‘I feel scared for them’: 17-year-old Irish activist on the overturning of Roe v Wade

Unlike the girl who felt inspired by the Irish feminism of 2018 but also disconnected from it; the young person learning about Roe v Wade in May understood all too well what was at stake

When I heard the US Supreme Court was considering overturning Roe v Wade, I didn’t cry or kick and scream; how could I? I didn’t know what Roe v Wade was. Nonetheless, I saw images of women and members of marginalised genders out on the streets in protest. So, of course, I looked it up. As I pieced together what I found out from multiple sources such as podcasts, newspapers, magazine articles, reliable instagram posts and so on, I began to understand the gravity of what they were talking about in the news.

I read in May that Roe v Wade was a 1973 legal case in which the US Supreme Court ruled that unduly restrictive state regulation of abortion is unconstitutional. It was the landmark ruling that legalised abortion nationwide in the US. Without it, each state can decide whether to protect the right to bodily autonomy, to restrict access to abortion or ban it completely.

Having never heard of Roe it felt almost unimaginable to me that abortion rights could be so under threat. From our own recent history, I was able to grasp how women and gender nonconforming people fought hard for these rights in Ireland. I would have been 12 years old during the 2018 referendum and as a young girl I didn’t completely understand the politics of the referendum. I didn’t understand why we even had to vote for women or any person to have the right to choose how they live their lives and to be able to make decisions over their own bodies — to me it seemed obvious that it was the right thing to do. Yet, I saw quite clearly at the time that not everyone agreed with me and pro-life campaigns were prominent. I also remember watching the news and absorbing the way feminists came together; they worked so hard and marched en masse.

I would go on to learn more about intersectionality and feminism. I would learn that any threat to abortion rights is a threat to bodily autonomy and women’s rights more broadly: gender affirming surgery, contraceptives, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of colour)’s right to choose to have children after a history of forced sterilisation. It is a threat to inclusive relationships, sex education and so on. I saw that those already most marginalised by society are most harmed by a lack of reproductive rights. I would go on to take my place as an activist and advocate for human rights, climate justice and equity. I would go on to host a podcast on sustainability, to write about these issues and to be louder.

So, unlike the girl who felt inspired by the Irish feminism of 2018 but also disconnected from it; the young person learning about Roe v Wade in May understood all too well what was at stake. Even though a 61 per cent majority of US adults say abortion should be legal in all or most cases (according to Pew Research) this constitutional right was going to be stripped away. The message the US Supreme Court was sending is also likely to have a ripple effect on other countries such as Ireland and the UK that have legalised abortion, but also on countries still seeking the same rights. I understood the impact and I felt mainly shocked that after all this hard work, this could happen.

By the time Roe v Wade was overturned last week, I knew exactly what it meant. I didn’t have to go away and do my research. Instead, I was watching the news and feelings of fear and sadness and anger set in all at once. I felt like I wanted to lend my heart to the people in US states with trigger bans that brought in immediate restriction. But I couldn’t because my heart was already breaking. I knew that so many other women and people of all genders’ hearts were breaking in that moment too. I knew that we would have to work together to pick up the broken pieces.

It’s so much easier to feel numb and not engage than it is to feel pain and empathy, but it’s worth it because those emotions are signs that we care. Those are emotions we can turn into support, retaliation and, most importantly, action. That action could be talking to friends and family, checking in with people, writing or talking about this, protesting, donating to organisations already working on providing safe healthcare and abortion, etc. Through taking action, which sometimes feels so small when you’re up against such big powers, I began to see how many other people were shouting about this too, that I’m not alone and that there is hope in all our individual power coming together for this cause.

As a young person in Ireland, I am looking from the outside in and I am so grateful for that privilege and safety. Most of what I feel in my reaction to this news is grounded in my empathy for marginalised people in the US and I feel scared for them. I also feel sad that we’re still having to defend basic human rights. I feel more protective than I ever have before of our right to abortion in Ireland. Before now, I took it for granted. But I have realised it is actually something to value and hold on to tightly. My reaction is similar to so many young people in Ireland and, really, across the world.

Collectively, our hearts are breaking but collectively, we will mend them.

Amy O’Brien is a young writer, advocate and activist