars

I count myself very lucky over the last 34 years in the choices I have been able to make. As the abortion “wars” raged through my young and middle adulthood – punctuated by the X case (1992), Miss C (1997), ‘D’ v Ireland (2005), Miss D (2007), and A, B and C v Ireland (2010), I got on with life – university, masters, travel.

I also had two abortions – one in London, in my 20s when as a freelancer I felt it would interrupt my career and I wasn’t earning enough to have a child. It cost £650, flights and a day off work. I had no regrets.

I had another in Amsterdam, in my mid-30s, believing I didn’t want more children. It cost €500, flights and a day off work. I regretted it deeply and found being me pretty difficult for about a year after.

Happily, in my 30s, I was also able to choose to have two children, knowing I could provide them with a good life.

In October 2012, Savita Halappanavar’s death awakened a new generation to the abortion wars and in 2015 two brave women, Róisín Ingle and Tara Flynn, received nothing but support for speaking publicly about their abortions.

Though they were not the first – Mary Holland and Ruth Riddick spoke in 1983 – their timing chimed with the transforming mood, making it possible for others to speak about the personal, normal, crises and choices in our lives.

The importance of this recent, dramatic shift from cultural shaming of women who have had abortions, to supporting them, cannot be overstated.

Marginalised communities

A gaping hole, however, in this kaleidoscope of women’s voices was dispiritingly evident at the Olympia gig.

Despite three very brief, and very important contributions – from Senator Lynn Ruane and her daughter Jordanne, Traveller activist Eileen Flynn and poet Felicia Olusanyo – women from marginalised communities were, as far as I could see, almost wholly absent from both stage and audience.

Having accessible abortion services is fundamentally not about being able to choose abortion

Their absence forces questions: what do we mean by women’s equality? Whose equality were we celebrating in the Olympia? The right to choose what? Abortion? No. Accessible abortion services is fundamentally not about being able to choose abortion.

It is about a woman who becomes unexpectedly pregnant being empowered to regain control of her body, to be able to make choices about her life – her education, her career, how many children she can afford, how many children she wants, if any.

Accessible abortion is essential if women are to achieve economic and political equality with men, and it is absolutely essential if the poorest, most marginalised women are to achieve economic and political equality with their middle-class sisters.

I have not heard this basic argument articulated by Repeal campaign.

It is a scandal that women have to travel from Ireland for abortion services.

As great a scandal is that perhaps hundreds of thousands of women cannot even do that. In truth, abortion is as accessible to most Irish middle-class women, like me, as it is to women in the Scottish Highlands or the Welsh valleys.

I have, however, interviewed many women, on Traveller sites, in direct provision centres, in emergency housing, in homes with little furniture, minimal food and no heating, who couldn’t afford to spare €4 for a child’s school trip, much less spend €32 on a concert ticket, or €500 on an abortion.

The Repeal campaign is on the cusp of a historic breakthrough for Irish women – a cause for huge celebration.

Sadly, dominated by middle-class identity politics, it has lost an opportunity to build an all-embracing feminist movement which could challenge the most persistent and damaging inequality for Irish women – economic inequality.

It’s one part of Irish life that still needs amending.

(PS – Free. Safe. Legal. And accessible to all)

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