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Dublin Marching for Savita

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“The first thing I feel I should emphasise is the sheer numbers of people who turned out.”

Guest post by Orlagh Ni Léid, Alliance for Choice, Belfast

I am a pro-choice activist based in Belfast and I travelled to Dublin on Saturday 17 November for the march which both commemorated Savita Halappanavar’s death and demanded a change to Ireland’s 150 year old abortion laws.

The first thing I feel I should emphasise is the sheer numbers of people who turned out.

Estimated at 20,000 strong, for a pro-choice march in Ireland this is astounding.

Men, women and children of all ages, and all backgrounds were out in force.

But, in contrast to the celebratory atmosphere of the March for Choice in Dublin in September, the atmosphere on Saturday was one of grief, shame and anger.

That in this country, women could be dehumanised to the extent that an already dying, insentient foetus, and a superstitious and nonsensical focus on its heartbeat, could take priority over our health and lives is tragic.

In this case Savita’s husband was brave enough to speak out – but how many have gone before?

As shameful as this news is, in a way it is also a relief.

A conversation has been sparked nationally, and international attention has now been drawn to the situation in Ireland.

It is once again highlighting the danger of religion influencing politics, and religious and political interference in health care, for all to see.

My own feelings are dominated by anger at the sheer indignity and sexism of a law that essentially sees women as a means to an end – as a life support system for a foetus first – and as people second.

Even calls to make the most basic provisions to protect women have been wilfully ignored by our government.

The supreme court ruled in 1992 (following the X case) that we have a right to an abortion when our lives are at risk; but 20 years later the government has still failed to put forward clear guidelines to allow this ruling to take effect.

As Clare Daly, of the United Left Alliance and one of our speakers, said, what Savita suffered was ‘death by political cowardice’.

In Ireland, the opposition to abortion in all instances is fruit from the same tree as the child abuse, the Magdalene Laundries (which existed until 1996), the opposition to divorce (illegal until 1997) and contraception (illegal until 1980).

Similarly, the stance the church takes against abortion is born of control, sexual repression, and misogyny; in particular the attitude that pregnancy, childbirth and suffering are prices that women should pay for having sex.

Along the march route on Saturday we were reminded of these influences by several elderly male protestors, telling us we were marching into hell and holding up a plastic foetus.

While in previous events protesters would simply have swept past them, this time there was anger and confrontation.

But we also received huge support along the route.

And we chanted, we lit candles, and when we reached the Dáil a one minute silence was held, synchronised with other vigils all around the country.

The crowd was then addressed by several speakers, who made our message clear.

The campaign, now titled ‘Savita’s laws’, first seeks emergency legislation to be put in place to protect women’s lives, with weekly protests to keep pressure on the government.

However, as was pointed out, this is not enough.

It may not even have been enough for Savita.

Apart from the difficulties this presents to doctors as they weigh up potential outcomes, it is simply not good enough for a woman to have to be dying before she is entitled to help, nor is it acceptable for any woman to be forced to continue any pregnancy against her wishes.

Savita repeatedly requested a termination, while in agony during a protracted miscarriage and she was repeatedly denied one.

Even without her death this was inhumane.

For this reason the campaign is also seeking to eliminate both the 1861 ‘Offences Against the Person Act’ and the eighth amendment from the Irish Constitution which establishes the ‘right to life’ of the unborn, endangering and insulting the dignity of women – especially those who are too poor or sick to travel to seek help.

Being there on Saturday truly felt like being a part of a turning point in history for Ireland.

And the determination was palpable.

Some protesters I spoke to were pro-choice activist veterans, while others were new to the cause, either stirred into action by Savita’s death or the several events over the past months leading up to this tragic climax.

These events include the billboard campaign by ‘Youth Defence’ in the Republic and the ‘All Ireland Rally for Life’ held in Belfast, which both sparked protests, and the recent opening of the Marie Stopes Clinic in Belfast* which has received huge media attention, and both criticism and support.

I think the time when anti-choice groups, North and South, could claim that women are not at risk and that the people of Ireland ‘don’t want abortion’ is at an end.

The pro-choice campaign has now shifted from purely defensive events, such as counter demos, to holding our own marches, rallies and street stalls, which shows we have clear – and considerable – support.

This must serve as yet another warning of what happens when religion and politics mix.

Women must come before ideology.

And we have never been more determined to drag Ireland into the 21st Century.

To watch a video of the march click here.

 

*The UK 1967 Abortion Act does not apply to Northern Ireland. While abortion is technically legal in Northern Ireland when the physical or mental health of the woman is at serious risk, in practice it is just as restrictive as the Republic. 

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