Richael is with the Media/Social Media Working Group of the Abortion Rights Campaign. Here we speak frankly on women’s reproductive rights.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: As a grassroots movement oriented around the advancement and empowerment of women through activism for safe, free, and equitable abortions, do other similar campaigns exist in the world, in case others want to become active and involved in their own locale?
Richael: Absolutely, there are countless dedicated activists trying to advance abortion rights across the globe. Many of these groups, like ourselves, have spent years fighting for access to safe and legal abortion. In the current climate where we are seeing the rollback of reproductive rights internationally, we are proud that countries like Ireland have bucked that trend by introducing pro-choice laws and hope that this can be a source of hope for others. The fight for abortion rights is a global one and we stand in solidarity with activists across the world as they continue to fight for their basic reproductive rights. Getting involved with these groups is generally pretty easy to do – many of them, like ourselves, are volunteer-based and welcome any support. For anyone thinking about whether or not to get involved, my advice would be to go for it! It’s the best thing many of us in the Abortion Rights Campaign have ever done.
To name but a few of our neighbouring campaign groups:
Alliance for Choice, Northern Ireland (our sister organisation)
CALM, Isle of Man
Pro Choice Gibraltar, Gibraltar
Voice for Choice, Malta
Sister Supporter, UK
Jacobsen: Why are the criteria of safe, free, and equitable important for the provision of abortion, of this fundamental human right?
Richael: At ARC, we fight for free, safe, legal and local abortion for all who need or want it. Cost should never prove a barrier to people accessing basic healthcare. Aside from the costs of the actual procedure, it is crucial that abortion be accessible to all who need it. While we welcome the Irish Government’s commitment to providing abortion within the public healthcare system, we know that people needing to make multiple trips to a GP (necessitated by the non-evidence-based mandatory waiting period) or travel long distances incur additional, unequitable, costs. Furthermore, people living in Northern Ireland are being forced to pay at least €450 for an abortion in the South. Safe abortion means basing practice on best medical evidence and adopting a person-centred, non-discriminatory approach. There are many ways in which this is lacking from the current system. Mandatory waiting periods, refusal of care, vague criteria and anti-choice harassment outside clinics are just a few of the problems we’re experiencing with the new law. Legal abortion means legal for all. The continued criminalisation of medical practitioners is something we remain extremely concerned about – as it creates a chilling effect whereby some medics interpret the law overly cautiously for fear of prosecution. We’ve already seen this play out in Ireland, with certain hospitals attempting to lower the (already incredibly tight) cut-off point of 12 weeks. We have called on the Government to rectify these problems and will continue to do so for as long as is necessary. We are fully prepared to keep fighting until truly free, safe, legal and local abortion is achievable for all. And after that, we’ll fight to maintain it.
Jacobsen: What is Together for Yes? How is the level of grassroots organizing effective for political and policy-level change in society?
Richael: Together for Yes was the National civil society group that successfully campaigned for a Yes vote in the referendum to repeal the 8th amendment. It was founded by ARC, the Coalition to Repeal the 8th and the National Women’s Council of Ireland. ARC was built from the grassroots – we are a non-hierarchical, intersectional, all-volunteer group who have not compromised our position, in spite of many telling us we were “too extreme”. We were unequivocal in our asks from day 1 – free, safe, legal abortion – and nothing less. We spoke the word “abortion” when many were afraid to do so, and we made it our mission to break down stigma. The importance of this committed, on-the-ground activism cannot be underestimated. Without it, our restrictive laws might never have received the condemnation they did from international monitoring bodies. We’d probably still be waiting for a referendum announcement – let alone a yes vote and a law which permits abortion on request in early pregnancy.
Jacobsen: What was the 8th Amendment to the Irish constitution? How was the Abortion Rights Campaign crucial in its repeal?
Richael: The 8th amendment was the article in the Irish Constitution which equated the life of the pregnant person with that of an embryo, prohibiting abortion in effectively all circumstances. Its’ existence was a form state-sanctioned obstetric violence. The 8th forced hundreds of thousands of pregnant people overseas in order to obtain basic healthcare – and forced many more (often those without the means to travel) to import safe but illegal abortion pills, risking up to 14 years in prison. Tragically, women have died at the hands of the 8th amendment.
There are a myriad of ways in which the Abortion Rights Campaign proved crucial to the repeal of the 8th amendment, but perhaps one of the most important things we did was to re-shape the conversation around abortion – breaking down stigma and providing space for people who’d had abortions in Ireland to share their stories.
Jacobsen: Why is the respect for women’s rights indicative of the health of a society and of the level of equality in society? How can abortion be a rough estimate as to the level of respect for the rights and autonomy of women?
Richael: Having control over one’s own body is one of the most fundamental human rights their is. If we restrict that right from half our population, how can we claim to have equality when it comes to any other aspect of our lives?
Jacobsen: How is the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Bill key for the provision of free, safe, and equitable abortion for women in Ireland?
Richael: The Health (Termination of Pregnancy) Act will, for the first time in Ireland’s history, enable some people to have an abortion on request. It is a monumental step forward and a powerful recognition of just how fundamentally grassroots campaigning has changed Ireland. However, the Act is not without its’ flaws – as we have outlined above – and we have a long way to go until we achieve the free, safe, legal standard of care that is needed.
Jacobsen: Looking at the real successes and honest failures of the Abortion Rights Campaign at all levels, what can other individuals, organizations, and movements learn from them?
Richael: That is to say, the increasing of the probability of more successes and the fight for the reduction in failures or simply learning from failures in the historical records. One big lesson would be: don’t compromise in your asks. One lesson Ireland learnt as a result of this, and previous referenda (e.g. equal marriage in 2015) is that people are more open than they are sometimes given credit for. On the flip side, what happened in Ireland is not a perfect model for how to achieve policy change. We should never have had to have a Citizens Assembly or a referendum in order to access our basic human rights. Nor should people have had to bare their souls and their stories to strangers, or be subject to the abuse that they faced on the streets and the doorsteps. The referendum campaign was traumatic for many and its’ wounds will take time to heal. It also failed to adequately represent the diversity of voices in the pro-choice movement and Ireland as a whole. We are looking to address these issues as we move forward with our activism – and to do that in collaboration with groups who were underrepresented in the referendum campaign. Another, crucially important, lesson is that the activism does not stop when the laws are passed – far from it. We know that laws are better where activists stay involved – we also know that rights hard won are easily lost. We’ve fought too hard to give up fighting now.
Jacobsen: Why are abortion rights fought against by their main oppositions? Who are the main oppositions to abortion rights in Ireland? What are the main lies told by the opposition in the past, right into the present, and more recently (as in novel lies or smears, or mischaracterizations)? Following the last question, what truths dispel these myths?
Richael: At their root, all anti-choice arguments really come down to is patriarchy. And believing that women and people with wombs are not deserving of bodily autonomy. There are countless myths about abortion perpetuated by the anti-choice side, none of which it would be helpful to name. If you’re looking for the truth, the pro-choice community has evidence on its’ side. Like the fact that making abortion illegal doesn’t lower abortion rates – it just increases the risk of unsafe abortion. Or the evidence which shows that exceptions-based models of provision harm pregnant people.
Jacobsen: In Canada, we have Dr. Henry Morgentaler as a leading light in the historical record. Who are other bright lights in the historical record for the reproductive rights of women – but in Ireland?
Richael: In my view, the true ‘bright lights’ for reproductive rights are the people you’ll probably never hear about – the people who shared their abortion stories on the doorsteps and in their own homes. The rural activists who face additional challenges in their work and are often brushed over in Dublin-centric narratives of the referendum campaign. The people who sell merchandise, write papers, fundraise, update websites, organise events – and do all the other (often unglamourous) tasks to ensure that the work gets done.
Jacobsen: Any recommended books or speakers?
Richael: Pro by Katha Pollitt, Autonomy by Kathy D’arcy. Anything by academics Fiona DeLondres and/or Mairead Enright.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Richael.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
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