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March for choice

Thousands march to end Ireland’s archaic abortion laws

March for Choice rallies took place in London and Dublin at the weekend – protesters tell Dazed why free, safe, legal abortion care is vital in 2017

“Repeal the 8th, for women’s sake. It shouldn’t be this hard.”

This is the final line of Eva O’Connor’s poem ‘It Shouldn’t Be This Hard’, an emotional account of an Irish woman’s journey to Britain for an abortion which provided the soundtrack for Saturday’s solidarity action with the 2017 March for Choice. The poem refers to the Eighth Amendment of the Irish Constitution, which makes abortion illegal in almost all cases, whilst thousands of Irish women every year make secret, silent journeys to England and beyond.

Saturday’s protest, organised by the London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign made visible the sheer volume of Irish women who make that journey – 11 every day, and over 205,000 since 1983. The action was a show of solidarity on the same day as the 2017 March for Choice in Dublin which saw 40,000 people take to the streets to demand access to abortion.

In London, the hundreds of attendees used chalk to mark the pavement outside the Embassy, with one mark for each of the 205,704 people from the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland who’ve had abortions in England and Wales since 1983. These figures, from the U.K. Department of Health, represent only the minimum number of those who’ve travelled, as many women do not feel comfortable giving an Irish address, while thousands more risk prosecution by taking illegal abortion medication at home.

Maeve O’Reilly, volunteer with the London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaigners and one of the organisers of the protest said “We chose to physically mark the pavement with 205,704 lines of chalk to make this huge number less abstract and make these often silent and secret journeys visible. With 11 travelling every day, this number is only growing bigger.”

The chalk markings stretched all the way down the street, and attendees quietly added to the total whilst a selection of poems and essays, including O’Connor’s were read in front of the Embassy steps. Sophie Walker, of the Women’s Equality Party spoke about the need for British people to show solidarity to those on the other side of the Irish Sea, and this sentiment was reflected by those who attended - many of whom had no family or personal connection to Ireland.

“We want to show the Irish and Northern Irish governments that they cannot ignore this any longer”

Sarah from London came to the protest with a group of friends. “I think it’s ridiculous – I have Irish friends and I find it beserk that we don’t have the same rights. I’ve had an abortion myself and I feel that it’s particularly important cause – I don’t know what I would have done if I’d been in Ireland.”

Last week, the Irish government confirmed that a referendum on the Eighth Amendment would be held in the late spring of next year, but no specific date has emerged. The wording of the referendum question has also not been confirmed, which concerns some activists who fear that the poll might include replacing the amendment with a clause which would restrict abortion access to pregnancies resulting from rape.

Ronan from Kilcock in County Kildare was highly critical of the Irish government’s position on abortion rights. “The 8th is a completely redundant law – having bodily autonomy is so important and it’s ridiculous that the state gets involved in that. They’re also turning a blind eye to the fact that it happens, just because it’s not on our soil.”

The London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign have been working hard for the past year to raise awareness of Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws in Britain, and the event attracted a significant media presence. O’Reilly was hopeful that actions like theirs, which sought to highlight the scale of abortions for Irish women would impact the conversation, and “that people will see that abortion is already happening. It’s just not happening in Ireland.”

The emotional significance of the event was clear – O’Connor’s poem, which she read at the protest, seemed to capture the anger and frustration felt by many in the crowd and several of the attendees said they were moved to tears by her performance. Those campaigning for choice in Dublin face a challenging and divisive referendum campaign, whilst activists in Northern Ireland, where the 1967 Abortion Act was never extended must continue to press for abortion access despite a disappointing lack of progress in Stormont.

However, the message of solidarity from those in London was clear, and powerful. “We want to tell these women that we see them and we support them, and we want to show the Irish and Northern Irish governments that they cannot ignore this any longer.”