Thursday, December 18, 2003

They've lost everything except abortion, abortion is still there

How did you first come to be involved in the pro-choice movement?

Yeah, trying to remember how I first came to be involved, I was a student at the time in Trinity, the students' union had information on how to get an abortion in their handbook, and SPUC (Society For The Protection of the Unborn Child) took them to court. So that made it a campaigning issue, I was involved and there was a group of people involved in it. I suppose in that way we were reacting to what SPUC were doing. At the same time and before I had gotten involved they started taking cases against the clinics like Well Women and The Open Door Clinic. Those cases had succeeded or were in the courts, they were off the agenda, so they moved on to attacking Trinity Students' Union. They moved to do other things, they moved against the libraries, they tried to get 'Our Bodies, Ourselves' taken out of the libraries, against magazines producing information. So there was a whole load of moves by SPUC to shut things down, so that’s where we got involved.

Why was the union publishing information on abortion clinics? Was it part of a campaign on a pro-choice position?

To be honest I cant 100% remember! I think it was one of those cases where union policy that was passed and was never an issue until SPUC suddenly made it an issue. I don't think it was something people thought was a problem, it was just something provided in the handbooks, along with information on STD's, as part of women's health. Then suddenly SPUC said it was illegal and couldn't be done anymore. In Trinity obviously, immediately the union was under pressure and brought to court. But there was quite a large group of activists around who were working with the union, so there was a dynamic between the two. There was loads of issues raised at the time about what to do, whether to pull the information, whether they should fight it, make it political or not. Actually one thing that came up within the union, and especially in USI was the whole argument that if you continue publishing the information in the guidebook you will be shut down completely, and the argument was raised that to do that meant you could no longer provide information for women. I can't remember exactly it was coached in terms, whether that meant we took it out of the handbooks but still provided it through the backdoor. I remember people saying at meetings that as long as one women got the information that was good, when they were arguing against people making it political. So you definitely have a dilemma between providing a service and a political campaign, because when you are providing a service you are always going to defend that service, protect it. Where as fighting a campaign, you are willing to lose a service in terms of the bigger issue, changing things in more general terms.

What sort of climate would this have taken place in both within the colleges and outside as this would have been before the X case?

In terms of student politics, I thought at the time the 80's were pretty crap in that a minority of students were really interested in political action. But in hindsight since they were followed by the 90's, I think the 90's were much worse. But we were looking back at the 70's I suppose, we heard of Joe Duffy and big marches and we were always giving out that things weren't the same as that, but I think they got worse in the 90's. In terms of the whole abortion thing, for a long time there were very few people campaigning on the issue. So for a long time it would be pickets of the Dail of maybe twenty people, you know seven people outside the Ilac Centre picketing about libraries and that didn't really change until the X-Case.

When the X-case happened what sort of impact did it have on the pro-choice movement in Ireland?

Oh that completely changed everything. It's a real example of no matter how much you struggle you are really tied to the conditions of the society you live in because we had been working on abortion rights for a few years, and there were different groups, there were students and people who would have been around since the 1983 referendum, older feminists. We were all kind of lone voices in the wilderness, and the X-case just changed that. I mean the biggest illustration is that before the X-case happened.... No, I remember reading about the X-case in my flat, it was on the front page of the Herald and I remember feeling very depressed and angry about it, ah fuck it this is just going to go ahead and no one is going to try stop this happening. And things just changed completely, there seemed to be protests at the Dail every night of the week. And we met as we usually did in a pub, the Dublin Abortion Rights Group. And said look we better organise a march on this, I mean there were only ten or fifteen of us, a really small group. In the end the march was 15,000 or something. It was huge, the sort of march where your brother and sister were there, classmates and the people you worked with.

In terms of mobilising for these demonstrations, you're saying there was no pro-choice movement on the ground, there were ten of you in a pub and the students' unions were involved with fighting SPUC in the courts, there would have been quite a large pro-life movement on the ground. In the past, in any thing to do with social policy, the state would have acquiesced to catholic moral teaching, there was a movement away from the catholic hierarchy to lay catholic groups like Youth Defence. Would these have had support on the ground?

They didn’t have such large numbers, but they were certainly a danger to us and they were physically a danger to us. I mean we were attacked a few times, a friend of mine had his finger broken, were attacked with hurley sticks twice, so it meant that you had to be a lot more careful if you were going on protests, making sure everybody left at the same time. I never really got the impression that they were that strong a force numerically. To be honest, in fact, I think Youth Defence worked in our favour, especially after the X-Case because it meant a lot of people who were in the middle ground definitely wanted to disassociate themselves from Youth Defence. It split the pro-life movement and that's what was good for our side. I think again like the X-case it may have made people say 'no that’s not the kind of Ireland I want to be part of. I think the Irish pro-life movement is really influenced by the US pro-life movement, and there's certainly been a lot of money on spin. Apparently, Youth Defence are seen as examples of good practice, and people come here for training seminars on relating to the media and present your arguments. I've noticed recently, a lot of their spokespeople are young women or mothers. So there obviously trying to get a way from being seen as old women and priests. Despite this, violence was something Women on Waves were very worried about. But it didn't materialise. But I think the fact it didn't materialise, was because youth defence decided not to go down that road, and to seek mainstream approval.

Previous to the X-case, would the pro-life movement have dominated people's ideological perspectives on abortion?

Yeah, I always think that the thing about abortion in Ireland is that it's a taboo subject, which means it's not discussed. And that’s the success of the pro-life movement. In 1983, and I only vaguely remember it, the whole issue was so emotionally laden and hysterical that meant it became an issue nobody talked about, so if you were in a pub with your friends that was the one topic upon which you didn’t want to know their opinion on in case they disagreed with you. So, I think they succeeded in creating a silence around it.

Do you thing they still maintain that? Considering there is not a wholly pro-choice movement on the ground and where there is it tends to be reacting to their agenda instead of creating a pro-choice agenda.

Yeah, I think they do maintain a silence. I think it's very hard to break that silence. That’s the big problem, how do you break the silence? And I'd agree that the pro-choice movement is reactionary, but it's hard to see what else to do, I don't know how we can put it on the agenda. The Women on Waves project was the first attempt to be pro-active and that had a mixed success I think.

Do you feel the 2002 referendum would have been scaling back on any gains from the X-Case period? It never even afforded any protection to services like the morning after pill.

Yeah that’s the trouble with the referendums. With the x-case we got legal judgments, which made the position of women better, but they were never enacted in the law and the referendum was aimed at getting rid of those legal rights, the rights that were given by judges in their interpretation of the law. It's kind of hard to explain to people, because people don't realise the x-case gave you legal rights and the referendum was trying to take them away. So I mean the only way you can introduce abortion now is to change the law and get rid of the eight amendment. The eight amendment has equal protection to the right to life of the child and mother, except where there's a threat to the life of the mother, the x-case added on the phrase including the threat of suicide. That was important because it was interpretating life in a broader sense than just you physically got a disease it brought in issues of psychological welfare. But then you’re talking about legal niceties.

In terms of the pro-choice movement in March 2002, well the ANV wasn't pro-choice, but in terms of a movement entering into a discourse with the public on the issue, because it was a response to a referendum, do you think there may have been a confusion of the issue. Considering Dana Rosemary Scallon was also advocating a no vote?

Oh yeah there definitely was a confusion, that's because we were both advocating a no vote for entirely different reasons.

Do you think there was a deliberate confusion within that referendum?

Well the government was trying to play the middle ground, you know and the government has always done that. It attempts to present pro-life and pro-choice as two extreme ends of the spectrum, and they go for the middle ground. Of course there really isn't a middle ground in reality. I think the pro-choice movement in Ireland has become better, in that as its developed and grown up a bit, it's less willing to play for the middle ground and more willing to advocate a right to chose. And there is a stronger right to chose element there in the arguments.

Why do you think successive governments since the mandate received from the x-case have refused to legislate?

There'll all afraid they're going to lose votes, because they all remember what it was like in 1983, when the country was torn apart, they don't want to touch it with a barge pole. And I guess there's no pressure, I mean we've got an Irish solution to an Irish problem, we solved the problem through transport, and that's happened in other countries as well. It's the same in Spain as far as I know.

What would you say to people that would raise the moral argument that 'abortion is murder?' Those that address it solely as a moral issue?

Oh God! I mean I would say, that’s a position you can hold privately, but you can’t apply to other people. So if you believe abortion is murder, then don't go have an abortion. But it's up to every single person to make their own judgement on that issue. That’s what women's right to chose means, to chose to have or not have an abortion.

You use Haugheys infamous phrase 'an Irish solution to an Irish problem' which was his description of the legislation introduced after Robinson's court cases over family privacy to legislate for contraception. Basically a prescription for contraceptives was at the discretion of your doctor, but in the case of where a public doctor was morally opposed, if you had the money you could seek a prescription from another doctor. In a way do you think that we still have 'an irish solution to an irish problem' in that if you have the money to travel for an abortion, you can, otherwise not?

Oh yeah, absolutely. Actually, there’s a funny meeting about that, I was at a meeting in Dublin with somebody from Belgium and she was talking about the law in Belgium, where you have two different parts, the Flemish part and the French speaking part. There are two different laws, what she said was a Belgian solution to a Belgian problem. So it's not an uncommon solution. Basically you have the public face and the private reality. You have the public face where abortion doesn't exist and privately it does, and everyone knows it does. If we didn't have England and the possibility of travel I think that we would have abortion in Ireland.

Do you think that there's a greater need to address the economic and class inequality around the issue, where there is a pro-choice regime for those who can afford to travel and not otherwise?

Yeah, that's the one thing Women on Waves brought home to me, because I remember when they were coming over I thought it was great as a symbolic form of protest, but I thought no woman was really going to go have an abortion on a ship surrounded by all that publicity, and I was quite shocked by the numbers of women who are willing to go have abortions in those circumstances because they are so desperate. It brought home to me exactly how much of an economic issue it is. But then it's kind of hard to campaign on that beyond stating the facts. The trouble is with any campaign..If your going to run a campaign you have to have short term achievable goals and long term achievable goals. It’s hard to work out what they are in terms of abortion in Ireland. Even though we weren’t doing very much prior to the x-case, we were able to sustain our existence by advertising an abortion help line number that people could ring and actually find out information on how to get an abortion, and we had contacts with groups of irish women in England who would go and help people who were going over, and put them up. So, aside from the politics we were actually achieving something by existing and it’s hard to know what pro-choice groups can achieve in the short term because there is so little public pressure. I know at one point there was meetings where women who had abortions were willing to stand up and say it but it's limited. The thing is, the trouble with a taboo subject is you can talk about it, but people pretend it doesn’t exist and will ignore you. And people think there's no need.

Tell me about the Dublin Abortion Rights Group (DARG)?

If abortion comes on the agenda we provide a pro-choice speaker, we see our role as putting forward the pro-choice argument, so if there is a wider campaign we’ll be there putting forth the pro-choice argument

So where could a pro-choice movement today go, if you were looking to younger activists in the colleges and communities what would you say to them?

I don't know you see! I haven’t a clue; I mean I’m looking to you. I think there’s a bit of a problem, abortion is an issue that burns people out. When I started getting involved a lot of the people who had previously been around in 1983 and you could see they were getting tired. Now I've been doing it for quite a long time, and am getting quite tired. You know I guess you get depressed, after so long of not achieving anything, you lose your iniative. To me the climate seems the exactly as it did before the x-case, in that your pushing at a closed door. You could do stuff through the students' unions, if you could get them to say that they would financially support women, like for example student unions used to financially support students who were going for abortion, don't know if they still do, they probably still do. You could get emergency funding.

Was this something that was openly done?

No, no it wasn't, but you knew that if you were in trouble and you really needed the money fast you could go to the welfare officer. I’m sure if students did that in a broader way and said they were doing it that would raise the issue. I would question the students' unions..I mean if you are going to make that commitment to women, you have to be able to make good on it. That was the problem with 'Women on Waves'. It said to women, we will provide you with abortion and then turned round and said, no, actually we can't. So, it's not really fair to be doing that, if your going to say you will economically support people, then you have to be able to economically support them. I know there are people who keep trying to raise it again, but I’ve got pessimistic. Until something happens like the x-case or c-case, a big issue that forces people to go 'hang on!’ I think the government are quite clever in avoiding it.

After the X-case, a divorce referendum was passed as well. Do you think the pro-life movement is part of a wider movement and has latched on to abortion in a way in the past it would have latched on the maintaining legislation against contraceptives, divorce and so on?

Yeah, abortion, contraception, illegitimacy, the pope visiting Ireland in 1979, it's all part of the same thing. They've lost everything except abortion, abortion is still there. In that case, it means we are defeating them, but there is still that one issue there they've managed to hold on to.

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