The Predicament of the Pro-Choice Movement in Ireland
Over the past three decades, more than 205,000 women have left Ireland to procure abortion services. This mass exodus could finally change following the announcement of a referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Irish constitution set for May or June of 2018. As it stands, the Eighth Amendment equates the life of a fetus to the life of a person and outlaws abortion in all circumstances. Despite pressure from the United Nations and EU Court of Human Rights to amend their restrictive laws, the Irish government refuses to enact meaningful policy change. As a result, its citizens depend on foreign agents and unregulated websites to receive procedural care.
In 2016, the United Kingdom Department of Health recorded 3,265 cases – roughly 10 per day – of women who traveled from Ireland to the UK to receive abortion services. Women who cannot afford to travel have limited options. The miscarriage-inducing medications Mifepristone and Misoprostol are smuggled into the country somewhat successfully. At the same time, online services like womenhelp.org have begun shipping the pills to Northern Ireland addresses for Irish women to collect.
Regardless of how they obtain the pills, an estimated three Irish women self-administer medical abortions every day, facing up to 14 years in prison if they seek help for complications. The high demand for these basic medications has led to the emergence of underground communities of women sharing tactics to circumvent obstructive laws in countries all over the world. The Dutch medical organization, Women on Waves, lists advice for women to procure Mifepristone and Misoprostol in different forms:
“To obtain one of these medicines, one could, for example, say that your grandmother has rheumatoid arthritis so severely she can not go to the pharmacy herself, and that you do not have money to pay for a doctor to get the prescriptions for the tablets.
If there are problems to get the medicines in one pharmacy, try another pharmacy, or a male friend or partner might have fewer problems obtaining them… Usually one can expect more luck at the smaller pharmacies that do not belong to a chain.
Sometimes Cytotec can also be bought on the black market (places where you can also buy Marijuana). However try to make sure that is really is Misoprostol and not fake pills or some other medicine!”
Without protection from their governments or healthcare providers, women place their trust in informal networks and endanger themselves needlessly.
Beyond faceless statistics, these policies have dire consequences for the women themselves. In October 2012, 31-year-old Savita Halappanavar was admitted to University Galway Hospital for back pains. She was 17 weeks pregnant. When it became evident that her back pain was a symptom of preterm labor, Halappanavar asked if it were possible to save her baby, but was told that a miscarriage was “inevitable.” Doctors denied her an emergency medical abortion, and instead kept her hospitalized for three days until she was forced to deliver a stillborn girl. Four days after that, Savita Halappanavar died from advanced septicemia and organ failure.
At the time of writing, no members of Halappanavar’s medical team have been held accountable, despite a jury verdict of “medical misadventure.” After Halappanavar’s death, Irish MP Teachta Dála Clare Daly introduced a bill to clarify cases of legal termination of pregnancy – designed to prevent deaths like Halappanavar’s – but the bill was defeated in the lower house of Parliament by a vote of 101 to 27. Against a backdrop of government inaction, to the credit of the women of Ireland, Halappanavar’s death was met with protest and a wave of activism across the country.
In 2012, pro-choice organizations across Ireland formed the Irish Choice Network, now the Abortion Rights Campaign. Their first and second annualMarch for Choice garnered around 2,500 people, and their numbers have climbed somewhat slowly over the past four years. Then, on International Women’s Day, March 8th, 2017, the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment organized a “Strike For Repeal” demonstration that saw an estimated 10,000 people take to Dublin’s streets to demand a referendum to repeal the Eighth amendment – by far the largest pro-choice demonstration in Irish history. The success of the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment culminated with this protest, which led to a Citizens Assembly and ultimately to Prime Minister Leo Varadkar’s decision to hold the referendum.
How did the pro-choice movement grow from a couple thousand to tens of thousands, and how did it inspire such open resistance to some of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe?
The answer: the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment generated and leveraged social capital to harness passive rejection of prescribed politics and transform it into active resistance. That is, in a predominantly disaffected youthculture, the Repeal campaign created space for young people to access socio-political ideas and express their support in a way that generated social capital. Specifically, the Coalition’s capacity to mobilize young people in unprecedented numbers relied on three elements.
First, the REPEAL jumper addressed the need for young people to vocalize their beliefs without the constraints of traditional politics and processes.
According to Anna Cosgrave, the creator of the jumpers, her purpose was to enable:
“… people that otherwise felt nervous about the political and academic rhetoric around reproductive rights to be able to wear a jumper and be like I care without having any of the linguistics or technical terms.”
For people of all ages and backgrounds – especially youth – the REPEAL jumper provides access to a growing socio-political discussion. Its first impression is stark. Its black and white contrast conveys severity, simplicity, and power. In an organized demonstration, the jumper becomes a uniform of resistance; in everyday life, one of solidarity. The jumper displays a public statement about a shunned issue, creating new political practices in place of traditionally accepted ones. The REPEAL jumpers attract so many people, perhaps, due to their function an emblem of resistance that allows wearers to determine their own meaning by interpreting the message of REPEAL: resistance to tradition, resistance to a Catholic state, resistance to male-dominated politics. The flexibility allows each person to share deeply personal meanings with others, and thus creates a community for building social capital. Also significant, the quote that accompanies the Repeal campaign’s Instagram photo underscores the importance of accessibility in social movements. The woman in the photo describes the way to “reclaim our bodies from the State.” Here, the notion of REPEAL has transcended simple popularity and become a way for young people to engage highly intellectual ideas about the role of government in people’s lives.
The evidence the jumpers’ popularity speaks for itself: On their first day in stores, they sold out within an hour. The online shop has stocked and restocked, but remains sold out for the foreseeable future. From an economic perspective, the low-level infrastructure of Cosgrave’s microfinance project unintentionally produced an unmet demand that bolstered the social capital of those lucky enough to possess one of the coveted jumpers.
The second element of the Repeal coalition’s ethos emerged in chants used at protests that reiterate a rejection of traditional politics. The first:
Not the Church, not the State
Women must decide their fates
This chant, like the jumper, calls into question the role of institutions in women’s lives. It emphasizes collective independence from both the Church and State, breaking from longstanding traditional politics, and instead presents a new framework for considering women’s issues.
Where’s the referendum?
At protests, this chant is performed in a taunting manner. The speakers refer to then-Prime Minister, Enda Kenny by his first name, thereby denying him respect and formality. This language places the protesters and the nation’s Prime Minister on equal footing. Together, the structure and performance of these chants display the protesters’ resistance to traditional politics.
The third element of the Repeal coalition’s success in generating social capital rests in its official and unofficial social media presence. The official social media pages of just a few members of the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth have over 65,000 followers between Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, plus avid supporters at entertainment news websites like her.ie, which boasts 175,000 followers on various social media platforms. Thousands of young people use social media as a platform for expressing solidarity and continued support: #repealthe8th was among the top trending hashtags in Ireland in 2016 and spiked at over 36,000 tweets in a single day during 2016’s March for Choice rally. The online community created by the Repeal coalition produces and reproduces social capital as online momentum grows.
Popular social media pages independent from the Coalition have also bolstered the coalition’s cause. Humans of The Sesh provides a solid example of the new political practices surrounding the Repeal the Eighth movement. With over 23,000 followers on Twitter and 556,000 on Facebook, Humans of The Sesh holds a special place in youth culture history in Ireland and the UK. They are nihilistic, self-proclaimed “sesh gremlin documenters” with a philosophy of recreational inebriation, deadpan commentary, and emotional decay. Primarily, they make memes. In June, Humans of The Sesh tweeted its annoyance at a
government move to discontinue large packs of Amber Leaf tobacco:
First and foremost, in this tweet, Humans of The Sesh expresses its frustration with the Irish government from a youth perspective. Second, the tweet equates two completely different policy points – tobacco and women’s healthcare. Notably, the tweet equates them to highlight their absurdity: repealing the Eighth Amendment should be just as straightforward as ‘repealing’ a tobacco product, and the Irish government is therefore out-of-touch and ridiculous for repealing one but not the other. As a group fundamentally catered to disaffected youth, it is significant that Humans of The Sesh deliberately referenced a socio-political issue. Their presence on social media platforms, separate from and critical of traditional political spaces, provides them with a source of social capital from young people. By referencing the Repeal the Eighth movement, Humans of The Sesh leveraged the movement’s social capital and amplified it for its own followers.
In another example, the Repeal movement’s social capital bleeds into independent social media in a post retweeted by the Abortion Rights Campaign:
This image demonstrates the flexible boundaries between political and non-political spaces for Irish youth. The people in the photo are attending Electric Picnic – the wildly popular summer festival best known for its teen-dream lineup and open-minded drug policies. By definition, it is a space outside of traditional politics. More importantly, it is a space distinct for young people in which festival goers gained social capital for embedding their political views. The people in the photo carry an inflated banana with the word “repeal” misspelled to make a pun about the fruit. Like Humans of The Sesh, their language choice draws attention to the movement in a humorous, accessible way. The social capital generated by the Repeal movement enabled these people to express their political opinion in a format that reproduced more social capital for themselves.
The Repeal the Eighth movement drew unprecedented numbers of young people into the fold by generating social capital for its participants. For Irish youth, the ethos of the Repeal campaign reproduced a familiar rejection of prescribed politics, and provided common access to socio-political discussions. Through the use of the REPEAL jumpers, protest chants, and social media, the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth gained enough power to pressure the Irish government into holding a Citizen’s Assembly and a referendum.
With the upcoming referendum set for the summer of 2018, the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment has achieved its principal goal. While popular opinion and all major political parties support repeal, many of these groups will likely begin to lobby to replace the amendment with certain restrictions on abortion access. Yet again to the credit of the women of Ireland, the most recent March for Choice celebrated tens of thousands of participants: now, women’s rights and lives depend on the Repeal coalition’s ability to sustain support and adapt to emerging political challenges.