By Ellen Musgrove
‘We call upon the Government to take direct responsibility for what is a violation of human rights. We believe a national strike is not only possible, but an incredible opportunity to show the sheer power of our movement, and to put pressure on the government to call a referendum. In the past 5 years, support for repeal has grown to a level that the government can no longer ignore.’
On October 28th 2012, Savita Halappanavar died of septicaemia after a miscarriage despite repeatedly requesting a termination. Experiencing severe back pain and aware she was miscarrying, Savita was admitted to University Hospital Galway. The staff’s response to her request was ‘Ireland is a Catholic country’, and therefore they would not abort a foetus with a measurable heartbeat. Eventually delivering a still-born baby, Savita developed severe sepsis and died a week after being admitted. Were conservative Catholic values not embedded in the Irish state, Savita and the many others who have died in similar circumstances may well have survived, and countless other lives may not have been irreversibly affected by this denial of bodily autonomy. The Repeal the Eighth campaign are struggling against this corruption. Today, 8th March, International Women’s Day, they have called a national women’s strike to demand female bodily autonomy.
The Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution, instated in 1983, equates the life of a foetus with that of an adult human. Abortion is therefore illegal even in circumstances of rape and foetal abnormalities and attempts to obtain one, commonly by ordering abortion pills, can result in a fourteen-year prison sentence. Anyone even giving detailed advice on abortions may also receive a €4,000 fine. In Northern Ireland the story is much the same as the UK’s 1967 Abortion Act does not apply there, although terminations are allowed if the mother’s life is endangered or there is permanent risk to her physical and mental health.
Through the violent control and punishment of female bodies, the Catholic Church and the Irish state regenerate the sexual division of labour upholding patriarchal capitalism
The 2015 Amnesty International report ‘She is Not a Criminal’ condemned the impact of these draconian laws on Irish residents, revealing that on average twelve people travel from Ireland to England for abortions every day. Of course, not everyone can spare the time and money to make this journey. Migrants and those who have low income, precarious employment, disabilities or binding familial duties – the most vulnerable social groups – face the prospect of carrying unwanted pregnancies, seeking illicit and potentially unsafe abortions, or facing large fines or imprisonment. Moreover, even those who make the journey may be unsuccessful. Marie Stopes, the UK’s biggest abortion provider, are currently turning away Irish patients to prioritise UK citizens, due to increased demand.
This denial of female bodily rights arises from the interference of the Catholic Church in Irish state institutions. The same imbrication of Church and state allowed for the cover-up of systematic abuses such as those of the infamous Magdalene Laundries. Revelations of these are still coming to light – as recently as last week, a ‘mass grave’ of children’s remains was discovered at the site of a former mother and baby home in Tuam. Through the violent control and punishment of female bodies, the Catholic Church and the Irish state regenerate the sexual division of labour upholding patriarchal capitalism, in which these bodies are birthing and caring machines. If our exploitative economic system is to be maintained, women cannot be allowed to deviate from their essential role in expanding and maintaining the labour force – physically, emotionally, sexually, and always monogamously.
Today, Irish abortion rights campaigners are withdrawing this vital labour in the Strike 4 Repeal day of action, inspired by such actions as October’s Black Monday strike in Poland. These general strikes involve not only withdrawing industrial labour, but crucially also withholding the reproductive labour that characterises women’s existence. It is a serious measure, demanded by the direness of this protracted attack on bodily autonomy. The Strike 4 Repeal campaign is made up of a coalition of individuals, groups and movements in Ireland and abroad who have organised demonstrations and other solidarity actions from Dublin to Buenos Aires.
Here in Norwich, UEA Migrant Solidarity, Feminist and Movement for Justice societies are holding a day of solidarity action, with a social media stunt in UEA Square at midday and a demo outside City Hall in the evening. Everyone is welcome – all we ask is that participants come clothed in black. We are demonstrating not only in solidarity with Strike 4 Repeal but also with those participating in the International Women’s Strike which seeks to reconnect International Women’s Day with its radical roots. We are also aware that those of us in the UK are not completely free of threats to our autonomy posed by our own neoliberal state. We may have legal abortion, but access to clinics and the quality of services is far from ideal. Further afield, Trump’s reinstated and expanded ‘gag rule’ will hinder reproductive rights across the globe, most affecting communities with already insufficient reproductive rights and resources. In these uncertain days we are facing a global struggle against the exploitation and oppression of patriarchal capitalism.
Today’s strikes and other protests remind us that we all have power, and we can all take the fight to oppression. S4R Trinity College campaigner Aislinn Shanahan Daily summed up the necessity of action: ‘The slogan behind the strike, #WeWon’tWait, defines this action. The 12 women who travel to England every day cannot wait. The thousands of people taking abortion pills cannot wait. We must demand that this reality is acknowledged.’ The Dáil can batten down the hatches. They can try to ignore the striking women at their gates. But this is a fight they will not win.
Featured image credit Strike4Repeal