Second Open Meeting: 1st February [Archive]

(L-R) Ailbhe Smyth (Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment), Dr. Leah Desmond (Doctors For Choice), Fiona de Londras (Global Legal Studies, University of Birmingham) Emma Campbell (Alliance for Choice) and Ann Furedi (BPAS)

(L-R) Ailbhe Smyth (Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment), Dr. Leah Desmond (Doctors For Choice), Fiona de Londras (Global Legal Studies, University of Birmingham) Emma Campbell (Alliance for Choice) and Ann Furedi (BPAS)

On Wednesday 1st February, the second open meeting for the London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign took place at Queen Mary University. (you can read about the first meeting here.)

The meeting saw over 300 men and women gather in support of the campaign for free, safe and legal abortion access in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Five speakers were invited to address the audience on issues surrounding the campaign: the options for constitutional reform, the provision of abortion to Irish women in Ireland, the ethics of abortion, the definition of medical autonomy, the situation in Northern Irish, and the possibility of a referendum in the Republic

Cara opened the meeting, and noted that it’s been exactly 33 years since the death of Ann Lovett, a 15-year-old schoolgirl from Longford who died after giving birth in a grotto. She had concealed her pregnancy from her family, and her death sparked a backlash to the culture of silence and shame surrounding pregnant young women in Ireland — “we can learn a lot from the outrage” which followed Ann’s tragic death. Cara read one of the letter that was sent to the Gay Byrne show following Anne’s death. Like many of the letter, it was signed only with ‘Ennis’, where the letter was from:

“Teenagers all over Ireland should be on their knees praying to what I believe is their new martyr, Ann Lovett. Let there be no doubt but that she died in the arms of Mary to save all other girls from ending their lives like her. Her pain surely was her purgatory here on Earth, and she and her baby are enjoying a special place in heaven. I really believe it was meant to happen to save this generation. On having several conversations here in school, there was not a home in Ireland on Sunday night that parents were not sitting down talking to their children, hoping to make them understand that they should feel able to tell their parents if they have a problem.”

A quote from a client of the Abortion Support Network shows the parallels between the isolation Anne Lovett suffered, and that which women still face today:

“I found out last week I’m 2 months gone. I have no support. I’ve given the man a letter from the doctor to prove it was his. I showed him the pregnancy test. He wants nothing to do with it. I’m stuck and confused and I don’t know what to do.”

Polls in 2016 have shown that 87 percent of the Irish people support wider access to abortion, so the social landscape for making major changes with the campaign are made even more possible. Cara said that the campaign against Ireland’s abortion ban was growing in London, Ireland, and all over the world: “We are fuelled by 80 percent rage, 20 percent creativity and other stuff — we are new and we have a lot to do, please join us”

Speaking Out

The first speaker of the evening was Fiona de Londras, Professor of Global Legal Studies at the University of Birmingham. Fiona began by the role of the constitution in limiting and compelling governments to act. The 8th Amendment to the Irish Constitution which was inserted in 1983, limits the capacity of the Oireachtas to make laws that provide access to abortion and compels the Oireachteas to allow it only under extremely limited circumstances, when woman would otherwise die without an abortion. The 8th Amendment also compels the Oireachtas to protect the foetus in all other situations.

“If we want to have greater access to abortion in Ireland either through legislation, or simply through medical regulation and practice, the constitution has to change — that is why the focus is on trying to secure a referendum.”

Fiona discussed the Citizens Assembly which was set up by the government set up in response to the UN’s statement that Ireland’s abortion ban was ‘cruel, inhuman or degrading’. She said that although there is a clear momentum towards a referendum, we need to ask what kind of referendum we want to have. Most constitutions regulate abortion implicitly, through rights to privacy, self-determination, bodily integrity — how can we shift the focus from foetal life onto women? A simple repeal, the removal of the 8th Amendment, is favoured by most on the basis of simplicity and win-ability in a referendum. A possible downside is that we might not do what we think it would — the foetus may have rights beyond the right to be born in the 8th Amendment. Removing the limitations of the 8th Amendment from the constitution does not necessarily guarantee anything — nor does it compel the government to pass laws based on the will of the people. In this case, political pressure (as we saw in the X Case) would create change, the constitution would not.

Another option is a positive right — the right to self-determination in medical care, or something that states that abortion is not prohibited so that law-making is within the political sphere.

“This is what we have to start thinking about…There will be a referendum to create an opportunity for change… What we must avoid is something going into the constitution that is just as limiting, just as damaging, as what we have now — for example a provision that would allow for abortion in the cases of risk to life, rape, incest, FFA — all that does is to recreate a set of circumstances that tie the Oireachtas’ hands, and that allow the to evade its responsibility for making law to actually serve a public health crisis and the needs of people within the country”

Options for constitutional reform are laid our in Fiona’s 12,000 word submission to the Citizens Assembly.

The following speaker was Ann Furedi, CEO of BPAS, author of The Moral Case for Abortion and CEO of. BPAS, founded in 1968, provides one third of abortions in Britain, mainly through the NHS. Ann said that as long as they had been providing abortions for women in Britain, they had been doing the same for women in the South and North of Ireland, who had exactly the same reasons for having terminations as women in Britain. “BPAS provides a service that trusts women to make the best decision they can make,” said Ann, calling to mind the BPAS campaign, We Trust Women.

“A woman who lives in Newcastle Co. Down should have exactly the same access to abortion as someone in Newcastle on Tyne,” she added, stating that Northern Ireland — a member of the UK that refuses to extend the 1968 act that applies to the rest of the islands — “can’t have it both ways”.

Ann affirmed that abortion access is a basic issue of equality, and that the foetus is not an independent entity that can maintain rights. The law, as it stands in the North and the South of Ireland, values the life of a foetus over the independence and moral nature of a woman who is pregnant. She also asserted that the current British law, enforced by the 1967 act, doesn’t given British women “abortion on demand”. The law that came in under the Labour government maintains that two doctors must certify the abortion, and buying pills on the internet is also illegal. This is something that also must be addressed.

Ann shared that the complexity of the stories she has heard from women choosing to have abortions over the years has shown her that the decision-making is highly rationalised. Women do not usually seek counselling when they come to BPAS, they have made up their minds about what they need to do.

Dr Leah Desmond of Doctors For Choice, an Irish doctor living in the UK, was next to speak. “As a doctor,” she began, “ I believe fundamentally a patient should have compassionate, patient-focused care.” Leah then went onto explain what autonomy means in relation to medical consent, as well as its relationship to the capacity and freedom to make decisions, and its application in modern medicine:

“Autonomy is the ability to make an informed choice, free of coercion based on one’s own personal beliefs”

Leah used an analogy to illustrate what autonomy and freedom are, and how they intersect. She compared it to saving up money to go on holiday, but not having permission from a boss to take annual leave. Though you have the capacity to go on holiday, you can’t make that choice without freedom.

Leah concluded that the law robs women of autonomy because it is believed they don’t have the capacity to make an informed decision about a safe, affordable operation, which should be treated in the same way we treat other factions of medicine. The rights of pregnant women are treated completely differently to everyone else.

Next to the podium was Emma Campbell of Alliance for Choice, an organisation that campaigns for abortion rights in Northern Ireland. In 1967, there was a devolved government in Northern Ireland. Despite the fact the rest of the UK — England, Wales and Scotland — fall under the 1967 Abortion Act, the Act was not extended to Northern Ireland. Like other colonies, such as Sierra Leone, Northern Ireland still uses the Offences against the Person Act from 1861.

Emma added that because of political relations in Northern Ireland, Gordon Brown agreed to block any changes to the law in NI back in 2008, clashing with Labour MP Harriet Harman. While the DUP are hardline Unionists, they refuse to fall in line with the rest of the UK in relation to abortion, with many citing religious reasons. On the other hand, Sinn Fein, the major nationalist party in Northern Irleand, do not want the extended act as it’s a ‘British’ piece of legislation — so, there’s a political stalemate.

She also drew attention to some of the cases that have been going on in Northern Ireland recently, such as the woman who last year was reported by her flatmates for obtaining and using pills for her abortion. The woman had been saving to go to England, but could not afford it. Here, she flagged how limiting abortion access is a serious economic issue, as it persecutes women who can’t afford the costs and travel for legal abortions;

“Essentially, the law criminalises women for being poor.”

There is another case whihc has just been granted a judicial review where a woman has been charged with procuring pills for her 15-year-old daughter. A doctor is said to have informed the police after the women sought advice. Horrifyingly, the judge wouldn’t bring up a case for the statutory rape of the 15-year-old girl, but instead chose to prosecute the mother for procuring abortion pills online. A recent crowdfunding campaign raised 13k towards the 30k legal bill the family now face following the prosecution.

Emma also drew attention to the fatal foetal abnormality bill which is being tabled by Alliance’s David Ford. She said there are fears it would bring in more complications and let the government off the hook for pursuing better abortion access. To conclude, she said the most important development in last few years was that the public conversation has been changing — no longer are only anti choice extremist given airtime in the media. MLAs need to be given free votes, without the party whip being enforced, decriminalisation must be passed and we must trust women. The NI group have the Trust Women campaign, as they wanted to put something simple to politicians — do you trust women or not?

Final speaker of the evening Ailbhe Smyth, Convenor of Coalition to Repeal the 8th Amendment.

Final speaker of the evening Ailbhe Smyth, Convenor of Coalition to Repeal the 8th Amendment.

The final speaker of the evening was Ailbhe Smyth, Convenor of Coalition to Repeal the 8th Amendment. She referred to the 8th Amedment as “a blot on our whole social and political landscape”. At the moment, it’s punishable by 14 years in prison, which Ailbhe says is the same sentence as for rape — audible horror murmurs around the room. This criminal sanction includes anyone who helps (by for example, giving a postal address for ordering pills online).

“We know that 10–12 Irish women come over here to have an abortion. We also know that the Irish government and Irish politicians and the Irish people know that every day 10–12 come over here to have an abortion. Therefore, there is collusion all all round to keep this under wraps, to ignore it, to turn our faces away, at the very moment when these women need support.”

Ailbhe names Savita as someone we should think of in this fight. Savita Halappanavar, at 31-years-old, died in October 2012 at University Hospital Galway due to complications of a septic miscarriage at 17 weeks, after being denied an abortion. She also told the story of Miss Y an asylum seeking woman who was raped in her home country, was “lost in the health system” and denied an abortion. She went on hunger strike and was legally and forcibly rehydrated, later being obliged to have a caesarean despite being suicidal.

Ailbhe confirmed that there are now over 80 organisations fighting in the coalition, including Doctors For Choice, Trade Unions, and many NGOs, there’s campaigns to repeal the 8th amendment in over 30 cities, and nearly 200 candidates committed to repeal, as well as 49 TDs across four parties.

In conclusion, Ailbhe said that the the prochoice movement is stong, vibrant and working in a context where the church no longer has the power it did. Though Ireland remains ‘culturally Catholic’, people are open to change if you take the time to talk with them. She said that the campaign to repeal the 8th Amendment is broad, vibrant and dynamic, and the act of talking, and of listening, is seminal to its success.

What have we done? Progress updates from working groups

Eleanor Kelly, a convenor of the Media/Communications group updated the crowd on their recent developments

Eleanor Kelly, a convenor of the Media/Communications group updated the crowd on their recent developments

The second half of the meeting was devoted to updates from convenors of each of the 5 working groups. Eleanor , a convenor of the Media and Communications group detailed the December social media campaign, Choice For Christmas(#choice4xmas)— social media users added a picture of their suitcases while travelling home in recognition of the 12 women a day making that same journey to access abortion services. It trended on Twitter and Facebook multiple times over the busy Christmas season, and was covered by Marie Claire, the Metro UK, the Irish Post and Irish Central. January’s Women’s March was also covered by the BBCIBT and the Guardian. When Theresa May and Enda Kenny met, a press release was also released on the matter. They asserted that journalists were keen to tell their stories, and St Patrick’s Day should be the next big event for campaigning.

Next, Maeve, a convenor for the direct action and protest group told of their part in the #Choice4xmas brainstorming and campaign, as well as the creation of a banner and its use at the Bridges Not Walls banner drop at Waterloo Bridge. There was also a placard making session before the march, and the London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign chants were heard throughout the march. In the coming weeks, there’s international women’s day campaigning, stall at the Women of the World event, as well as a panel event at UCL focusing on Reproductive Rights in Ireland and in Eastern Europe. The group are also awaiting a verdict on their application to take take part in the official London St Patrick’s Day Parade.

Ann-Maria from the fundraising group talked about Pearlfest, which was a music night back in December which saw 16 bands raise funds for Abortion Support Network. Pickled Lily had an improv comedy night in aid of Abortion Support Network, and Room 4 Rebellion a club night running simultaneously in both Dublin and London, took place on Thursday 2nd of February. An art exhibition inspired by the Repeal campaign, put on by Triangular Bush, will take place in March. The team also plan to create fundraising packages for those taking part in sporting events such as marathons and races, to easily raise money for the cause. Information/ outreach events are also planned for later in the year with the aim to reaching out to more varied demographics of the Irish ex-pat community(including sports clubs and business associations), and provoke discussion around the subject of repealing the eighth amendment. Finally before leaving the stage, Ann-Maria announced that the team are planning a BIG fundraising event on March 28th — details below, get your tickets here: https://billetto.co.uk/en/events/stand-up-for-choice

Next was Liadán, a convenor from the Lobbying group, who discussed the campaign to encourage the public to make submissions to the Citizen’s Assembly, and the London-Irish Abortion Campaign’ own submission to Citizens’ Assembly. The group has also made a submission to the National Women’s Strategy in Ireland, and is about to start working on an analysis of public submissions to the Citizen’s Assembly. The group has also been busy lobbying MPs, particularly for NI. A meeting had taken place with Labour MP Diane Abbott, and with Stella Creasy MP. A survey to judge demographics is also planned for the group mailing list. Further, lobbying of TDs will begin soon, focusing on voting rights for Irish diaspora.

Lastly, Sarah the Northern Ireland groupexplained that their group was focussing on gaining expertise on the Northern Irish situation and supporting the rest of the working groups in planning and executing activities focussed on abortion rights in NI. The group have met with Diane Abbott MP, Stella Creasy MP, and are in contact with Green Party MP Sian Berry. They highlighted the importance of targeting Westminster in order to raise public awareness in the rest of the UK.

To finish, everyone broke off into smaller groups for brainstorming ideas, before coming in for a final debriefing (and a trip to the pub).

Thank you to everyone who attended and expressed interest, we hope to see you at our next meeting!

For anyone who would like to get involved in volunteering with the five working groups, namely Lobbying, Fundraising, Media/Communications, Northern Ireland and Direct Action/Protesting, you can go to www.londonirisharc.com and click ‘volunteer with us’ or sign up to the newsletter for updates.

Originally published at medium.com on February 6, 2017.