Don’t lean in, barge in: why it’s time to stop being so polite about abortion

Opinion: ‘Women need to utilise all their creativity and provocative skills and solidarity’

Last week, a group of pro-choice activists travelled from Dublin to Belfast to get misoprostol and mifepristone, before returning to the Republic. These so-called “abortion pills” – medication that induces miscarriage – were taken by activists as a display of protest and publicity to highlight how women in Ireland have to circumvent our abortion laws. It is 2014 in Ireland and the clocks have gone back, in this case to 1971, when the “condom train” arrived back from Belfast to Dublin at a time when birth control was exotic.

Sometimes acts of protest aren’t as palatable as we’d like them to be, but far less palatable is the lack of free, safe, and legal abortion in Ireland. Being an acceptable woman in Ireland means toeing the line. There is something powerful about seeing a group of people not just cross that line, but question who put the line there in the first place.

That said, “abortion pills” are not medically trivial. On Ray D’Arcy’s radio programme last week, he read out a heartbreaking letter from a woman who wanted and needed an abortion. She simply couldn’t bring another child into what was an abusive situation with her partner. Like many women in Ireland, she didn’t have the money to travel to the UK. So she sought help and procured medication from a pharmacy, and took the pills at home. The consequences weren’t good. She bled profusely and thought she might die. It was incredibly upsetting to hear.

The real issue

If you were listening to it – whatever your personal position on abortion – you would have felt a surge of empathy and compassion, and most of the texts from listeners read out by D’Arcy were full of those sentiments, because when he read out the letter, it was blatantly obvious that the issue wasn’t “abortion pills”. The issue is the brutal legal, medical, political and patriarchal framework that cages women in Irish society, forcing them into a situation where they end up haemorrhaging at home because their medical choices have been so terrifyingly curtailed. We should be sad about this, and angry. But one thing we shouldn’t be is polite.


At a recent feminist conference I addressed in Cork, a woman in the audience chastised me about using “aggressive” or non-diplomatic language when it comes to women’s rights. But where has being nice got us?

I believe that many of the challenges facing women in Ireland stem from the fact that we do not have autonomy over our own bodies. When you are prohibited by law from making medical decisions, how can you be free? How can you source the personal power within yourself to break down other patriarchal barriers that women face every day? In the workplace we get paid less. On the street we get shouted at more. In politics we aren’t fairly represented. At senior management level in most industries we are marginalised. In the media we are sexualised and then punished for being sexual. And all of these things stem from the permission and distorted power balance patriarchy grants men to maintain a status quo where women are treated as subordinate.

Without medical autonomy when it comes to choosing what we want for our bodies, and our reproductive organs, women in Ireland are enslaved. Many men recognise their privilege in society and are horrified by the subjugation of women. One of the great victories of Feminism 3.0 – a new wave of feminism spread by digital technology – is how men are embracing the term feminist for themselves.

Feminism 3.0 campaigns

The campaigns that typify Feminism 3.0 are often punchy and humorous and clever. They start small and gather momentum. They are grassroots, DIY, often online actions that target a specific aspect of female oppression – be it page 3, catcalling, the driving ban in Saudi Arabia or gendered toys – and try to smash it. And it’s working.

We should not be afraid of creative or controversial protest. Revolution comes in many forms, many small acts and many giant gestures. It is revolution that changes things, because an incremental approach has failed. Last year’s Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act shows what a failure patching things up instead of tearing them down has been.

The real strides feminism has made, and its history’s real flashpoints, haven’t been about asking, they have been about taking. From suffragettes smashing windows to feminists burning bras, from Pussy Riot storming an altar to Irish women swallowing abortion pills, these are the confrontational catalysts that challenge and provoke us.

The time for politeness, with women as contemporary Oliver Twists, saying “Please sir, I want some more”, is over. Women need to utilise all their creativity and provocative skills and solidarity and divilment and boldness, and not lean in, but barge in. The fantastic Knickers for Choice campaign is creative and, frankly, hilarious, and the stinging message at its core makes you think about the issues, even if it initially comes off as frivolous (and frilly). The “abortion pill” protest last week was creative and controversial. It wasn’t palatable, but women spend their lives being told to be palatable. And it’s bloody boring.