At 10am on a brisk Spring sunday, about 100 Irish women, and a handful of men gathered at London’s Hyde Park Corner for what felt like something historic.
The London-Irish Abortion Rights campaign was to march in the St Patrick’s Day parade for the first time.
Abortion rights are on the agenda in Ireland. Possible future Taoiseach Leo Varadkar recently said that a referendum on the controversial eighth amendment to the Irish constitution could take place in 2018.
The eighth amendment, introduced after a campaign by the religious right in the early 80s, is worded as follows: “The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.”
This is effectively a ban on abortion. But that does not mean Irish women do not have terminations. The Irish government effectively outsources abortion: there is a poignancy to Irish women marching for abortion rights in London, when London is the place where most Irish women who need a termination travel to in order to gain access to one (there have been attempts to legally stop women travelling for abortions) .
At a recent Irish citizen’s assembly meeting on the topic of abortion, one woman testified to having to go to a loan shark to pay for the flight to Britain for the procedure.
The current abortion rights campaign can take some confidence from the 2015 referendum that legalised equal marriage in Ireland: certainly, opponents will attempt to cast reproductive rights advocates in the same way they did gay rights supporters – metropolitan hipsters out of touch with the real Ireland, where people still go to mass and full-fat milk with their dinner.
The results of the equal marriage referendum, though, showed little of an urban/rural divide, with only one constituency in the whole country voting no.
But it must be acknowledged that abortion is a much more difficult sell: many who have rejected the church’s power to moralise will still remain squeamish about the physical facts of termination. Many women are still reluctant to talk about their experiences of abortion, and when they do, the narrative presented is often one of tragedy or sadness rather than medical procedure.
Writing in the New Statesman on St Patrick’s Day, Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin confidently predicted that the Irish mainstream will soon want to be part of the “new, progressive, compassionate Ireland” being built by abortion rights campaigners. I share her hope, if not her confidence. It is likely that conservatives internationally will pour far more money and resources into an Irish abortion referendum than they did the equal marriage campaign, and one can be certain that the Vatican will be ready to pull out all the stops should a referendum be announced.
But one of the more remarkable things about the reception afforded to mostly young abortion rights campaigners in London yesterday was the warm applause from many middle-aged women, who it would be too easy to characterise as simply a pious older generation, but who have experienced more than anyone the restrictions that Ireland has placed on the lives of women. It could be they, in Ireland and abroad, who hold the key to to reproductive rights for generations to come.
The London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign hosts Stand Up For Choice, a comedy fundraiser, at the London Irish Centre on 28 March