The first open meeting of Repeal the 8th London took place at Queen Mary University in East London on Tuesday November 8th. Repeal the 8th London is the new London branch of the Abortion Rights Campaign Ireland which calls for the repeal of the 8th amendment to the Irish constitution and campaigns for access to free, safe and legal abortion in Ireland and Northern Ireland, by bringing people in London together to support with fundraising, lobbying, direct action, establishing partnerships and building awareness through media and communications.
Demand to take part in the meeting was extremely high, necessitating a change in venue. Within days, all 300 available tickets were reserved and a lengthy waiting list emerged, demonstrating that huge support for the campaign for abortion rights in Ireland and Northern Ireland extends across the Irish Sea.
Five knowledgeable and engaging speakers opened the meeting, introducing the background to abortion rights in Ireland and Northern Ireland from their personal and professional experience. In the words of one, this was a room ‘fizzing with ideas’, which all in attendance were invited to share during the lively working group session that followed.
Setting the Scene — Speakers for Choice
The evening kicked off with Mara Clarke, founder of the Abortion Support Network (ASN), an organisation which provides funds to people from Ireland, Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man who cannot afford to travel to England to access safe abortion services. Ms. Clarke spoke of the two-tier system created by Irish and Northern Irish law. “Women with money have options. Women without money have babies. Or drink bleach.”
Extreme cases such as these are not uncommon for the ASN, which provides assistance to people facing some of the most desperate situations; those pregnant as a result of rape or incest, those with no money to travel overseas or to arrange childcare, those resorting to drug overdoses in an attempt to induce a miscarriage.
“We had a woman”, Mara says, “who wasn’t a drug user, who went out and scored heroin because she thought it would help her have a miscarriage.”
Many who travel to access abortion services in England seek an abortion not only in cases of rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality, but because of an unwanted pregnancy. To those who support abortion access only in these limited circumstances, Dr Ruth Fletcher, Senior Lecturer in Medical Law at Queen Mary University of London and member of Lawyers for Choice, asks that people consider how we could demand that a woman prove before the courts that she has been raped or has a serious foetal anomaly. She states that a legal system of abortion by request is the only appropriate solution.
Dr. Fletcher believes that the law does not reflect the compassion felt by many in Ireland towards those who need to access abortion services. “We know there is another Ireland that is so much better than the Ireland that is represented by the 8th amendment. There is a gap between the compassion of everyday life and the cruelty of our abortion law.”
Caoilfhionn Gallagher, barrister and public law specialist, emphasises how the courts, as well as campaigns, can support the push for abortion rights. Despite warning that her speech — which would focus on the courts and international law — may be more dull than the others, a huge cheer erupts when she remarks,
“It is very encouraging to be in the room with so many of what I’m sure Donald Trump would probably call ‘nasty women’….and indeed, I spot some ‘nasty men’ too!”
Ms. Gallagher spoke of the importance of ensuring Northern Ireland is included in this campaign. She notes that many journalists, even in the UK, are surprised to learn that abortion is banned in all but the strictest of circumstances in this part of the United Kingdom. Abortion in Northern Ireland is still illegal under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act — a law so old that it refers to ‘penal servitude for life’ as the sentence for accessing or assisting with an abortion. Ms. Gallagher is currently challenging this law at the UK Supreme Court, representing a Northern Irish teenager, known as ‘A’ and her mother, ‘B’, in a legal case which will decide whether women living in Northern Ireland are entitled to abortions on the NHS in England.
Veteran campaigner, Ann Rossiter, is encouraged by the turnout. “I’m totally gobsmacked. Usually we end up talking to ourselves. This is the first time I’ve talked in a room like this where I hardly know anybody.” Ms. Rossiter shared her experience of procuring a backstreet abortion in London in 1964, three years before it was made legal in England. Ms. Rossiter was not charged, although the police showed up to her hospital bed in Paddington — “to what I felt was my death bed” — demanding to know the name of the woman who carried out her abortion. The reason they didn’t charge the women themselves, according to Ms. Rossiter, wasn’t necessarily out of compassion.
“We would have flooded the prisons. There were hundreds of thousands of us.”
Since then, Ms. Rossiter has been an avid pro-choice campaigner. As a member of the Irish Women’s Abortion Support Group (IWASG), she helped women travel for abortions from 1980 to 2000 — before mobile phones, the internet and Ryanair — recording the experience in her book, “Ireland’s Hidden Diaspora: The Abortion Trail and the Making of a London-Irish Underground”. Most recently, she has been an active member of performance protest group Speaking of IMELDA, whose ‘knickerbombing’ campaigners, she recalls, memorably planted a pair of ‘Repeal the 8th knickers’ on Enda Kenny’s plate at a Fine Gael fundraising dinner in London in October 2014.
Eleanor White, member of the Abortion Rights Campaign Ireland (ARC), draws the speeches to a close. The ARC has organised the annual March for Choice in Dublin since 2012. Eleanor speaks about the incredible turnout at this year’s ARC March for Choice in Dublin on September 24th, attended by an estimated 25,000 people. Ms. White also praises the work of the Scarlet Brigade and others who organised solidarity marches in several cities around the world. “If you need a safe, legal abortion you deserve it”, she concludes, “There shouldn’t be any barriers in your way.”
Taking Action — Forming the Working Groups
Those in attendance were keen to take action and join the campaign. All were invited to break out into one of five working groups — Fundraising, Media/Communications, Lobbying, Direct Action/Protest or
Partnerships — to have a more focused discussion. In true grassroots style, a sixth group, Law, was also formed by a group of lawyers in attendance, headed by Caoilfhionn Gallagher.
Each working group, facilitated by a member of the Repeal the 8th London team, brainstormed actions that could be taken to support the campaign in the next three, six or twelve months. Lively discussions quickly got underway and each group, brimming with ideas, shared back their top three when the main group reconvened. Every idea has been recorded by the team and may also be submitted through the Repeal the 8th London website.
Following the success of the first open meeting, Repeal the 8th London held separate working group meetings for Fundraising, Comms/Media, Lobbying and Protest/Direct Action on November 22nd and 23rd. As a grassroots campaign in the early stages of development, the direction of Repeal the 8th London will be shaped by those attending the working group meetings. All are welcome and encouraged to get involved by signing up to the group which best fits your interests or experience, although no particular experience is required to join. If you would like to get involved with one of the working groups, please email email@example.com or drop us a line via our website www.repealthe8th.co.uk. For those who cannot attend at the moment but who would like to stay informed or get involved at a later stage, please sign up to the mailing list on our website to be kept updated.
We would like to thank everyone for their interest and active participation in the meeting and we look forward to seeing you at the next one!
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Words: Maeve O’Reilly