Protesting for choice – a lesson from history

In recent months the abortion debate in Ireland seems to have gathered momentum and pressure on the government has been growing to call a referendum to repeal the 8th Amendment of the Irish Constitution, the amendment which gives equal status to the rights of the mother and the unborn.

In an attempt to break the stigma surrounding abortion, many Irish women have been sharing their abortion stories publicly, amongst them Irish Times columnist and writer Róisín Ingle, as well as actress and comedian Tara Flynn. In addition to that over 200 Irish artists signed a statement urging the Irish government to repeal the 8th Amendment, a campaign that still continues and so far has gathered more than 1,700 signatories.

Comedian Grainne Maguire chose a slightly different form of protest for her ‘Repeal the 8th’ campaign. Using the logic that the Irish government makes women’s bodies their business, she sent tweets about her period to Taoiseach Enda Kenny. I joined her in her protest and so did many other women in Ireland. We’ll probably never find out what Enda made of it.

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The current protests against Ireland’s abortion laws reminded me of similar movements for women’s reproductive rights, which took place in Germany and France over fourty years ago. 1971 was the year when French and German women’s rights activists intensified their campaigns to make abortion legal in their respective countries.

In April 1971 the French newspaper Le nouvel Observateur published the Manifesto of the 343, signed by women who admitted to having an abortion. Amongst them were well known public figures such as actress Catherine Deneuve and writer Simone de Beauvoir.

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This protest inspired German activists to put together their own manifesto, gathering 374 signatures which were published in the magazine Stern in June 1971 under the headline ‘We had an abortion!’. The campaign was supported by well known actresses Romy Schneider and Senta Berger, as well as famous fashion model Veruschka von Lehndorff, who all signed the manifesto.

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Publicly admitting to what was then a criminal act, caused much stirr in both countries and certainly contributed to pressurising their governments into taking action in the matter. France legalised abortion in 1975 and Germany followed suit in 1976.

It is clear to me, that the protests and campaigns in Ireland need to continue and even increase so that the Irish government will finally be forced to give up its reluctance and inactivity on the matter. Cases as that of Savita Halappanavar have shown that current legislation is putting the lives of women in Ireland at risk.

There are many abortion stories that will go unheard. Those are the stories of women with less privilege, women whose only option is to google abortion methods, women who drink bleach or throw themselves down the stairs in the desperate hope of inducing a miscarriage. For all those unheard voices we need to shout all the louder and demand the change that has been long overdue.

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