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Book Review Ireland abortion rights struggle goes on

There are lessons to be drawn more widely, reflecting on the strengths of bottom-up campaigning for social change, writes MARJORIE MAYO

Repealed: Ireland’s Unfinished Fight for Reproductive Rights
by Camilla Fitzsimons with Sinead Kennedy
Pluto Press, £16.99

REPRODUCTIVE rights need to be defended more urgently than ever, given the pushbacks that are being experienced — and struggled against — currently.

Texas is far from being the only place where women’s reproductive rights are under threat, as this timely publication reminds us.

This is the story of grassroots activism in Ireland, mobilising to repeal the Eighth Amendment, imposed in 1983, a constitutional ban that made it virtually impossible for a woman to access an abortion legally.  

It took activists 35 years of struggle before they succeeded in achieving its repeal in 2018.

This is a powerful account of their campaign, organised with awe inspiring energy and determination from the bottom up — although politicians did not hesitate to jump on the bandwagon later on, once they could see that a successful outcome was in sight.

Repealed starts from the context of Ireland’s dark history of injustices against women, including the truly scandalous treatment of women who became pregnant outside marriage — in the Magdalene laundries and other such institutions.  

In the 1970s Irish feminists had challenged patriarchal restrictions on women’s reproductive rights, only to experience a period of backlash in the 1980s, when the Eighth Amendment was passed.

Socialist feminists continued to campaign, but it was only in more recent times that they succeeded in rebuilding a broad coalition, in response.  

Drawing on Irish experiences of successfully campaigning on other issues, including same-sex marriage, activists focused on winning support in their communities, knocking on doors, persuading people to vote for repeal, when a referendum was finally organised in 2018.  

Repealed describes this amazing campaign as activists experienced it themselves, the highs as well as the challenges.

The author pays tribute to activists’ extraordinary dedication and dynamism. She also recognises the importance of building such a powerful coalition, bringing different groups together under one umbrella,

Together For Yes — all without losing groups’ own identities in the process. There are campaigning lessons here for wider dissemination.

But there are lessons too from the campaign’s inherent tensions. There were trade-offs to be made in order to keep these different elements on board.

These included limitations on whose voices were actually being heard — disproportionately white middle-class women and professionals rather than working-class women, migrants, Travellers and women of colour.  

And there were, in addition, limitations on the extent to which demands could be located within a wider, more overtly political, social justice agenda.  

There were also personal costs — incurred by individual activists. Many reported feeling burnt-out after such an intensive campaign –—particularly women who were trying to care for their families while maintaining such extraordinary levels of commitment.

Much was achieved with the repeal of the Eighth Amendment, the author concludes. But much remained to be fought for, as Repealed reflects as well.

Irish legislation is still very limited, some of the most limited in the EU. Women still travel abroad for abortion and services are still very inadequate.  

Ireland does still have a vibrant movement, though, which is continuing to fight for women’s reproductive rights.

Morning Star readers will find plenty of food for thought here. There are lessons to be drawn more widely, reflecting on the strengths of bottom-up campaigning for social change.

And there are lessons to be learnt about the potential tensions inherent within broadly based coalitions, however necessary these may be for the achievement of specific social reforms. How to link these into wider movements for the longer-term?

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