In the campaign to repeal some of the strictest abortion laws in the world, we hear how trans, migrant, and disabled communities find their space
‘Ireland Unfree’ is a Dazed mini-series telling the stories of Ireland’s bold fight for abortion rights, in the run up to the monumental referendum on the eighth amendment. Stirring protest, creativity, personal politics, and vital conversation, these Irish people push for autonomy. Here, we share their journey on Dazed.
This May, after decades of campaigning, the Irish people will finally have the right to vote in a referendum to repeal the eighth amendment – the passage in our constitution which for 35 years has prevented abortion on our island.
Abortion is more than just a singular women’s issue – in fact, the upcoming referendum in Ireland is perhaps one of the most intersectional issues the country faces. Abortion affects disabled people, trans people, and migrant people in uniquely challenging ways, specifically because of the way that Ireland’s unusual laws limit their medical freedoms.
I spoke to Emily Waszak, co-founder of MERJ (Migrants and Ethnic Minorities for Reproductive Justice), a group which campaigns against the eighth amendment.
“Migrants are disproportionately affected by the eighth amendment”, Emily tells Dazed. “While the 13th amendment gives abortion seekers in Ireland the right to travel to another jurisdiction to obtain a legal abortion, asylum seekers and undocumented migrants are not able to travel. These documents can take weeks or even months to be processed and abortion is time sensitive. We know that because of job discrimination, migrants and ethnic minorities often work low paid, precarious jobs, so they might not be able to take time off work or afford to travel.”
Ireland still operates a system called direct provision, whereby asylum seekers who arrive in the country are housed in cramped accommodation centres. While in DP, asylum seekers receive only 21.60 euro a week and are prohibited from seeking jobs. Amnesty International has expressed concerns about the “poor living conditions” in these centres.
“Imagine having a crisis pregnancy in Direct Provision”, Emily points out. “You have no privacy – you might be sharing a room with strangers or your children, sharing a toilet and you have to keep it a secret or risk deportation back to a country you have just fled.”
Restriction on travel means that being pregnant in Ireland is a unique challenge for migrants, who can’t access the one escape route offered to Irish women and people who can get pregnant. For trans people in Ireland, being pregnant also poses a unique challenge, albeit in a very different way. I spoke to Aoife Martin, the convenor of Trans4Repeal, who tells me; “The eighth amendment affects all people who were Assigned Female at Birth (AFAB) and might now have a different gender identity. If, for example, a trans man needs to travel for an abortion then he might also have to deal with issues surrounding name changes and documentation. For example, his passport might be in his deadname, or he may look completely different now to his passport photo.”
“We’ve been given a platform in Together for Yes that we didn’t have before” – Evie Nevin, Disabled People Together for Yes
Jamie Howell is a 21–year old–trans man who lives in Dublin and has marched against the eighth amendment. He tells me that being pregnant can be uniquely traumatic for a trans person. “Because of the dysphoria I experience with my body not quite lining up with my gender identity, becoming pregnant would increase that dysphoria and my mental health would plummet. Trans men who are on hormones would more than likely have to come off them if they were pregnant, because the eighth amendment prevents any treatment that can risk the life of the foetus”, he explains.
The additional trauma Jamie describes is something not many people take into account when considering abortion. Evie Nevin can understand hidden trauma. She has a disability called Ehlers Danlos syndrome – a rare disorder which means she is prone to dislocated joints and haemorrhaging. Because of her pelvis dislocating during her first two pregnancies, she is now a part-time wheelchair user. Her doctors say if she gave birth again, they might not be able to stop the bleeding.
Evie set up Disabled People Together for Yes to campaign against the eighth amendment and centre disabled voices in the debate. “We’re disproportionately affected by the eighth amendment because a lot of us cannot travel, we have mobility issues, and a lot of us live in poverty because our disabilities mean that we’re unable to work, so the cost of travel is an issue,” Evie says. “Ireland has the largest deprivation gap between able-bodied and disabled people. The Disability Allowance is only about 200 euro a week so the idea of having to save money to travel abroad and pay for abortion is next to impossible. It takes longer to save so we have to opt for later abortions, and as time goes on, costs grow because you’d need surgical abortion instead, so risks grow as well and it’s much more traumatic.”
Evie also explains how having rare medical concerns associated with your disability, like she does, means that having to leave your doctors at home poses its own risks. “If you have to travel, there’s a lack of continuity of care. Irish doctors are forbidden from communicating with foreign abortion providers, so they have no access to your medical history, even with surgery. They can’t find out about allergies to antibiotics or anaesthetic. For people with intellectual disabilities, they might not be able to pass on this information themselves.”
Repealing the eighth amendment is clearly a deeply intersectional issue. When Ireland’s unusually harsh restrictions meet the specific oppressions of disability, displacement, or different gender identities, unique challenges arise. The abortion rights campaigners in Ireland are making concerted efforts to represent these unique challenges and to run an inclusive campaign. What Evie, Aoife, and Emily all have in common is that they are all organisers of campaigning groups which form part of Together for Yes, a huge umbrella group consisting of more than 70 organisations.
One of the main problems faced by all three groups is not feeling heard. Evie describes speaking at an event where a trans speaker stood up and said; “Nobody is talking about us”, to which Evie replied; “I know exactly how you feel”. Emily from MERJ echoes these sentiments, saying; “We do not see ourselves and our voices reflected”.
Together For Yes (T4Y) and other large campaigning groups in Ireland like the Abortion Rights Campaign (ARC) are doing their utmost to bring inclusivity to the conversation around the eighth. Evie describes how she has worked with the main T4Y campaign to bring the voices of disabled people to the fore in the discussion. She has spoken at their International Women’s Day march in Dublin, has travelled to speak to local groups around the country and spoken at a joint event run by Inclusion Ireland (a group campaigning for people with intellectual disabilities) and T4Y.
“Because of the dysphoria I experience with my body not quite lining up with my gender identity, becoming pregnant would increase that dysphoria and my mental health would plummet” – Jamie Howell
“We’ve been given a platform in Together for Yes that we didn’t have before. The whole conversation around disabilities and the eighth so far has been about eugenics, and people on the anti-choice side have been speaking for us”, Evie tells me. The anti-choice lobby in Ireland has repeatedly used Down syndrome in their campaigns to argue against abortion access. “But we can speak for ourselves. Together for Yes have let us speak for ourselves.”
MERJ has also been working with the larger T4Y and ARC groups. “We have spoken at ARC’s March for Choice, the International Women's Day march and various launches”, Emily says. “We have worked with ARC on our Talking About the 8th workshop and they have been very generous with us by giving us meeting space. We also delivered an inclusivity workshop at their EGM.” Trans4Yes have had similar involvement with the wider movement, speaking recently at an event about why the eighth is an LGBT issue.
The effort to ensure minority voices are heard in Ireland’s abortion debate needs to be a collaborative effort, and it seems champions like Evie, Emily, and Aoife are succeeding in making their voices heard with the help of their sisters. For the three co-directors of Together For Yes, Orla O’Connor, Ailbhe Smyth, and Grainne Griffin, inclusivity is one of their core aims. “In the campaign we highlight harm the 8th amendment causes to so many diverse groups of people, and the additional barriers that people face”, they conclude.