As Ireland gears up for the March for Choice this Saturday, Abortion Rights Campaigners say Repeal the 8th is an LGBT issue
People gather, unfurling banners, hugging friends and catching up, sharing face paint, comparing outfits and t-shirts. They’re all getting ready to march, but in which march event? Over the last four years, many of us have had multiple reasons to speak with our feet, participating in Marches for Choice, Marches for Marriage and Prides. This year’s March for Choice coming up this Saturday, September 24 will be no exception, bringing together activists and communities in all their diversity.
While many activists in Ireland support both LGBT equality and repeal of the 8th Amendment because they take a progressive stance on social issues, for others the personal is political. Within the Abortion Rights Campaign (ARC), we know well that the 8th Amendment and Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws do not only impact cis-gendered heterosexual women, but limit the bodily autonomy of lesbian and bisexual women, trans men and those with non-binary genders as well.
The latest figures from the Rape Crisis Network Ireland reaffirm this, revealing that some lesbian and bisexual women who became pregnant as a result of sexual violence chose to end their pregnancies. Perhaps in recognition of these facts, the National LGBT Federation’s second Burning Issues report, which contains the findings from the largest LGBT consultation in Ireland, endorses supporting repeal of the 8th Ammendment as vital to achieving gender equality and human rights.
Lesbian, bisexual and transgender voices have always been at the forefront of activism for abortion access. In 1992, the country was in uproar over the X case, in which the Irish state attempted to prevent a 14 year-old rape victim from accessing abortion services abroad. In response, feminist electronica duo Zrazy released a song with the lyrics “6794700 – every woman’s right to know”. Calling that number put you through to the Women’s Information Network. In those pre-Internet days, this helpline run by volunteers was the only way to access abortion information. In the context of the early ’90s, Zrazy’s lyrics were deeply subversive and did not enjoy popular support – one half of Zrazy’s record company refused to handle the album. Their first video was also banned by RTÉ for featuring two women kissing.
So what change do we still need to see? Read more on next page…
The Main Barrier
So what change do we still need to see? The 8th Amendment to the Constitution, introduced in 1983, continues to be the main barrier to changing Ireland’s abortion laws. In theory, it gives equal rights to a pregnant woman and the foetus she is carrying. In practice, it has meant that the foetus takes precedence over the health or life of the woman.
The impact of the 8th Amendment extends beyond barring access to abortion. For pregnant people, control over one’s own body and the right to consent to medical treatment is generally suspended during pregnancy. The law, originally conceived to prevent the introduction of abortion, has been proven to have far-reaching consequences, including interfering with the treatment of sepsis and cancer.
In 2014 the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act was introduced. This law provides, at least in theory, for access to abortion for any person whose pregnancy poses a risk to their life. However, the law’s provisions are onerous and degrading; in some cases a pregnant person may have to make their case to as many as seven medical professionals before access to an abortion can be granted or denied. The Act also put in place a criminal penalty of up to 14 years imprisonment for anyone who accesses an abortion for any other reason. Those who help may also be charged.
The 8th Amendment doesn’t stop abortion from happening, it just makes access more difficult and less safe. Last year, over 3,000 women travelled to the UK to access abortion services and countless more sought services in other countries or ordered medical abortion pills online. A two-tiered system is set up where those who can circumvent the law by travelling to another country do, and those who cannot are forced to continue the pregnancy against their will or resort to illegal and sometimes unsafe means of procuring the abortion they need.
The parallels between struggles for abortion rights and LGBT equality are many. Read more on next page…
The parallels and intersections between struggles for abortion rights and full equality before the law for LGBT people are many. Within the Abortion Rights Campaign, one of our early partnership events was held with Transgender Equality Network Ireland (TENI). Participants discussed the similarities in terms of the challenges transgender people and people seeking abortion services face in terms of being forced to travel to another country to access healthcare, and being denied the right to make informed decisions about one’s own body and life and to have those decisions be respected.
A variety of voices, including TENI’s Broden Giambrone and Panti Bliss, have linked repeal of the 8th Amendment to key rallying issues for the LGBT community, including gender recognition and marriage equality, the uniting themes being the right to self-determination and bodily autonomy. In advancing rights these movements have also faced similar forms of backlash. ‘Pantigate’ revealed that in the run-up to the marriage equality referendum, so-called dissenting voices had to be given equal airtime. This often meant that space for statements that stigmatised the lives of LGBT people, statements which often bordered on hate speech, were protected.
Though we’re not yet in the lead-up to a referendum to repeal the 8th, those of us who have travelled for abortion services know well what it is like to hear media spokespeople condemn your choices or call you cruel names with no right of reply. There has never been a safe space for people to speak out, but through summoning their bravery, individuals have broken the silence to tell their stories, and it has made all the difference.
Ireland is in the midst of a sea change when it comes to respecting human rights. Read more on next page…
There is no denying that the passage of the marriage equality referendum was an historic moment in Ireland. It was a moment when we, as a people, proved something to ourselves about the power of our own grassroots to spark meaningful social change. Many of us in the Abortion Rights Campaign were out canvassing and counting votes, wondering if and when we might find ourselves doing this again.
After the celebratory weekend when the results were announced, we were astounded to find that our next Open Meeting, where people can drop in to find out about the campaign and how to get involved, had over 200 people in attendance, eager to get active. We struggled to find a venue big enough to accommodate the overwhelming support. Every month, more regional branches of the Abortion Rights Campaign are being established from Donegal to Tipperary, expanding the opportunities for people to get involved and get active wherever they live.
Ireland is in the midst of a sea change when it comes to respecting human rights where they relate to sexuality and gender. Last year saw the introduction of equal marriage by popular vote, and the enactment of gender recognition legislation. These landmarks remind us that change is possible. With the government’s plan for a Citizens Assembly moving forward, it remains unclear whether a referendum will be called allowing the public to vote on whether to repeal the 8th Amendment. However, as long as we continue to work in support and solidarity, recognising how interconnected all movements for sexual and reproductive justice truly are, our voices will be heard, and change will be possible.
This article was written by Janet O’Sullivan, Naomi Elster and Grace Wilentz for the Abortion Rights Campaign
The March for Choice, Saturday, September 24, assembles at the Garden of Remembrance at 1.30 pm to march to the Dáil at 2pm. To find out more about the Abortion Rights Campaign or to get involved, visit abortionrights.ie, Facebook: abortionrightscampaign, @freesafelegal
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