Book cover: Pluto Press

One of the successes of the anti-abortion movement has been its capacity to contain discussions in the legal domain, meaning many activists fight tirelessly to maintain already inadequate laws. Ideally, there would be no laws. Abortion, as well as all reproductive healthcare services, would be available as needed and without the weight of moral arguments. Not everyone realizes that there is evidence of abortions in historical texts of Catholicism, Judaism and some versions of Islamic doctrine. For many years, ending a pregnancy before ‘the quickening’ (i.e., the first time fetal movement is felt) did not pose a particular ethical concern. In Ireland, Pauline Jackson’s work has shown that abortion, and historically infanticide, have long been a central experience in the lives of women.

To understand how reproductive rights became so embroiled in medical and legal discourse, it helps to briefly examine a history of abortion or, more accurately, a history of its regulation. One of the earliest Western examples of its criminalization was in parts of the US in the 1820s. Elizabeth Kissling explains how criminalization was implemented in order ‘to protect women from being poisoned by dangerous abortifacient drugs sold by unscrupulous vendors’, and not to protect the fetus. It was only in the late 1800s and early 1900s that people, mostly male doctors, began to object for other reasons. Beverly Thompson believes this was part of their own professionalization, as they sought to discredit and ultimately criminalize female midwives and healers.

Abortion became illegal in Ireland in 1861 as part of the United Kingdom and Great Britain’s Offences Against the Person Act. But while abortion might not have been talked about much in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it was happening. Some doctors were quietly terminating pregnancies when this would save a woman’s life. We also had our own network of back-street abortionists and many hundreds, if not thousands, of women tried to induce a miscarriage in their homes. According to research by Cara Delay, they didn’t resort to wire hangers or crochet needles as is commonly perceived; rather, they tried physical harm methods, engaging in extreme manual labor or ingesting purgatives or pills, so they would be less likely to end up in hospital which could alert the Gardai (police). It would be the 1960s and 1970s before legal tides would move in the opposite direction. The UK Abortion Act of 1967 was one of the first laws passed, although this did not extend to Northern Ireland. And so began a steady stream of women travelling in their thousands each year. Sheldon and Wellings describe this act as ‘a product of the moral climate and clinical realities of the 1960s, when widespread backstreet abortions resulted in significant maternal mortality and morbidity’.

Although it took some activists by surprise when Together for Yes adopted a liberal, medicalized approach as their campaign message, historically speaking this wasn’t unusual. Doctors were central to the legalization of abortion in the UK. It made sense to consult them. Abortion was a much riskier surgical procedure in the is today, and a person needed to recuperate afterwards. However, at the same time as the Abortion Act was being debated, doctors were quite separately emerging as an elite profession. The influential social critic Ivan Illich believes their capacities were over-hyped as part of the industrialization of health care; a process where its prime interest would become profitability. According to Sally Macintyre, public statements by British doctors, both for and against abortion ‘were not based on “clinical medical grounds” but on political, moral and quasi-sociological grounds concerning which, it can be argued, the medical profession has no more competence to be heard than other members of the community’.

There were feminist voices too, most prominently the Abortion Law Reform Association (ALRA), which was backed by the National Council of Women, the Women’s Cooperative Guild and the Family Planning Association. These second-wave feminists asked important questions about patriarchy and exposed the dire circumstances of women living on low incomes who were caring for multiple children in poor housing and often with violent husbands. But most ALRA members were of ‘the professional, middle classes’, as were the women they represented. They were less impacted by socio-economic factors that may lead a person to end their pregnancy. Their conditions also meant they trusted in institutions that not only mirrored but maintained their social status and were less reticent about giving control to doctors. It would be 1970 before an autonomous British left-wing, consciousness-raising movement convened at a Women’s Liberation Conference at Ruskin College in Oxford. Dorothy McBride Stetson describes how this more radical group criticized the central role the medical profession had been given, and demanded free abortion and contraception. But the die had been cast in the Abortion Act 1967, a legal framework that cemented the belief that abortion must be sanctioned by doctors and would be a criminal offence when performed outside of legally defined circumstances. History would repeat itself in the US, when state-wide laws were introduced in response to the US Supreme Court 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade. There were already laws in some states and opposition had been building in what Kissling describes as a professional network of doctors from which ‘Pro-life’ campaigns could be organized. Although these groups shrouded themselves in medical arguments on when life begins, she argues ‘From the vantage point of the twenty-first century, racist and anti-feminist messages are easy to read in some early anti- abortion campaigns.’ These fledgling anti-abortionists were heavily supported by the Catholic Church, despite Alesha Doan pointing out how leaders from Jewish and Protestant orthodoxies supported actions to direct women to safe, legal services. In the end, it was determined the decision could only be trusted alongside expert medical guidance, something the anti-abortion movement lobbied hard for.

Once again, feminist voices such as the Society for Humane Abortion (est. 1961) worked tirelessly to educate the public on abortion rights and which would evolve into NARAL pro-choice America. There were radical voices too such as the Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse (or CARASA, est. 1974), a multi-ethnic, mostly Latino coalition that challenged feminists who defended abortion as a single-issue campaign. Elena Gutiérrez explains how CARASA argued low-income and working-class women could not secure reproductive rights, demanding decent pay, welfare rights and subsidized childcare as a prerequisite to reproductive freedom.

From rights to justice

What CARASA were modelling was an approach that turns an individualistic perspective on its head and argues against a pro-choice/pro-life dichotomy where those against argue the rights of ‘the unborn’ should supersede that of physical autonomy, and those for seek to protect a person’s bodily autonomy. This individualist pro-choice perspective can, at a glance, seem unproblematic. Our bodies are our own and the right to exercise personal sovereignty trumps the rights of a falsely personified ‘unborn’. The Eighth Amendment violated this right, and the law needed to be changed. As one canvasser put it ‘Reproductive rights and bodily autonomy are fundamental principles … and I want to fight for them in every way that I can.’ But there are problems with this singular approach that not only ascribes substantial authority to the medical and legal professions, but it also ignores the challenges millions of people face in securing their human rights and well-being.

A reproductive justice perspective merges ‘reproductive rights’ with ‘social justice’, and moves the pendulum far beyond the right to safe legal abortion. Laws are fundamentally important, but they don’t address the factors that can make a person vulnerable to pressures that influence reproductive decisions, such as financial poverty, access to contraception, multiple care responsibilities, the violence and coercion they endure, or their precarious migration, work, or housing status. A Reproductive Justice Framework was first formulated in the US by a group of black women who came together in 1994, calling themselves ‘Women of African Descent for Reproductive Justice’. They were tired of liberal feminism’s failure to take note of the situations working-class women of color were regularly facing, and sought a much broader interpretation of reproductive health care and well-being. Some of the women involved went on to establish SisterSong, a feminist collective that is still synonymous with reproductive justice.

In her manifesto for activism, SisterSong co-founder Loretta Ross outlines three core principles at the heart of a reproductive justice approach: the right not to have children through birth control, abortion or abstinence; the right to have children under the conditions we choose, and the right to parent in safe, healthy environments, all alongside sexual autonomy and gender freedom. A Reproductive Justice Framework typically draws a distinction between reproductive health services including sex education; reproductive rights which relates to laws that prevent or support access to reproductive health, and reproductive justice – which refers to a much broader movement that illustrates fundamental and consolidative structures such as social class, migrant background, dis/ability, ethnicity, and/or sexual orientation. These intersecting features overlap and combine to create very different experiences for people. Loretta Ross, Lynn Roberts, Erika Derkas, Whitney Peoples and Pamela Bridgewater Toure are clear about the fact that this justice-based framework accounts for other social oppressions as well as race. They equally alert us to ‘the misappropriation and co-optation of RJ by those who ignore the realities of abuses of power and institutionalized inequality that circumscribe the reproductive experiences of vulnerable people’.

These are the ideas that underpin this book that, across eight chapters, reclaims a tremendous victory for Ireland’s grassroots reproductive rights movement. The canvassers you will meet were not the center of attention in Dublin Castle, but they take the stage here as I draw lessons from the highs and lows of the campaign and frustrations with the political establishment’s failure to honor the spirit of the 2018 result. I also draw from interviews with key pro-repeal activists and other stakeholders. Their voices are blended with secondary research, my own experience as a pro-repeal activist and my analyses as a critical feminist researcher. To begin, I will address the extent to which reproductive rights continue to be violated in Ireland, not just in access to abortion, but along the much wider continuum a reproductive justice model entails.

This is an excerpt from Repealed: Ireland’s Unfinished Fight for Reproductive Rights by Camilla Fitzsimons with Sinéad Kennedy, available now from Pluto Books.

Click here to read a conversation between Camilla Fitzsimons and Amalie Thieden about the lessons of Repealed and why the fight for free abortion still isn’t over in Ireland.  

Camilla Fitzsimons is an activist and a member of the Dublin West Pro Choice group. She works at Maynooth University and  is the author of Community Education and Neoliberalism.

Sinéad Kennedy is the co-founder of The Coalition to Repeal the Eighth and an executive member of Together for Yes. She works at Maynooth University and is the co-editor of The Abortion Papers, Ireland.