A member of the Strike 4 Repeal campaign, demonstrating on Dublin's O'Connell Bridge. Photo by NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images

Ireland Has Embarrassed and Demeaned My Body

The country must repeal the Eighth Amendment so women can have autonomy over their bodies.

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Mar 10 2017, 4:59pm

A member of the Strike 4 Repeal campaign, demonstrating on Dublin's O'Connell Bridge. Photo by NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images

On Wednesday—International Women's Day—5,000 striking Irish citizens congregated on Dublin's main bridge. Marchers held a banner that spanned the width of the river, reading "Strike 4 Repeal." After sundown, a second gathering attracted around 10,000 people. They were there to demand that the government call a referendum on the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. They were there to demand, finally, that women in Ireland are granted basic bodily autonomy.

The Eighth is the most immediate barrier to the Establishment of the eventual demand: free, safe, and legal abortion. It places the rights of the fetus from the time of conception as equal to those of the mother, in effect placing a constitutional ban on abortion. It still comes as a shock to quite a few people I speak to in Ireland that there is no gray area: If you get pregnant, you must have a baby or leave the country.

Until 1992, the second option was also illegal. In that year, girl X was 14 and had become pregnant as a result of rape. When she and her parents planned to travel to England for an abortion, the question was asked of police whether the fetal remains could be tested to use as proof of the rapist's paternity. An injunction was then taken to stop the child leaving the country or seeking an abortion. A series of appeals resulted in the injunction being overturned on the grounds that she was suicidal, allowing her the right to travel.

That leaves the country where it is today: exporting the problem to England at a rate of 12 women a day. The number of women unable to afford traveling to England and paying an average cost of between £600 [$720] and £2,000 [$2,400] is not known, but Ireland cannot neglect them in its considerations. The experience of being forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to full term is a grave and unsettling horror we should not be allowed to forget.

After several failed referendums in the early 1990s, the campaign to repeal lay largely dormant until 2012. I remember a conversation taking place around that time with my mother, an activist who had campaigned during the successful divorce referendum in 1995 and during each abortion referendum. She felt, she said, a sense of resignation. They had tried for so long—all of her adult life—and nothing had happened. No progress had been made. The same mealy-mouthed old boys in bad toupees were still calling the shots. It really felt then, to me as well as to her, that nothing would ever change.

The death of Savita Halappanavar proved a turning point for the movement. Halappanavar died of a septic miscarriage on October 24, 2012, 17 weeks into her pregnancy. She had asked for, and was denied, an abortion when it had become clear that a miscarriage was inevitable. In explaining that it was not possible, a hospital staff member told her, "This is a Catholic country." Medical professionals pointed out that the lack of clear legislature in the matter prevents them from doing their job competently. Peter Boylan of the Irish Institute of Obstetricians and Gynecologists said, "The current situation is like a sword of Damocles hanging over us. If we do something with good intention but it turns out to be illegal, the consequences are extremely serious for medical practitioners."

Halappanavar's husband, Praveen, successfully sued the HSE for medical negligence in 2016, having already emigrated away from Ireland two years earlier.

Mass outrage followed the case. In November 2012, 2,000 people gathered outside the Dail in Dublin in her memory, and 10,000 marched through the streets demanding changes to the law. No substantive change has taken place since then, but a hugely re-energized, active, and dedicated pro-choice movement has emerged.

We have had the worst case outcomes. We have waited patiently for these to take effect and produce some basic empathy in our legislators. And we have not seen it.

Almost unheard of before, it is now fairly commonplace for pro-choice women to write about their abortion stories in the press or on social media. Actions like the X-ile Project, which presents portraits of Irish women who have traveled for abortions, aim to bring greater understanding to the wider public that the women affected are all around them. "Repeal" sweatshirts made by Anna Cosgrave constantly sell out, with all profits redirected to the Abortion Rights Campaign. Most important, a new generation of activists, like the organizers of Wednesday's march, are angry, radical, and not going anywhere.

There was further controversy late last year, when Rory O'Neill (stage name Panti Bliss), who was instrumental in the campaign to successfully pass the 2015 referendum to legalize gay marriage, commented on the repeal movement: "It's very easy for passion to become anger, but that puts people off. There is a time and a place for righteous anger—and I am not saying everyone should be meek—but you need to think strategically when it comes to referendums."

O'Neill knows a thing or two about winning a referendum, but the crucial point he misses here is that women in Ireland have had every possible conversation and argument about abortion that there is. We have presented the "good victims" (there is perhaps no more straightforward moral argument for abortion than the X case scenario). We have had the worst case outcomes. We have waited patiently for these to take effect and produce some basic empathy in our legislators. And we have not seen it. Being nice, being patient, hasn't worked. Being open about our stories hasn't worked. Even being dead hasn't worked.

This is why it's galling to have centrist liberal discourse repeatedly bemoan us for not being neutral enough. I can't be neutral in a debate about what takes place inside my body, about a system that has made me want to kill myself, about people who were supposed to represent me in government who at best turn their backs and at worst throw me under the bus. The time for politely asking to be included in a conversation we will always be drowned out in is over. The UN told Ireland in 2016 that its lack of legislation was a human rights abuse—a referendum shouldn't even be necessary to address this issue.

These are the sort of bizarre absurdities you find yourself dealing with when forced to justify your rights to people who essentially have no interest in your well-being and health. They will not be reasoned with. Demand, anger, and urgency are necessary now.

All we have available to us is direct action. We have been polite for a long time. We have been nice. We have made the arguments. I'm done with that. I think we all are. My body has been demeaned in Ireland. My body has been embarrassed in Ireland. My body has been raped in Ireland. It has been denied justice in Ireland. I'm sick of debate. I want my body to be my own. In my own country. At last.

Follow Megan Nolan on Twitter.

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