On 8th March, International Women’s Day, Irish women will go on strike — unless the Irish government calls for a national referendum on the country’s abortion laws.
Ireland is home to one of the world’s most draconian abortion legislations. In 1983, the Eighth Amendment was added to the Irish constitution, granting ‘personhood’ to a foetus, effectively outlawing abortion and placing a woman's life on an equal level with that of her unborn child. The strike has been organised by a group called Strike 4 Repeal specifically to demand the repeal of this amendment, which is the first step towards widespread legalisation of abortion. Currently abortion is only allowed when “there is a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother” but that definition is put into practice very rarely, as seen by the preventable death of Savita Halappanavar during a miscarriage, and the trauma that Ms Y, a suicidal teenage asylum seeker and rape victim, had to endure when the State would not terminate her pregnancy.
These laws don’t mean that Irish women aren't having abortions — in fact it’s been shown that more abortions take place in countries where the practice is restricted than in countries where women can access abortion easily. Instead, an average of 12 Irish women a day are forced to travel to England to obtain an abortion, placing themselves – and UK medical services – under additional financial and personal strain. Marie Stopes International, England’s biggest abortion provider, recently announced it may have to start turning away Irish women due to overwhelming demand for their services. The only other option for these women is to purchase abortion pills online — something that is punishable by up to 14 years in prison. Ireland’s abortion laws are so extreme that, last year, the UN declared that they violate women’s human rights by subjecting them “to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” and advised that the country “should amend its law on voluntary termination of pregnancy.”
Since Halappanavar’s death, both sides of the abortion debate have become more vocal. Pro-life groups like Youth Defence and Pro Life Campaign have organised vigils and taken out ads with slogans like “Abortion tears her life apart” and “The abortion bill won't make women safer, it will just kill babies.” The pro-choice camp, meanwhile, are putting their politics front and centre with clothes and bags brandishing the word ‘Repeal’ and publicly sharing abortion stories in a bid to give voice to the women that have been silenced in a country that insists they are criminals. In response to this growing pressure, the government has called a ‘Citizens Assembly’, a random selection of 100 people who will look at the Eighth Amendment and make non-binding recommendations to the government. Only when the group has come back with these recommendations will the government decide whether to call a referendum – and that could be as late as the end of 2018.
Speaking with Refinery29, Strike 4 Repeal’s spokesperson Avril Corroon declared the Citizens Assembly an “intolerable delay tactic.” Strike 4 Repeal – a mostly anonymous group of activists, artists, and trade unionists – is urging women to take tomorrow off work, dress all in black, or withdraw their domestic labour. Those wishing to stand in solidarity are encouraged either to close their workplaces or cover shifts for women who want to participate. As well as pressuring the government to call a referendum, the strike’s aim is to highlight the impact of women in the workforce, and the disruption to their lives and jobs when they must travel to access basic healthcare. As Strike 4 Repeal points out on its Facebook event page: “Every person who has an abortion has to take at least a day, whether to travel or stay at home.”
Strike 4 Repeal is directly inspired by the success of the Polish Czarny protest last year, where thousands of women took to the streets, also wearing black, to block their government from implementing strict anti-abortion legislation. The main focus of tomorrow's strike will be in Dublin, where there will be rallies outside key government buildings, but there are also events happening in colleges and towns across the country. Corroon says: “I want the conversation to be happening everywhere, to show that there is a real demand for a referendum and we’re not just a minority group. We are everywhere, this is what we want, and we won't stop.”
Strike 4 Repeal has been accused of being too radical and alienating the middle ground, but the response proves otherwise. So far, the group has received widespread support across Ireland and abroad. With solidarity actions planned for Berlin, New York, Belfast, Buenos Aires, and multiple towns in the UK, it’s clear that others share the sense of urgency. Two women from Trinity College Dublin, who have helped organise a strike among students there, told Refinery29 why they plan to participate. Rachel Skelly says, “I am striking because the consequences of my sexuality have always been my fault,” while Sadhbh Sheeran tells us that “in Ireland, everyone is born with the same rights and everyone dies with the same rights but in the middle of their lives half the population has their right to bodily autonomy taken away. Ireland's reproductive rights make me embarrassed to be Irish.”
Strike 4 Repeal wants a referendum to be called but if that doesn’t happen before or immediately after the strike, the campaign won't be considered a failure. The hope is that the strike will galvanise the Irish public, keep up the pressure on the government, and show that there is widespread support for this issue. Corroon says: “Enda Kenny [Ireland’s Taoiseach]'s past response to these sort of problems indicates that he will try and sideline this issue, and our job is to make sure that doesn't happen.” Ultimately, Ireland is headed for a referendum – but Strike 4 Repeal wants to speed up the process: “What we are saying is that we want it now and that we won't wait. We are not waiting for another woman to die.”