“If we want to truly challenge the current of conservatism that preserves the 8th, it is worth examining the popular engagement people have with abortion rights as a single political issue, and to self-examine our role as activists within the campaign”
Before Christmas, the Ohio Governor John Kasich approved legislation to ban abortion after 20 weeks. In October, the Polish government tried to ban abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities and failed, overcome by mass mobilisation. Conservative political forces in many countries are making moves to roll back abortion rights. Although the polls show that the majority of people in this country are in favour of repealing the 8th amendment, our government is refusing to give us the referendum we demand. All over the world, abortion has proven to be a contentious moral and political issue. How we approach this issue as activists needs ongoing scrutiny in order to be as effective and inclusive as possible.
Political empowerment is rising in Ireland, with the successful opposition of water charges and the passing of the marriage equality referendum. The issue of abortion rights has reached boiling point, with Students’ Unions across the country and the Union of Students in Ireland being mandated to take pro-choice positions and trade unions officially supporting the campaign. It’s been a turbulent year for the struggle for abortion rights, with two bills attempting to lift current restrictions voted down in the Dáil so far.
A change in tone
According to a recent Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll (October 2016), the majority of this country is pro-Repeal. This obviously entails that the voices of those in favour of repealing the 8th are more prevalent. However, in retaliation, some anti-choicers claim the Repeal movement steals their free speech, as evidenced in an article published last month by this paper, “Be wary of a culture where only one voice is heard”. In the 90s, pro-choice activists were assaulted outside the Dáil by anti-choice groups, and now the anti-choicers seem to be channelling their opposition through media interventions. It is clear that the opposition to the struggle for abortion rights has adapted in order to make itself seem more forthcoming. If we want to truly challenge the current of conservatism that preserves the 8th, it is worth examining the popular engagement people have with abortion rights as a single political issue, and to self-examine our role as activists within the campaign.
“The Repeal project is easy to engage with regardless of political perspective, because it does not involve a class narrative, and does not propose any ideas of how Ireland should look ‘post-Repeal'”
An interesting development in the pro-choice campaign can be attributed to the recent Repeal project. Anna Cosgrave’s work with the Repeal project, alongside artists such as Maser, has stimulated an unconventional and confrontational political aesthetic. I have conflicting views on this as a political tool.
The Repeal slogan occupies the space in which the wearer displays their aesthetic identity. It encourages them to dispel their individualism in favour of forming a visual collective. This could be a helpful tool, in that it unites those involved in the struggle through a visual signifier, helping them to effectively band together. It also allows political opinion to occupy space on a commodity, providing a route for people to engage with a sanitized form of political aesthetics which may not be so challenging after all. The entire profits of the project go to the Abortion Rights Campaign (ARC) who organize the annual March for Choice, so the question of corporate ethics and aesthetic implications here may not be entirely relevant. A more pressing question, and one that I feel is relevant to how ideology moves around the Repeal project, is that of political direction.
Perhaps I am a cynic, but when I see the Repeal jumpers, I’m not overcome with a feeling of political camaraderie. Don’t get me wrong, I know many incredible activists who wear their Repeal jumpers proudly, and I have a Repeal tote bag myself. But while the project is playing a fascinating role in the media, and in the visual side of the struggle for abortion rights, it cannot act as a substitute for political organisation. The importance of a reflexive democratic organization in politics is made clear through these observations. The Repeal project is easy to engage with regardless of political perspective, because it does not involve a class narrative, and does not propose any ideas of how Ireland should look “post-Repeal”. Through linking up with others and forming a strong political consensus that can be democratically challenged, participants are enabled to fight for the most effective strategy and inclusive political line within the movement.
I recently had to argue, within a certain group of liberal abortion rights activists, in favour of the use of the “Free, Safe, Legal” slogan – some feared that it would alienate the “soft vote”. The “soft vote” usually refers to the undecided: in this situation, those who only agree with legal abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities. It makes little sense to object to the use of this slogan for fear of exclusion. If we do not insist on abortion being part of Ireland’s publicly funded maternity care, then we are alienating those who suffer economic deprivation and oppression. If abortion provided by the public health system was unsafe, then why would we demand it at all? And of course, its legalisation is a core tenet of our demands. Within most venerated circles of abortion rights activists, the issue of this particular slogan has been rolled out and agreed upon. A situation like this one proves the lack of accountability for inadequate political responses when activism exists without a strong organizational core.
“A situation like this one proves the lack of accountability for inadequate political responses when activism exists without a strong organisational core”
This is not to say that we must ensure some kind of ideological purity within the campaign. A diverse range of political interests are currently engaged with the struggle. We should demand intersectionality from this campaign. We should demand a campaign that empowers working class women to rise up and reach their full political potential, a campaign that is inclusive of people of diverse gender identities who are affected by restrictive abortion laws, a campaign that recognises that it is impossible for asylum-seeking women in the Direct Provision system to travel for abortions, and that they are forced to have them illegally.
As a socialist feminist, I demand that my body should not be policed by the state, and I feel obliged to challenge successive governments that have allowed themselves to infringe my bodily autonomy. This includes holding the Labour party accountable for their U-turn, after an unacceptable history of voting down legislative attempts to mitigate abortion, and challenging Sinn Féin’s limited position in favour of abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities.
The preservation of Ireland’s constitutional restrictions on abortion is one of the many unforgivable traits that this so-called “democracy” has to offer us. The Irish government, plagued by conservatism for countless years, has failed to accommodate for its imposition of austerity on working people, has been complicit in the housing crisis and its devastating death toll, has shoved the issue of the underfunded public health system under the rug, and has allowed our airports to be used as pit stops for US war planes. All of these issues need to be considered alongside the campaign for abortion rights. In showing solidarity to all who are oppressed, we are even stronger and more cohesive in the fight for economic and social equality. The movement to repeal the 8th can only benefit from understanding the wider struggles in our society, and this understanding can further inform the discussion around the issue in order to be as inclusive as possible.
We need to build a sustainable resistance from below to defeat conservatism both from outside and from within the campaign for abortion rights. Principled political opposition to reactionary discourse within feminist activism is absolutely essential if we want to thwart institutional misogyny. When we philosophise about single issues, I think we must always relate to them as components of structural habitats. Abstracting these issues from the failing system under which we live is a grave political mistake.