From Sandymount Strand you can walk to the edge of Dublin harbor when the tide is low. From there, you can watch the ferries and planes head to the UK. Around 10 Irish women make this journey every day to access basic reproductive health services. I did this trek into the harbour one evening. Out in the muck and wind, I reflected on how lonely, brutal, and unnerving this journey must be. I also took a ferry journey this week, partly to understand better what this experience entailed (although it could not rival the reality). As the ship rocked back and forth while unattended child ran around and drunken passengers yelled, I reflected further on how people should not have to cross a sea for a medical procedure. Even without the pressure of a major decision, it can be stressful to be surrounded by strangers in the middle of the sea. Women who have an abortion are often portrayed as calloused or using it as a form of contraception. It is often forgotten that many of the people faced with the decision are scared, doubting, and did not become pregnant by choice.
Alone or with company, it is still a journey that is taken. Ireland… the country that legalized marriage equality via a referendum, the country that put forth gender identity recognition, a nation with many historical and mythological heroines, an island with a matron goddess (Ériu)… still denies abortion even in cases of sexual violence and mental health issues.
Before going forward, I will note that this is an opinion piece meant to spur thought on how the 8th Amendment and the campaign to repeal it has impacted the spaces and places of Ireland’s inhabitants. It is biased in favour of the Repeal. Additionally, it discusses matters such as sexual violence (so I wish to give a content warning). Finally, it is important to note that transmen and non-binary people can become pregnant. My usage of women or female is for conciseness rather than excluding these people.
I come from the USA. Our abortion legality was established via a court decision, not a referendum. As such, there are constant challenges to abortion rights and funding cuts to reproductive health services. Protests in front of health clinics are not a thing of movies. They exist, and both medical staff and women can face danger. Respected journalist and comedian John Oliver offers some overviews of the challenges to abortion in:
Ireland is in a position to legalize abortion via democracy… to express the support and consent of the majority of its people. Although the Yes vote is currently leading, it is not a sure victory.
For the remainder of the post, I chose to interview three people regarding the 8th.
My colleague and co-author, Jane Feeney, interviewed me. Her questions were:
- As a foreigner living for a number of years in Ireland, what are your impressions of gender equality and women’s rights in Ireland?
- In the run up to the referendum, what is the atmosphere like in Dublin?
- I know that although you can’t vote you have been actively campaigning for the Yes side. Thanks for that. What reactions have you been getting?
- What are the abortion laws in the USA?
My responses were as follows:
It’s hard to say how I feel about gender equality in Ireland. On one hand, I am privileged to be surrounded by many successful, talented, and inspiring female colleagues who have extraordinary agency. On the other hand, there’s a lot hidden in the landscape. I have never seen so many homeless young women as I have in Ireland, something which I find disturbing not just because of its very nature… but because I’ve lived nearby underpopulated convents and Church buildings that could easily house them. The Irish Times has also recently covered disproportionately high female suicide rates in Dublin, attributing it partly to the pressures on and lack of support for mothers. Foreign students and workers (as well as Irish citizens) are also exploited by the housing crisis, with some young women having to resort to sexual services to cover their rent or secure a spot in the city. That, or perhaps they’re stuck on a bunk bed in a hallway. Sorry for the list, but I think it’s important to provide these examples to give a picture of larger violence.
As a historical geographer, I’m also appalled at how little attention the Laundries command in the Irish landscape. Neglected babies thrown into mass graves, women and children tortured, forced labour… yet Ennis gave the Sisters of Mercy a statue commemorating their arrival. What does this say to the survivors… to young women? Such things, I believe, are visual indicators that women are not equal in many Irish minds.
I’ve done some fundraising for sexual violence prevention on Grafton Street. It sickens me that religious charities will get an abundance of money while I got dirty looks or complete turn-arounds once people saw the organisation’s logo. Some of these prevention organizations are seen as trying to exploit the Church for money and falsely accuse clergy, rather than providing vital health and legal support. As much as I am a proponent of free speech, it’s quite frustrating to see high-ranking clergy in Ireland say things such as abortion is more traumatic than rape. Between the Laundries and a legacy of child abuse, it is quite audacious of the Church to comment on the 8th.
As for the run up to the Vote, I have experienced tension in the city. Wearing Repeal and Yes gear, I’ve been called a piece of shit, screamed at, followed, threatened, and given expedited service to get me out of shops quickly. I was hoping that people would be more interested in an academic and logical debate. However, I find the atmosphere too emotionally charged and toxic.
I will proudly wear my Repeal Jumper, even after the vote. Race, gender, sex, ability, sexuality, nationality… it shouldn’t matter. This is a human issue. To me, forcing a woman to carry a foetus to term is an act of violence. People need to have body autonomy and be able to consent.
Although abortion is legal in the USA, this can change with a Supreme Court case. It is not unthinkable in the current climate, with our impotent president willing to do or support anything to garner support. Right now, there are State laws in place that try to delay abortions, dissuade women, and limit access. In all honesty, an abortion is a private matter that should be between a woman and a neutral physician. If a woman wants more advice or information, there should science based resources available.
I interviewed an Indian man (R.) who is employed at TCD to discuss his view on the referendum. Our conversation was free flowing and in person, so I apologise for the lack of a full transcript.
Immediately R. made connections between the referendum, the 2014 Indian elections, the 2016 US elections, and Brexit. He felt that fear was being amplified by the No Campaign, similarly to the way populists have garnered support in other countries. He also noted the use of misleading posters by the Campaign (e.g. portraying grown children, unscientific figures, and using the term baby instead of foetus). Dishonest politics are being employed, and he is worried that there might be a surprise victory such as in the US 2016 Elections.
To him, there is a clear distinction between a foetus and a baby. After birth, he is fully committed to protecting a child’s rights. However, he notes the hypocrisy of the Church’s Laundries and some of the No voters. Once the mother has been pressured into completing the pregnancy and having the baby… support dries up the moment it’s born. This then, according to R., leads to a burden on social welfare systems and networks. However, blame is placed on minorities rather than the lack of support for women. Everything is connected, and the quality of all our lives suffers when children are born into a situation where they cannot fully thrive.
R. states that he is open to the No Campaign, but wishes to be convinced logically. Again, he emphasized the hypocrisy of not supporting children after birth; instead unwed or single mothers are often condemned. He also posed a question to some No Campaigners. He asked how they would feel if Indian norms and laws regarding beef were imposed on them. The No Campaigners reacted that it would upset them, and that they should not be punished for opposing religious beliefs. He also quoted the Bible to the Campaigners, citing that Ireland was the first country to legalise same-sex marriage yet it is punishable by death in scripture. The Campaigners were not able to respond and instead resorted to a xenophobic insult. Again, he emphasises their failure to counter with viable and scientific arguments.
R. was approached by another No Campaigner, who lectured him on Hellfire and the sin of abortion. Having enough of it, he set a No pamphlet on fire with his cigarette lighter. The Campaigner responded with a xenophobic insult
R. says that the incident was out of character for him, as he prefers logical discussions and debates. He even takes daily walks down Nassau Street to engage with canvassers. Nevertheless, the discussion of Hell and sin struck a nerve with him… and sometimes a statement is needed and more powerful.
One of R.’s statements that stuck with me was that the decision of abortion is an extremely difficult one, the least we can do is ease the suffering and pressure on the woman contemplating it.
My next interview was with Jane Feeney, a fellow PhD Researcher. I asked Jane:
- How do you perceive digital spaces regarding the 8th since you’re abroad?
- What are the challenges facing Irish women generally accessing place and space?
- And more generally what your views are regarding the campaign and the 8th?
- Do you have any messages for young voters, or young women in general?
Having lived outside of Ireland for 10 years, I felt during that decade quite powerless in the places I was living, somewhat detached from political issues going on around me because I’m an outsider and don’t have a vote, and meanwhile disconnected from what was going on in Ireland.
The referendum on the 8th amendment was my first opportunity to vote after returning to live in Ireland, and one I feel very strongly about. However, my PhD fieldwork meant that I would be outside of the country again and so before I left I filled out the paperwork and applied for a postal vote. I was told my circumstances made me eligible for a postal vote but that I needed to be in Ireland during the month of May in order to physically receive the ballot paper. I found this ridiculous as it seems to completely defy the point of a postal vote. But after my frustration at Dublin City Council faded away I was left with a feeling of personal guilt, at being away from my country and not participating as an Irish citizen, giving up my right to be part of the Irish collective in favour of my own individual goals.
So, instead I have been following what’s going on via digital spaces and conversations with my mum. As I think we’re all increasingly aware of, from our own personal experiences with social media and creepy Cambridge Analytica revelations, social media presents a distorted view of reality, and so most of my news feed is filled with posts from like-minded repealers. So when I streamed the abortion debate on RTE Player last week, from my hotel room in a teeny rural Colombian village, I was a bit surprised and quite worried to listen to so many defiant ‘No’ voters who seemed, at least to me, to make up the majority of the audience. I felt doubly disconnected listening to some of the arguments which I just could not relate to, and the seeming ability to accept or pass off so-called ‘hard’ cases as one-off cases out of what I think is an ungrounded fear of liberalism or change. I don’t think it’s acceptable to allow the dehumanisation of women our society, even if they are one-off cases. And anyway these are not a small number of cases. This issue affects every person that has the ability to create life, which is most people, and any of us could find ourselves in crisis. I would like to know I could receive support in such circumstances, instead of exclusion and castigation.
It’s hard to gauge the atmosphere from far away and I know that things must be extremely tense this week. Without a voice at home I have taken to telling people here in Colombia about the referendum, who are for the most part surprised that Ireland has such conservative abortion laws, having put us in the same box as other “advanced” European countries (worldabortionlaws.com shows a global map of abortion laws). In Colombia abortion laws are more liberal than Ireland, being legal in three cases: rape; fatal foetal abnormalities; and when the life or physical or mental health of the mother is in danger. Although I have also been told anecdotally that abortions in other cases happen anyway, through illegal abortion centres, bribes, or lax enforcement by doctors, for example signing off on an abortion even if it does not strictly fit the permitted circumstances. Also, the stigma and lack of awareness about the right to abortion mean that even some women who find themselves in one of the three cases continue to have abortions in secret.
I am proud to be from a country that has given me the opportunity to learn, to explore the world, to be independent and have an open mind. I’m also proud to be from a country where I can get married regardless of the gender of the person I am in love with. I’m not proud that my country ignores the needs of the women who are forced to leave the country in order to access safe abortions. Or that I am not allowed to make my own decisions over my own body. In the end, this is not a decision on the morals of abortion; but rather whether Ireland will leave behind shame and stigma and move towards an open and honest society that faces up to and takes responsibility for its citizens’ needs and rights. That’s the kind of collective I want to be part of.
If you have the chance to vote, use it! This is an opportunity to positively transform health conditions for the next generation of women in Ireland.
My final interview was with Deirdre, who is an alternative model, artist, and activist very engaged in the Repeal movement (her Instragram handle is Valkyrievonstorm). I asked her:
- On social media I’ve seen you use the phrase “war on women.” Would you be open to discussing some of the major ways women are being restricted, oppressed, and or harmed in Ireland today?
- Can you describe your thoughts and feelings when you see campaign signs in public spaces?
- In general, what have been some of your experiences in public regarding the campaign?
- You’ve used your modelling and artistry as a way of advocating for the Repeal. Recently you posted a photo with the Repeal logo painted across your body. I was struck at how poised and heroic you came across in the photo. With constraints, both legal and social, on women, do you find artistic and digital spaces as a way of combating barriers?
- Do you have any message you’d like to tell young voters? Or perhaps young women?
Her responses were:
Well the most obvious thing that restricts women in Ireland now is the 8th amendment. If you can’t have the choice to continue a pregnancy you don’t have a hell of a lot. While there does seem to be a lot more support and understanding about the cruel circumstances the 8th can leave a woman in, I get the feeling people think this is the last big fight for women’s rights, when it’s nowhere near over. We still have to challenge the way we think about sex and sexuality. Gender roles, male privilege, toxic masculinity, so many, too many to name them all….
Women’s issues and rights are everyone’s issues. By making things more equal for women, we do it for everyone.
One example… Some say they are voting yes/ no because they support a termination only in the case of rape or incest… There is the thought that they have a huge issue with women having sex… We as women in this day and age are still not allowed to enjoy sex. If it wasn’t a crime committed against our bodies it should be functional towards making babies. With the results of certain trials still so raw, we see how women are treated when they seek justice for sexual assault, and how difficult it is for people to “believe” them…
Why don’t men have the same restrictions? Male prowess when it comes to sex is praised…
Female prowess is shunned and given ugly, damning labels.
If we let go of the 8th for a moment, women are still expected to become Mothers. All too often do we hear “you’ll change your mind” – It’s probably the biggest decision you will ever make. It’s infuriating to think our worth boils down to whether we birth or not.
Again why aren’t men held to this standard? We know the line “when are you going to settle down” – A line that I haven’t heard, many have to deal with in some years, but women are still expected to one day become Mothers.
Where I live is supposed to be a poster free zone, as requested by the tidy towns committee…
I have seen several NO posters where there should not be any! I am an adamant YES voter so obviously I am infuriated by the lies put forth by the NO campaign. Anyone who is campaigning for YES knows the (I’m trying to think of a neutral word…) tactics the NO side have pulled. I also fight the urge to tear them down, to deface them. I walked past a man on a bridge with a 4 foot poster of a pregnant woman and the fetus in her belly saying “Me Too.”
As a rape survivor I was furious! I find these posters to be overwhelming. While I know I am surrounded by loved ones voting YES, it feels like I’m trapped; like when I leave my home I’m entering a hostile environment.
While I live out in the country, I am in Dublin very often. Thankfully I have received very little grief for what I wear. I have grinned with glee seeing REPEAL jumpers and t-shirts across the road. I’ve blushed with joy when I bump into YES campaigners. It’s a wonderful feeling of solidarity. I wore a pair of leggings by Isleen Designs, when I covered the door for a friend’s event. Nearly everyone attending was voting yes, but it opened up a lot of conversations about women’s rights, non nationals and voting rights. I also recently wore Godless Repeal Harlots when back in the country…. That did not go down well, but again I received grief from older men….. How dare a woman reclaim her body.
I have noticed that people have interesting thoughts when it comes to HOW a woman should show her support and solidarity… The way some men are being harrassed or attacked for wearing these things is toxic masculinity. The comments on women’s clothing…. It’s that akin to the “what was she wearing” argument?
If people have a problem with what one wears but not posters with absolute lies…. It says a lot more about those people.
Art is Political, weather you intend it to be or not. Art is subjective, it won’t always provoke the reaction you want. Sometimes… a lot of the time… it’s intuitive and you don’t know entirely what you were expressing or releasing until it’s finished.
For the Maser Repeal heart across my chest, I was painted by Mannequin_blue. She was in the States when the heart went back up and came home the day after it was painted over. We, like many others, were upset. You can’t paint over an issue.
Art reflects the environment it comes from it questions and challenges. When I started modelling I never thought it would wake up my Feminist self. Considering Bodypainting and Burlesque is a huge majority of women… Yes! It absolutely combats these barriers! I think one of the best ways to realize your worth as a woman, as a human being!, is that you are not in competition with each other. Your body is the most personal thing about you. Using it to create and express should always be encouraged and supported. These spaces are also open to men, and I’ve seen some incredible men express themselves. Art and creation is your soul!
Wow! Loads of things!
Your vote, especially when it comes to a constitutional referendum, MATTERS! It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, just remember you can’t change or control everything. Take care of yourself, learn to rest. The world isn’t going to change or disappear tomorrow.
I hope that this piece has given you some insight on how the Repeal has transformed Irish space and place. More importantly, I hope it has opened your eyes to the cruelty inherent in some of the landscapes created in Ireland for women. As the polls open tomorrow, please consider the impacts of your vote. Ireland, you have the opportunity to undo a grave injustice against your peers, your mothers, your sisters, your daughters, your friends, your colleagues… against women. Ferries and planes no longer need be symbols of oppression… of a harrowing journey. The Repeal is just one step forward to gender equality and promoting a society based on consent. Thank you for reading.