Despite writing about the campaign for abortion rights in Ireland over and over, before now I’ve never gone on record personally as being pro-choice. Suffice to say, I’m doing that right now – my politics are written on me in block capitals.
Let me explain: every day for the last week, I’ve worn a sweatshirt with the word "REPEAL" written across it. To anyone outside Ireland the term might not instantly make sense, but to Irish people, it automatically refers to the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment, a law passed in 1983, effectively outlawing abortion in Ireland.
The Eighth Amendment claims to enshrine equal rights of mothers and of the unborn, but it’s debatable whether it has done anything to protect women in need over the years. The same year the amendment was passed, Sheila Hodgers, a pregnant woman suffering from breast cancer, was denied treatment in order to deliver her child prematurely, leading to the deaths of both mother and baby because of the law.
This set the tone for further injustices, including the clinically brain-dead mother of two whose body was used as an incubator for her unborn child, the "Miss Y" case concerning a suicidal teenager pregnant as a result of rape who was made to carry her child to term, and the painful, preventable death of dentist Savita Halappanavar, who was denied an abortion on 2012 while suffering from blood poisoning. This law claiming to protect mothers has proven to be spectacularly, infamously useless.
But back to the sweatshirts. They’re the creation of Anna Cosgrave, intended as “an outerwear project meant to give voice to a hidden problem”. They’re going to be sold online and, if you’re in Dublin, at the store Indigo and Cloth after their launch on June 30th.
Talking to Anna about her motivation, she told me the project came out of frustration: “It became apparent that much of the media coverage and political landscape around this issue wasn't reflective of the realities women in Ireland are facing.”
The sweatshirts act as a deliberate talking point. They help give face to a controversial issue, the same way door-to-door canvassers did during the ‘Yes’ campaign (personal storytelling was credited with helping marriage equality pass into law last year in Ireland). Anna also alluded to the lingering concern that campaigners are preaching to an online echo-chamber, and that what we need to do now is take our views offline and into the real world.
“I knew that friends and I were sharing articles and attending rallies, but wanted to engage other people and felt this was a way. It’s been made incredibly difficult to talk about; the topic is shrouded in shame and stigma when it should be support and sympathy. It's a human rights issue, and not entirely a political one.”
I currently live in a part of inner city Dublin populated by little old ladies who walk dogs wearing hand-knitted coats. It’s hardly an enclave of conservatism – fewer statues of Our Lady than White Ladies on the Rocks – but the sweatshirt still feels confrontational. In recent months, I’ve also had one or two rather volatile conversations with people close to me on the subject of abortion. I worry what their responses will be.
But wearing it for a week, nothing remarkable happens. I got a few looks of puzzlement – possibly because they didn’t get what “REPEAL” referred to, possibly because they didn’t approve. But mostly what I noticed was smiles, with several people asking me where they can buy shirts of their own. What surprised me was the lack of reaction: was it apathy, or are we all just ready to repeal the Eighth already? And another question: does it diminish a cause to plaster it across an item of clothing?
A large part of the reason this law is even still in place in 2016 is through a failure to address it
I don't believe feminism should be co-opted for commerce, and – for the record – the proceeds from the REPEAL sweatshirt campaign will go to the Abortion Rights Campaign. Plus, a large part of the reason this law is even still in place in 2016 is through a failure to address it, whether by exiling women abroad for their abortions, or by – further back in our dismal past – locking them away in mother and baby homes and Magdalene laundries. In this context, all visibility is good.
It’s an alienating thing to be ignored and endangered by the laws of your own country. In Ireland right now we keep abortion law at an idealistic arm’s length, assigning it symbolic value whether as a moral failing or as something to combat in aid of a more progressive future. Talking about it on radio causes an outcry, and political figures aren't meant to question it. Meanwhile, centre-left politicians are banned from reading mass in retribution for being in a party which supports repealing the Eighth (because, in a dark and hilarious twist, we also still have blasphemy laws...).
Many of the projects agitating for change have wisely focused on visibility
Wearing the slogan “REPEAL”, then, is – in my opinion – a sincere act of support. Many of the projects agitating for change have wisely focused on visibility – the X-ile Project collects portraits of women who have accessed abortion abroad, while performance group Speaking of IMELDA stage theatrical pro-choice interventions.
Having a voice on a topic like this is important, because your opponents will try to shout you down. Later they might even claim you never shouted in the first place: the argument put forward of late by the Catholic right is that that there’s no demand for a referendum at all. This argument is patently untrue. In surveys, 64% of the Irish public agree we need to repeal the Eighth Amendment, while a separate survey revealed that 60% of our Teachtaí Dála [Irish politicians] held the same opinion. Only 21% were against repealing the Eighth, with some claiming that “it was too complex an issue to give a yes or no vote to.”
Is it really due to it the issue’s complexity that we don’t have rightful abortion laws, or is it due to political cowardice? This is what makes the word “REPEAL” so pleasingly succinct as a reply. It’s a comeback that’s difficult to argue with. Repealing, of course, will only be the beginning. I look forward to a time when the sweatshirts will be cultural artefacts, and when the Eighth Amendment as it currently stands will be history. But for now they’re useful. It's time to wear our politics on our chest.
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