Global Dispatch: Ireland’s March for Choice

Ed. note: This is a guest post from Grace Wilentz. Grace is a feminist activist and writer based in Dublin, Ireland. She is also a member of the South-based feminist alliance RESURJ: Realizing Sexual and Reproductive Justice. View previous  coverage of Savita Halappanavar and abortion in Ireland here and here


The sound of rolling suitcases rumbled from Dublin’s main thoroughfare to the Parliament as abortion rights activists took to the streets in Ireland’s third annual March for Choice on Saturday.

Estimates of the turnout are as high as 5000, more than double last year’s numbers. Having been an activist in this movement for a while- long enough to remember when we got excited about 40 people showing up to a demonstration- it was surreal to find myself in the middle of a march whose beginning and end were too far away to be seen.

As the march passed a taxi rank, a few taxi drivers heckled, “Do you need a ride to the airport, love?” This was in response to the thousands of women dragging rolling suitcases behind them to highlight the hypocrisy of Ireland granting women the legal right to travel to seek abortion services, yet denying women access to safe and legal abortion in their own country.


The narrative in Ireland has always been one of women travelling. More than 150,000 silent, secret, stigmatized journeys across the Irish Sea to England. But a recent case turned this narrative on its head and shone a light on the many women who are barred from travelling because of factors beyond their control such as poverty, migration status, age, and whether or not you’re in care of the state.

Subjected to the brutality of the state might be a more fitting term than “in care”–at least when it comes to how the Irish state treated Miss Y, a teenager who came to Ireland to seek asylum. Raped in her country of origin, she sought a safe and legal abortion through the Irish healthcare system, testing the country’s new abortion law: the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2014. However, her repeated requests for an abortion were denied, and according to reports, she was told that her only option would be an early caesarian at 25 weeks.


She went on hunger strike. The Health Service Executive sought a court order to forcibly hydrate her. Thereafter, according to reports, she finally agreed to undergo the cesarean. In an interview she indicated that this was not her preference, and that her consent was given under duress, because essentially she was told she had no other option.

The history of Ireland’s abortion law has seen a long procession of cases in which the state undeniably violated the human rights of women and girls. It is a veritable alphabet soup of women: Miss X, Miss D, A, B and C. The case of Miss Y is the most recent. It is around these cases that the Irish pro-choice community has typically mobilized, but this year’s March for Choice told a different story.

Organized by the Abortion Rights Campaign (ARC), the March for Choice is a proactive event and an opportunity to stand up for sexual and reproductive justice and bodily autonomy. The ARC’s Katie Gillum said, “In Ireland we have a number of ways of responding to tragedies we shouldn’t have to face at all. But the March for Choice is not a response; it’s a time for proactively shaping a society that respects our rights and our bodies.”

Run on a volunteer basis, the ARC has hundreds of members across Ireland, with 50 to 80 typically working at any given time on a range of activities. Though the March for Choice is the main focal point of the ARC’s calendar, throughout the year the members of the ARC are planning events, carrying out design work, liaising with Dublin City Council’s permit office, strategizing about reaching new audiences, making submissions to human rights treaty monitoring bodies, sourcing funding and developing shadow reports.

Many of these activities hinge on working to impact cultural attitudes surrounding abortion in Ireland, such as ‘Speak Outs’, which provide a safe space for women to tell their abortion stories. As Katie describes it, “Since before the first march we’ve been keen to ensure all our political public actions were paired with a reflective, stigma-busting action. There’s a lot of talk now about ensuring balance in contentious media debates, but so little space for people to interject their actual stories. We had to create a space for that. People know what a March is- they understand making political change. The necessity of the Speak Out can be less obvious as it’s aiming at cultural change.”


At the March that cultural shift was palpable. As Organizer Cathie Doherty put it, “the biggest change I saw was in attitudes. Today felt like a celebration of being pro-choice, and claiming the moral high ground in a way that’s never happened here before. Anti-choice people often claim abortion is immoral, but we see time and time again that the dishonor belongs to those who restrict women’s access to healthcare. At this March it felt like maybe we’re on the cusp of achieving what we want. Even if these are still just steps towards abortion access, they are significant steps and it feels like change is on the way.”

Certainly events like the March for Choice can put the political establishment on notice. The case of Miss Y in 2014 and the death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012 both coincided with sluggish and unsatisfactory processes of constitutional and legislative reform. These juxtapositions have brought us to an important political moment.

Pro-choice advocates are calling for a referendum in the spring of 2015 to repeal the 8th amendment to the Irish Constitution. The 8th amendment places equal value on the continued development a fetus and the continuation of a woman’s life. It remains the largest legal obstacle to abortion access in Ireland. However, the current government is rejecting calls for a referendum that would allow the Irish people, for the first time ever, to vote to liberalize abortion law in Ireland. While previous abortion referenda have been held, these only presented options for further restricting access by closing down existing legal grounds for abortion.

Opinion polls tell us that a critical mass of citizens in Ireland is convinced that the practice of abortion is acceptable and legitimate and must be be decriminalized and made accessible. Ireland’s current government led by Taoiseach Enda Kenny might already be in the twilight of its tenure. The sign of one activist at the March said it all: “Enda Kenny, will you finally listen to the people who elected you?”

Brooklyn, NY

Lori Adelman started blogging with Feministing in 2008, and now runs partnerships and strategy as a co-Executive Director. She is also the Director of Youth Engagement at Women Deliver, where she promotes meaningful youth engagement in international development efforts, including through running the award-winning Women Deliver Young Leaders Program. Lori was formerly the Director of Global Communications at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and has also worked at the United Nations Foundation on the Secretary-General's flagship Every Woman Every Child initiative, and at the International Women’s Health Coalition and Human Rights Watch. As a leading voice on women’s rights issues, Lori frequently consults, speaks and publishes on feminism, activism and movement-building. A graduate of Harvard University, Lori has been named to The Root 100 list of the most influential African Americans in the United States, and to Forbes Magazine‘s list of the “30 Under 30” successful mediamakers. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.

Lori Adelman is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Partnerships.

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