By GRACE MURRAY
On the 8th of March, International Women’s Day 2017, over 10,000 protesters marched through the streets of Dublin in the name of Strike4Repeal. Brandishing signs and chanting ‘We won’t wait, repeal the eighth’, ‘Not the church, not the state’ and ‘Enda, Enda, where’s the referenda?’, Irish citizens were urged to participate in any way they can: take the day off work, close your business, stage an event at 12 noon, withdraw from domestic labour, wear black. Parallel events took place in over 30 locations in Ireland, as well as multiple locations across the United Kingdom, Brussels, Berlin, Lyon, Buenos Aires, NYC, Melbourne, and Utrecht. Inspired by similar protests held in Poland last October, this non-traditional ‘social strike’ is a public call to the Irish government to hold a referendum to repeal the 8th amendment.
Voted into the Irish constitution in 1983, the 8th amendment ‘acknowledges the right to life of the unborn’ and equates the right to life of a pregnant woman with that of an embryo or foetus. In doing so, this law criminalises abortion in any form, including self-administered abortion pills, cases of pregnancy due to rape, or in circumstances in which the foetus has fatal abnormalities or congenital conditions and no chance of survival outside the womb. Both women and doctors that engage in illegal abortions within the country may be subject to 14 years in jail.
In 2013, following the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar, the Irish government passed The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act which permits abortion under the grounds of evident, imminent and substantial risk of loss of life of the pregnant woman. This includes the risk of suicide if – and only – they are declared suicidal by the individual assessment of six separate doctors.
Savita, who died due to complications of a septic miscarriage, was refused termination as, although her baby would not survive, there was evidence of a foetal heartbeat. Staff at University Hospital Galway rationalised this decision by telling Savita and her husband that ‘Ireland was a Catholic country’ and they are bound by the law regardless of their religion.
This archaic amendment is one of the most restrictive laws in the European Union. It denies women the right to autonomy over their bodies; it dangerously obscures the distinction between risk to health and risk to life; and it repudiates the separation of church and state.
Unfortunately, Savita is not the only one to suffer the stipulation of the 8th – many others have died, and countless others risk their lives as a result of the restrictions in place. It is estimated that, on average, 12 women travel across the Irish sea to receive abortion services every day. These numbers have risen to over 15,000 since 1980. Yet these are the fortunate ones – the ones that are privileged enough not to be bound by socioeconomic or legal status, health, work, or lack of support.
The Strike4Repeal is a protest of solidarity with those that are discriminated against under the law; with those that are unable to travel or forced to pursue help under illegal means; with those that have faced persecution and stigma; and those that continually seek for the right of control over their own body. It operates on the concept of ‘taking a day’. By withdrawing domestic and industrial labour for a day, it symbolically or directly highlights the enormous contribution of a population that are subject to discrimination under unequal structures of power – in this case the deeply ingrained systems of Catholic hierarchy and perspectives of the female body.
However, more importantly, Strike4Repeal is a demand for change. The life and health of a pregnant woman is not just a feminist issue, it is not an ecumenical matter, it is a right. The women of Ireland, regardless of ethnicity or social status, deserve to be trusted with decisions about their bodies, and with control over them. They have much greater value than our constitution recognises, and changes must be made to reflect that worth.
We cannot wait and will not wait.