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Marching for Choice in Dublin

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Man carrying a sign with a picture of a coathanger and the words "Warning: Not for internal use".

It’s rarely easy to be openly pro-choice in Ireland. This country has no shortage of people willing to tell you how you’re a murderer, selfish, disgusting, a baby-killer. How you’re heartless. How you should be ashamed of yourself.

Woman with a poster saying "It's my uterus, I shouldn't need your permission"

The last major pro-choice demo I was at, two years ago, was a counter-demonstration to the March for Life. A couple of hundred of us, thousands of anti-choice marchers led by Youth Defence who didn’t hesitate to get in our faces, shout abuse at us, call us things I’m not going to repeat here. Being openly pro-choice can feel like running a gauntlet where you’re never sure what’ll happen next. So it’s not surprising that I was more than a little bit nervous before yesterday’s March for Choice. That nervousness, that apprehension, made what happened next even more incredible than I could have imagined.

Woman on the phone, holding a sign saying "Having no choice tears MY life apart"

There were so many of us. Meeting at the Spire on Saturday afternoon, I couldn’t help but be amazed at how many people had showed up. I’d expected the usual suspects. There were, when I arrived early, hundreds and hundreds of us. And people just kept on arriving. And in these crowds of people was none of the usual tension of a pro-choice demonstration. As I walked through the crowd to check out what groups and banners were here and to say hello to friends I’d spotted, I heard so many people talking about the numbers. About how they couldn’t believe there were this many of us here. How they’d never seen so many people at something like this before. We were genuinely and collectively in awe at our numbers, here on O’Connell street. For the first time in my life, I felt that we might get somewhere with this. That we might really have some power to change things. Living in Ireland, it’s hard to truly explain what a truly big deal this is. How much of a revelation.

Woman with a sign saying "Against abortion? Don't have one!", pushing a pram with two children, with signs saying "I was a choice".

Walking through the streets, crossing O’Connell bridge, down Westmoreland Street and Kildare Street before turning up towards Merrion Square, it felt even more like a turning point. Here we were, chanting pro-choice slogans on the streets of Dublin, and the counter-demonstration was… where? I saw one man with a sign on O’Connell street. I saw no abuse from passers-by. And our numbers continued to swell.

Woman carrying sign saying "Woman, not Incubator"

In Merrion Square, the speakers were as varied and inspiring as the march itself. We weren’t on the defensive- we were on the offensive and proud of it. They spoke about how we won’t be shamed any longer. About how the majority of Irish people have consistently voted for women’s right to choose, and how we are fed up of being ignored. How if TDs want to follow God’s law and not the law of men (oh, how ironic), they should get out of Leinster house and join a seminary.

Woman carrying a sign saying "If I wanted the church in my *** I'd f*ck a priest!"

Feminist Ire’s Ariel Silvera spoke about the LGBTQ community and the pro-choice movement, arguing that we are natural allies. LGBTQ people need abortions too. Even if queer women don’t need abortions themselves, their sisters, daughters, mothers, and friends do. Ariel also highlighted the fact that it is not only women who need abortions. Many trans* men can get pregnant as well, and abortion providers and campaigners must be aware of their needs.

Man carrying a sign saying "My mother CHOSE to have me. I'm glad society didn't FORCE me on her!"

Mara Clarke from the Abortion Support Network spoke about her experiences raising funds for Irish women to access abortions they would otherwise never be able to afford. Banning abortion does not and never has prevented abortion. It just means that rich women can travel for abortions, and poor women are forced to give birth. The twelve women who travel to the UK every day for abortions are those who can afford it. The Abortion Support Network provides grants to Irish woman, and runs solely on private donations and fundraising. Needless to say, if you’re able to support them please do. Irish women should never be forced by lack of money to become mothers. Nobody should.

Woman carrying a sign saying "Fine Gael protects..." then with the words "Students, Pensioners, the Sick" crossed out, and then the word "Embryos"

But finances aren’t the only reason that people in Ireland could be forced to give birth against their will. The Irish Feminist Network‘s Osaro Azamosa reminded us that many immigrant women are simply not permitted to access visas to travel to the UK. These women’s reproductive rights are not only financially but legally denied by the current situation.

Woman holding a sign saying "Not just a white middle class issue: ethnic migrant women need access to abortion."

And so much more from Sinead Ahern, Ivana Bacik, Claire Daly- if I’ve left anyone out do tell me! And it wasn’t all about abortion. Pro-choice isn’t just about the right to choose abortion. It’s about full reproductive rights- and that means that right to reproduce free of coercion. For a real choice, women need to be supported to raise children without cutbacks to welfare. Without cutbacks to disability allowances for themselves and their children. Just as nobody should be forced to give birth because they can’t afford abortion, nobody should be forced to choose abortion because they can’t afford to raise a wanted child.

Man holding a sign saying "The Truth:In the UK, 78% of abortions are carried out under ten weeks. This is the result of an abortion at 10 weeks. Actual size. Truthfully. "

The Irish state needs to face up to its responsibility for the many thousands of women who have travelled overseas for abortions. It has a long-standing habit of brushing inconvenient women under the carpet- years ago to be incarcerated in Magdalene laundries, now on Ryanair flights to Britain. At yesterday’s march we came together to say that we are no longer going to accept this. We’re sick of being silenced and of our choices villified and shamed. We’re not going to accept being caricatured as heartless murderers anymore. We care deeply for the rights and well-being of all of us, for everyone in this country’s right to self-determination. And we’re not going to be quiet anymore.

Your post author holding a sign saying "Some of us can't leave this country! Whether illegal, trafficked, resident, refugee or asylum seeker- ALL ethnic migrant women deserve quality access to quality sexual health in Ireland. That includes ABORTION!"

Your intrepid blogstress weary and happy after the march.

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Debating Choice at TCD

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A strange and unusual thing happened last week. I popped along to check out TCD’s debate on whether “This House Believes Abortion Is A Woman’s Choice“. In all honesty, my expectations were pretty low going in- I was mainly showing up to see Feministe’s Jill Filipovic in action. From the debate, I expected the usual suspects and more of the same- accusations flying from all sides, a lack of common ground so extreme that it’s surprising that we’re all technically speaking the same language.

I was pleasantly surprised.

I am, by the way, a dyed-in-the-wool pro-choicer. I believe fervently that our bodies and our lives are our own. We should not be punished for our sexualities. We should not be forced to give up decades of our lives for the sake of someone else’s principle. While as a good skeptic I cannot deny the possibility of changing my mind, I consider that possibility remote.

Before I talk about the arguments I found useful and interesting on the part of the pro-life speakers, however, I’d like to take a moment to discuss those which were neither. These arguments were based on essentialist and demeaning ideas of gender. They’re getting a TW for transphobia and misogyny, so I’ll clearly mark when I’m done talking about them if you’d like to scroll past them.

The Bad Stuff- TW for transphobia, extreme sex-negativity, misogyny, and discussion of sexual assault.

“The ability to give birth to children is the essence of what makes a woman a woman”

According to this speaker, what makes a woman a woman is the ability to bear children. That is it. That is all. The sheer degree to which this dismisses those who cannot or do not have children- infertile women, trans women, many queer women, childless/childfree women- is difficult to exaggerate. Are these women not women? Are we really going to determine our entire identities by the presence or absence of a functioning uterus? How incredibly insulting is that to the women in the audience who are unable to have children? Who do not wish to have children? To adoptive parents, to non-birth mothers in same-sex couples, to women whose children were born through surrogates? And what about the many trans men out there who have given birth? Or the women who have given birth to the children they raise, who consider themselves to be women above and beyond their role as mothers? This statement is not only insulting to all of the above people. It is also, quite simply, wildly inaccurate. It’s just plain wrong.

“Abortion is not a woman’s choice but a thing that men make women do.. abortion leads to men treating women like objects and doing whatever they want with them”

I find it difficult to imagine how allowing women a choice makes other people do “whatever they want with them” in a way that taking her choice away does not.

Listen. I wish we lived in a world free of sexual coercion. I really do. If banning abortion led to a world where women were not objectified, where we were not sexually assaulted and abused? In that world, us pro-choicers would have a lot of explaining to do. However, we don’t live in that world. Women are objectified. Women are overwhelmingly more likely than men to be the victims of sexual coercion and abuse. These things happen whether or not abortion is legal. Legal abortion, however, gives women one small area of choice within this. It lets us have one small space of sovereignty over our own bodies.

“Abortion disenfranchises half of the people in the pregnancy”

In case you’re unsure, this person was talking about men, not fetuses. Women having abortions without their partners’ agreement hurts men’s feelings, you see. There are two people in every pregnancy, and those are the two people who brought the pregnancy about.

I’m sorry, but no. Yes, there are generally two people involved in bringing about a pregnancy- assuming that nobody is being sexually assaulted or raped at the time. Which happens. But even in a situation where a person gets pregnant through a consensual act, there are not two people in that pregnancy.

Men’s feelings have the potential to be hurt- deeply- if a woman aborts a fetus who could have become their child without their agreement. This is absolutely true. Emotional hurt is no small thing. However, women’s feelings as well as our bodies and our rights to bodily integrity all will be hurt, permanently altered and disenfranchised if we are forced to carry to term and to give birth without our consent.

“If a woman did not use contraception or early abortion, she should not have the right to later abortions”

In an ideal world, this might be an argument. In a world where there was no stigma around pregnancy, where everyone had access to clear and comprehensive education around bodies, sexuality, consent and contraception. In a world where people’s circumstances never changed dramatically and unexpectedly. In a world where nobody learned well into a pregnancy that their fetus’s life was inevitably going to be agonising and short. In a world where nobody developed medical conditions in pregnancy which threatened their own life, health, or well-being. In a world where nobody was in an abusive relationship, family or living situation which threatened their ability to exercise their own free choices.

In that world, maybe this would be reasonable. But we don’t live in that world.

Now for something a little more interesting

Fortunately for those of us at the debate, the tired old arguments above were not the only things the pro-life side of the debate had to say. One argument in particular impressed me. Here’s the gist:

Legal abortion creates a false sense of choice for women. Our choices are not only to give birth or not to do so- these choices do not and can not exist in a vacuum. Where we have a situation where women do not have access to all the supports they need to be mothers as well as engaging fully in other areas of their lives, where women are forced for economic reasons to not be mothers, their choices cannot be free. Legal abortion, by giving women an easy ‘out’ from motherhood, also gives employers, other institutions, and the state an easy ‘out’ from providing for the needs of women who are mothers as it allows them to deem women to have a made a free choice to not participate fully in these.

That there?

That is a frackin’ point. Women are often forced to choose between careers and motherhood. Women who are mothers are excluded from many areas of life by the assumption that they will take on the majority of caring responsibilities. Women are forced not to be mothers by their economic situations. Women’s lives are stunted by this lack of support for mothers- for parents! This is a major, major issue.

Of course, none of this means that using women as pawns to force the hand of wider institutions in providing for the needs of parents is a reason to remove legal abortion from women. But when we speak of reproductive choice, it is incredibly important to do so with an awareness of all of the factors- social and economic as well as legal- that get in the way of women’s choice. The reproductive rights movement, and those of us who are pro-choice, need to be sure that we’re fighting for women’s rights to choose freely, to be supported in the choices we make, and to not face marginalisation or crushing poverty for those choices. And- let’s face it- the lack of legal abortion as an option in Ireland hasn’t resulted in employers falling over themselves to offer better maternity and paternity benefits and leave.

From the pro-choice side

I’m not going to spend as much time on these arguments as the pro-life side- mainly because all I could add to the conversation would be thumbs up and enthusiastic nods of agreement. But here’s a taste of what people had to say:

“If you really love a woman, how could you want to subjugate her body for nine months? If we tried to control the bodies of men for nine months, we would see violence in the street”

“For every woman who wants to work when she’s pregnant, there’s another who simply doesn’t want a kid”

“Why should women have to pay for the violation of their own bodies, with their own bodies? Even if you have sex and end up pregnant, you should be able to walk away with your body intact and not be labeled a slut and a whore. Gender equality is impossible in any real sense if women live under constant threat of having their bodies taken from them.”

“Its time to remove the idea that women deserve to be punished for having sex. This debate does NOT happen in the abstract, and the women most affected by this are those whose bodies have never been given the real credit of belonging to themselves”

One more thing..

This was from the closing speech of the speaker who made the economic argument against abortion above. Again, I may not agree with her about abortion, but lady has a point.

“How can we come together on our shared goals and stop driving ourselves into corners? …What about violence against women, pregnancy at work, listening to women who had abortions and adoptive birth mothers?”

Yep. That. Let’s do that.