On International Women's Day, thousands of women in Ireland went on strike and took to the streets reports Amy O'Donoghue
Last Wednesday, International Women’s Day, thousands took action to demand a referendum on the 8th Amendment to the Irish Constitution, which outlaws abortion rights. At midday, the national #Strike4Repeal took place in over 30 locations across Ireland, with an estimated 5,000 people taking to Dublin’s O’Connell Bridge. Later that day, up to 10,000 again took to the streets in Dublin for the March4Repeal.
Granting the same legal rights to a foetus as to a pregnant woman or trans man, the 8th Amendment effectively criminalises abortion in Ireland. The sentence for taking an abortion pill, which is on the World Health Organization’s list of essential medicines, is 14 years in jail. Because of the amendment, pregnant women do not have the right to refuse or consent to medical treatment. The amendment is why Ms Y, an asylum seeker in Ireland who became pregnant after being raped and was at risk of suicide, was denied an abortion and given a caesarian section at 24 weeks of pregnancy without her consent.
This situation forces an average of 12 women to travel from Ireland to the UK and other European countries each day seeking an abortion. This is the legacy of the alliance between the state and Church in Ireland.
Until the late 20th century, unmarried pregnant women were incarcerated in Church-run institutions, where their children were then taken from them and often trafficked to the US for adoption for profit or neglected. Last week, a mass grave was found at a former Mother and Baby Home at Tuam. A report by the Irish health service into conditions at Bessborough Mother and Baby Home in Cork found that ‘women and babies were considered little more than a commodity for trade amongst religious orders’. This is indicative of a culture, dominated by the Church under a complicit state, that is obsessed with the regulation of women’s bodies and behaviour.
The 8th Amendment has its roots in this history of oppression, granting the state unqualified power over women in Ireland and denying us our right to bodily autonomy. The majority of those who are rising up against the old, conservative regime have never had a vote on the amendment, which was introduced in 1983. In growing numbers, we are demanding change.
Under public pressure last year, the government initiated a Citizens’ Assembly of 99 randomly selected participants to make recommendations on the 8th Amendment, a tactic that has allowed them to refuse any further action. After last Wednesday’s demonstrations, Minister for Health Simon Harris has again insisted that the government’s hands are tied until the Assembly submits its report.
This response shows an inability or unwillingness to understand the meaning of Wednesday’s actions.
In Cork City, 1,000 people marched during the midday strike action – women with their children, students who had walked out of school and college and workers who had used holiday time or unpaid leave to participate. Wednesday felt like a turning point for the movement, when to walk the streets of Holy Catholic Ireland and demand the basic human right to control our own bodies became the new ‘normal’. It took the work of many determined activists over many years to get to this point. We must use the momentum that has been generated to continue the fight to be treated as full, equal members of society, with all the rights it entails.
The government’s continuous deferrals on the issue of the 8th Amendment in response to public pressure have taught Ireland’s young women to channel our anger onto the streets. To paraphrase Rosa Luxemburg, it was through moving that we began to notice our chains. There is every reason to believe we will break them.