Repeal the 8th: A Matter of Choice. Nicole Clinton discusses Ireland’s Repeal the 8th movement.
“Currently sold out, our store is opening again soon, thank you for all the support so far in making this issue seen and heard.”
This is the message that one was greeted with when after clicking on to view Irish website, repeal.ie in mid-October. The much sought-after product that the message refers to was the visually striking REPEAL jumper that saw political statement meet fashion statement in an innovative and blatant manner. The simple black creation with the word ‘repeal’ plastered across it in white capital letters, may look like a slogan sweatshirt that crept out of a nineties style revival, but it is actually a way of creating awareness for an issue that has triggered heated debates throughout Ireland in recent years and has just about reached boiling point. Its popularity is a testament to the overwhelming support for the ‘Repeal the Eighth’ campaign which seeks to allow free, safe and legal access to abortion in Ireland.
The ‘Eighth’ refers to the Eighth Amendment in the Irish constitution which equates the right to life of a pregnant woman with that of an embryo or foetus. Passed by a referendum in 1983, the law, which made it illegal to travel abroad to procure an abortion as well, was an effort by Irish politicians and religious rulers to ensure the existence of barriers to legal abortion in Ireland as other countries began to legalise it in the early 1980s. While obtaining an abortion overseas was decriminalised in 1992, the 8th still criminalises abortion in all cases except where to continue a pregnancy would result in the death of the woman.
The law, which denies women the right to choose for themselves whether abortion is a suitable option for them, breaches international human rights norms as on every occasion that UN treaty bodies have examined Ireland, it’s been pointed out that Irish abortion laws do not comply with women’s human rights.
The Eighth Amendment has led to many distressing incidences that turned into shameful national scandals, such as the ‘X’ case in 1992, the ‘C’ case in 1997 and the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012. Although these high-profile cases highlighted the unjust and inflexible nature of the law and energised the ‘pro-choice’ movement, the Irish government failed to respond by taking any substantial action to revise its stance on abortion.
The ‘X’ case resulted in the Irish Supreme Court deciding that a pregnant woman could obtain an abortion in order to save her life, including from suicide. However, this ruling was in vain as Miss X miscarried before she could get her abortion, abortion was not made available for women in Ireland, no guidelines were created, training in the procedure was not implemented for doctors and no legislation was passed by the parliament.
Similarly, after Miss C appealed to the High Court for permission to go to the UK to abort a pregnancy that was the result of rape, no change to the law came about. The High Court ruled that the young teenager was allowed to have an abortion in Ireland on the grounds that she was likely to commit suicide if forced to give birth to the child. But the threat of suicide did not become a clause of the eighth amendment and Miss C was brought to the UK for the procedure anyway. The law fails to provide women who are pregnant as a result of rape with the option of procuring an abortion. According to Rape Crisis centres, 25% of the women who visited them in 2013 that found themselves in this predicament, organised to have an abortion; which means that they either had to travel abroad or take illegal abortion pills in Ireland. In 2014, an average of 10 women per day travelled from Ireland to Britain for the purpose of getting an abortion and 1017 abortion pills were seized by Irish Customs. The ludicrous need for women in Ireland to travel overseas to obtain an abortion was highlighted earlier this year by two women’s controversial decision to live-tweet their physical and emotional journey to the UK for such a reason.
The death of Savita Halappanavar, an Indian woman living in Ireland, from septicaemia and organ failure arising from a slow miscarriage in 2012 demonstrated the danger that the 8th amendment puts Ireland’s women in. When Halappanavar began to miscarry and experience severe health complications as a result, she repeatedly requested a termination and was refused as the foetus’ heartbeat was still present. The excuse she was given by one of the midwives for why medical professionals were not acting to save her life was: “Ireland is a Catholic country”.
Following this disgraceful incident, there was little progress in the movement towards access to abortion. The Irish government was forced to pass the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Act in 2013, allowing for abortion only if there is an imminent and substantial risk to a woman’s life, including suicide. However, if a woman is seeking an abortion due to being suicidal, she will have to submit to an assessment by up to 6 doctors. These doctors then have the power to decide if the woman will be allowed to have a termination. Therefore, while the possibility technically exists, eligibility is so difficult to navigate that it prevents or deters most people from exploring abortion as an option.
The appalling treatment of Halappanavar also reignited the ‘pro-choice’ argument throughout the country and the newly established Abortion Rights Campaign announced its aims in January 2013, three months after her untimely death. The ARC endeavours to “promote broad national support for a referendum to repeal the 8th Amendment to the Constitution by the Irish Parliament, to push for the introduction of extensive abortion legislation by the Northern Irish Assembly, and to ensure the health and rights of women in pregnancy are protected in line with international Human Rights standards”. The organisation works to educate the public about the necessity for equal access to safe abortion services for all women in Ireland and eradicate the stigma and silence surrounding the issue.
The ARC benefits from the sale of the REPEAL jumper as the Repeal clothing project was established by Anna Cosgrave to raise both funds for and awareness of the organisation’s cause. The project and the cause made headlines in late September when six TDs (members of the Irish parliament) wore the sweatshirt at a meeting of the Irish Parliament, to assert their support for the removal of the 8th amendment from the constitution. The political-fashion statement complemented the overwhelming turnout at the annual ‘March for Choice’ which took place on the 24th September and saw between 20,000-25,000 people take to the streets of Dublin to demonstrate their opposition to the restrictive abortion law.
The conflict that exists between public opinion and government policy on the issue of abortion in Ireland could be seen as a result of the rapid modernisation process that the country has gone through in the last 25 years. Prior to the economic boom that the country experienced from the early 1990s until the crash in 2008 (christened the Celtic Tiger era by economists), Irish society was still very conservative and ‘Catholic’. While the excessive wealth, globalisation and immigration that the Celtic Tiger ushered in brought the Irish up to speed with other European/ Western nations on a surface level; the restrictive hand of Catholicism still had a hold on the law and lurked within the mentality of a certain proportion of the public. These new phenomena that produced a new kind of Irish life fooled the country into thinking that it was modern and liberal because the development occurred so quickly. However, the progress that was being executed by a new generation did not wait for tradition or social change to develop naturally, but raced ahead of the national psyche instead. People were still very much stuck in their ways but hid under a superficial guise of modernity and it was only when faced with a ‘contemporary’ issue that this idea became apparent. Abortion is not the only choice that saw religious belief get in the way of the law; divorce only became legal in Ireland in 1996. Just like with the abortion matter, backward ideas and misconceptions were created and then backed up by church teaching that literally put the fear of God into people and prevented divorce from being passed by referendum any earlier.
However, the Irish mentality has definitely caught up with the progress that it once intentionally and fearfully lagged behind. This can be viewed not only in the body of public support that the ‘Repeal the 8th’ movement now commands, but also in the fact that, in May 2015, Ireland became the first country in the world to make gay marriage legal by referendum. Perhaps the numerous scandals that recently exposed the paedophilia, abuse and corruption that infected the church that they had revered for centuries were catalysts in the change of attitude. Or, maybe it is just the effect of education, the maturing of new generations and the gradual acceptance of a new world. Either way, the Irish government can’t ignore the 8th amendment forever. Let’s just hope that they repeal it before any other woman has to suffer as a result of not being allowed to make her own choice.
Written by Nicole Clinton for Fashion Philosophy, Issue 3. The above image is of an original mural design by Maser, that became one of the symbols for ‘Repeal the 8th‘. It first appeared on the wall of the Project Art Centre in Dublin, and unfortunately had been painted over back in July 2016.
All rights reserved. No part of Fashion Philosophy publication may be reproduced in whole or in part without a written permission. Featured content is protected under a Creative Commons Attribution / Non-Commercial / No-Derivs International License. All views expressed in Fashion Philosophy are of the respective contributors and are not necessarily shared by the editors and fellow contributors. © 2016 Fashion Philosophy.