How Much Can One-Off Protests Change People's Minds About Abortion?

Or, to put it another way, can live-tweeting a trip to England to have a legal abortion become a feasible form of protest?

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03 September 2016, 8:00am

(Illustration by Joel Benjamin)

You'd hardly call live-tweeting an abortion a fun time. But when you're from a country like Ireland, with some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world, it can become a form of protest – the question is, just how effective could it be in the long-term?

Two weekends ago, a pair of Irish friends gained more than 26,000 followers as they embarked on a 28-tweet trip that at least 70 others would make that week. Abortion is criminal in almost all situations in Ireland – including cases involving rape, incest, or fatal foetal abnormality – so travelling across the border becomes some women's only option.

Sinead – not her real name – tells VICE she'd never even used Twitter before this journey but "if it helps people to see abortion in a less sensationalist perspective, that's fucking great". While her main role was as a supporter for her friend, Sinead says she was inspired to use the platform by Grainne Maguire, an Irish comedian who launched a social media campaign last November encouraging women to send details of their periods to Irish Taoiseach – head of government – Enda Kenny, in protest against the current law.

This time, the use of social media felt riskier. "I was very nervous for my friend that our anonymity would be compromised. Like if we clicked the wrong button." The pair took precautions, splitting up going through passport control. In total their trip, including flights, taxis, dingy hotel, and the abortion itself, cost about 2,000 euros.

"Every time another woman dies in gruesome circumstances we think it will be the defining moment," Sinead says, adding that the overwhelmingly supportive response to her stunt shows how much Ireland's government needs to address the dysfunctional law. "It's very encouraging to think that maybe we can maintain a consistent dialogue now."

Young Irish pro-choice activists are resorting to more guerilla-style actions in a bid to keep the topic in the public discourse, but with decades of governments adopting an unspoken "out of sight, out of mind" attitude, it's difficult to see what might provide the catalyst for change. As it stands, the country would need a referendum to change its constitution – the right to life of an unborn child is protected in its eighth amendment.

In practice, this legal provision means that women whose babies won't survive outside the womb can't terminate their pregnancies in-country, so they go to England. For those who can't travel, the implications of the law can be much more painful: A woman is currently suing the state after she was force-fed and forced to undergo a caesarean after she was raped; she couldn't travel to the UK because of her immigration status.

This seemingly disparate cluster of protests isn't all based online. Over the summer, "Repeal the 8th" graffiti sprung up across Dublin – a late July removal order by authorities only generated more murals. In early July, a pop-up selling 25-euro black jumpers emblazoned with the word REPEAL filled with customers and ran out of stock in hours. The project's founder Anna Cosgrave calls her work a "micro contribution to a movement spanning decades".

Meanwhile, last week, Brianna Parkins, who represented Sydney at the bizarrely traditional "lovely girls"-style Rose of Tralee competition, used her televised interview on state broadcaster RTE to call for an eighth amendment repeal. While she didn't think her small act of rebellion would "change the world", Parkins says she hoped it helped spark debate: "I think they're up against a hard wall but Irish women and Irish men, they get stuff done."

But will any of this have a likely impact on the government? "They have been very effective kind of stunts," says Brian Hanley, a member of the Irish Association of Professional Historians, "but in the longer run I don't know how many of those things you can do before their value declines. Unfortunately I think you still have to rely on old-fashioned campaigning – particularly face-to-face."

Hanley remembers the 1990s wave of demonstrations around another case, known only as "X", when a pregnant and suicidal 14-year-old was refused an abortion. "That felt hugely transformative," he says. "People used to spray the number of the abortion services numbers on the walls – we used to write them on placards deliberately to get them on television."


WATCH: The Debate Over an Abortion Ban Rages on in Ireland


But ultimately, even traditional and confrontational forms of protests slammed into obstacles. "What the mainstream politicians were quite adept at doing was fobbing it off," Hanley says, "making small gestures that made it look like they were paying attention but no actual changes."

Notably more dismissive of the new wave of activism is renowned Irish journalist and feminist campaigner Nell McCafferty, 72. She suggests campaigners were ignorant about the specifics of what they were pushing for. "People need to be aware of the various stages of pregnancy – which one of these young activists even knows what a zygote is?" she asks, sharply.

In her opinion, a referendum would take at least another three years, and everyone needs to get educated in the meantime. "If you repeal it what are you going to replace it with? Anyone at all, even the most rightwing people can agree to repeal the eighth so it's not a question of that, it's what happens after... It's all very vague and unsatisfactory."

Ultimately, it's hard to tell whether public opinion would support a change, as we saw with the historic 2015 referendum on marriage equality. "I think the ground has shifted, and the anti-abortion or extreme have been marginalised to some extent," Hanley says, his voice trailing off. He adds, somewhat uncertainly, that while it would take longer to convince the majority of Irish citizens, "there are politicians who are hedging their bets. They will realise it's not a political death sentence. In the 1980s it effectively was, now it's a credible argument."

@sallyhayd

More on VICE:

Why Do Women In London Have More Abortions Than the Rest of England?

The Women Forced to Perform DIY Medical Abortions in Ireland

Did a Woman Really Have to Die While Having a Miscarriage, Ireland?

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