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Addressing stigma while moving a national campaign: Spotlight on Ireland


In the weeks before, during and after May 28, the International Day of Action for Women’s Health, we are sharing a series about how national abortion campaigns from across the world are tackling stigma. From these interviews with inroads members who participate in and lead these movements, we can see how sigma can play a part both inside and outside of movements for change. We have Spotlights on campaigns in Argentina and Malawi, and here we present a spotlight on the Republic of Ireland:

The Abortion Rights Campaign (ARC), played a key role in the Repealing of the 8th Amendment and continues to be a prominent voice in grassroots activism and higher level policy advocacy for free, safe and legal abortions in the Republic of Ireland. At the same time, global solidarity has always been important for participants of the national campaign in Ireland. Due to shared common beliefs, many members of ARC, which is a non-hierarchical organization, are also members of inroads. In fact, Katie Gillum, the inroads Executive Director, began her activism for abortion rights and access while serving as co-convenor to the ARC.

In this piece, Linda Kavanagh, member of inroads, and other members of the ARC in the Republic of Ireland tell us more about the realities of their activism for abortion rights right now.

Members of the Abortion Rights Campaign celebrate in the streets of Ireland

What will it take to totally humanize and normalize abortions in Ireland even after the victory to Repeal the 8th Amendment?

At our 2018 March for Choice, post-referendum but before services had been implemented, we took to the streets in our thousands to say our work is not done. Our then co-convener Denise O’Toole declared to the crowd we are here for “abortion on demand and without apology!”.

The repeal of the 8th Amendment, and the subsequent introduction of legislation, are only the first steps towards normalizing abortion. 35+ years of enforced secrecy and shame did not go away overnight. The manner in which laws are structured and services implemented is incredibly telling. For example, abortion is the only healthcare procedure in Ireland where medics face a potential prison sentence  – or where patients are forced to endure a mandatory waiting period before being able to access care. Aside from being bad medical practice, these provisions serve a symbolic role in continuing to stigmatise abortion and dehumanise the people who have them. The waiting period acts as a barrier to patient autonomy. Unfortunately, we have heard many stories from people who canvassed about the misogyny they endured on the doorsteps during the campaign. Myths such as abortion being used as contraception were repeated constantly. Normalizing abortion and bodily autonomy is part of a broader fight for feminism in Ireland.

We need to continue being a loud and unapologetic advocate for choice to dismantle all abortion stigma. We will be having our next March for Choice on September 28th, marking International Day for Safe Abortion.

Linda Kavanagh (centre) protests with other members of ARC

How is ARC working to bust the stigma that prevents implementation and access of abortion services for everyone?

By advocating for the removal of arbitrary, non-evidence based and dangerous barriers to access which currently exist within the legislation. The mandatory waiting period, the continued criminalisation of medical professionals and people who assist someone to obtain an abortion outside the constraints of the law, the 12-week cut-off for abortion on-request, the rule that abortions over 9 weeks must take place in a hospital setting, the ability of medical providers to refuse to provide care. All these provisions serve to stigmatise providers and remove patient autonomy. We’re calling for the Government to take urgent action on anti-choice harassment, intimidation and misinformation, which equally serve to stigmatize pregnant people, invade their privacy and undermine their choices.

Since the repeal of the 8th Amendment, we have been able to extend our stigma-busting activities into new areas. Last month, we participated in our first health promotion day at a Higher Education Institute (and distributed legal abortion information for the first time!) – and hope to do more of this in the years to come. We’re also continuing to advocate for safe, inclusive and stigma-free reproductive healthcare more broadly – and recently published a blogpost on the importance of free contraception and a submission on ways to improve Relationships and Sexuality Education in Schools. We have never bought into the idea of good abortions and bad abortions and consistently fought for abortions without restrictions as to reasons, for anyone who wants or needs one.

We will continue to highlight the problems with an exceptions-based abortion law, and use our platform to raise awareness of the global impact of abortion restrictions.

How has ARC managed to sustain itself against groups that wanted it to accept half-measures? In other words, how has the campaign managed to be unapologetic in terms of demanding a completely non-stigmatizing abortion legal framework?

We’ve done this in a number of ways:

  1. Sticking to core principles and original goals embodied in the slogan: Free, Safe, Legal.
  2. Never being afraid to say the word abortion – we were originally advised to change our name!
  3. Picking up where we left off as an independent grassroots organisation after the referendum and the dissolution of Together for Yes, the cross-sector group formed specifically for repealing the 8th Amendment. While we advocated for free, safe and legal abortion access, we had good relationships with other advocacy groups. We may have been fighting for broader access to abortion but none of us undercut each other’s message. There was and is great solidarity within pro-choice groups in Ireland.
  4. By providing evidence-based, apology-free advocacy, we helped move the conversation towards broader access. A significant example of this came when the Minister of Health proclaimed that abortion isn’t safe if it isn’t free. Some elected officials even changed their talking point that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare” to ours: that abortion should be free, safe, and legal.

How are immigrant communities in Ireland joining the movement and how are their struggles being centred within it?

Immigrant communities have been disproportionately disadvantaged by the 8th Amendment and continue to be disproportionately harmed by the flaws in the current legislation, alongside wider failings in maternal healthcare. On the flip side, some of the most courageous and effective activists in Ireland’s pro-choice movement have been migrant women.

In order to ensure that migrant voices are centred, it is crucial that ARC listen to the real concerns of migrants (both within ARC, and outside it) about how the legislation lets them down and stand alongside them in the fight for reproductive justice. We need to learn from migrant voices whose home country experiences can serve as lessons for Ireland. For example, the barriers to access are caused by doctors refusing care in Italy. As we go forward and monitor the new law’s implementation, we intend to ensure that migrant voices – alongside the voices of people with disabilities, LGBT+ voices, and the voices of Travellers, homeless people, young people and people in rural areas – are adequately heard.

Posters for the 29th September march
Everyone says: Free, Safe and Legal!

How is the Abortion Rights Campaign working to build and sustain a stigma-free pool of medical providers especially in remote parts of Ireland?

This is an ongoing challenge; we intend to build on relationships built over past years and during the Referendum campaign. Part of this is done through showing appreciation and offering support to GP’s (ARC just launched a “thank you” campaign in which regional ARC groups sent cards to abortion providers). We refer any GP’s who are considering becoming providers to Doctors for Choice or START (a regional group of pro-choice doctors in County Cork), encouraging GP’s to avail of training from their peers.

A huge part of our campaign has been about visibility, especially in rural areas. Our members were often the first people to publicly talk about abortion rights in their local community. They held street stalls to start those conversations and wore badges saying “Talk to me about Repeal”. Post-referendum many of those regional groups are still active, keeping the pro-choice movement visible in every corner of Ireland from Donegal to Cork.

We also use social media extensively to talk about abortion rights and provision which allows us to reach people outside the cities. We regularly lend our social media platform to activist groups who represent marginalized voices, both to promote their causes and to highlight the intersections between our struggles.

ARC’s reflections and actions on busting stigma are an important learning for people who are doing the work of abortion advocacy and destigmatization across the world. You can read more about ARC’s recent policy papers by visiting their website.