#10thdss: Intersectionality and the Irish abortion rights campaign of 2018


I am privileged to be currently pursuing a PhD at the Centre for Disability Law & Policy, NUI Galway, in the area of intellectual disability rights and participation in public and political life. I am also involved as an activist for reproductive rights with Tipp for Choice, a member of the Abortion Rights Campaign.  The following is a transcript of a talk I gave at the 10th International Disability Law Summer School at the Centre for Disability Law & Policy, NUI Galway. The theme of the Summer School this year was intersectionality.  I was somewhat dazzled to be sharing a panel with Stefanie Ortoleva, President of Women Enabled International, and Professor Siobhan Mullally, Director of the Irish Centre for Human Rights, chaired by Andrea Parra of CREA. I am indebted to my supervisor Eilionoir Flynn and my friend and mentor Maria Laura Serra for their trust and generosity in allowing me to be part of this event. I am also grateful to everyone mentioned in this talk. I have learned so much of what I know about activism, intersectionality and solidarity from your example.

Transcript: 10th International Disability Law Summer School, Thursday 21st June 2018

Intersectionality and the Irish abortion rights campaign of 2018

Good afternoon! My name is Emma Burns. I am a PhD student here at the Centre for Disability Law and Policy. My topic is concerned with the right of people with intellectual disabilities to participate in public and political life, with a particular focus on the Irish self-advocacy movement. However, this is not why I am speaking to you today, I am here to speak more from my position as an activist in the recent referendum campaign on abortion rights. I am one of the co-conveners of the group Tipp for Choice, a grassroots group established in 2014 to campaign for access to abortion in Ireland. For those of you not familiar with rural Ireland, Tipperary has traditionally been one of the three most conservative constituencies in Ireland. Yes, in 2015 we voted yes to the Marriage Referendum, by 55.4% to 44.6%, but no one in our campaign really believed that we could achieve a similar result on abortion rights. I am very happy to say we were wrong.

We have heard already today from Suzy [Byrne] and Evie [Nevin] about the experiences of disabled women in building inclusive campaigns and we’ve heard about disability rights and abortion from Stefanie [Ortleva] and Siobhan [Mullally]. I will trace again the intersection of disability with abortion using the recent campaign as a case study, then bring us back briefly to the concept of intersectionality, explain how it informed our work, and talk a little about the gaps that remain when the work is done. The work is never done.

So we have a timeline here with some points of interest to our discussion of disability and abortion rights, just to give you a little bit of context.

1983 – Referendum on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution was passed. Prochoice campaigners warned that human rights abuses would follow, but their warnings went unheeded. Later that same year, a woman called Sheila Hodgers became pregnant while she had breast cancer. Her cancer treatment was stopped by the hospital which claimed it would harm the pregnancy. She was denied x-rays and pain relief. She gave birth two months prematurely, her baby died almost immediately after birth. Sheila died two days later.

1992 – We had the X case – the Supreme Court ruled that a 14 year old girl who became pregnant as a result of rape, faced a real and substantial risk to her life due to threat of suicide and could access abortion in Ireland because her life was at risk.

1997 – Miss C case: a 13 year old girl was raped and became pregnant. She was taken into care by the state and requested an abortion. The Health Board arranged to bring her abroad but C’s parents challenged the order. Her health deteriorated, she became suicidal, she was entitled to an abortion in Ireland by virtue of the X Case.

2006 – Ms D argued that Ireland’s ban on abortion in the case of fatal foetal anomalies violated her rights under Articles 1, 3, 8, 20, 13 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Her case was ruled inadmissible because the case did not go through the Irish Courts.

2007 –Another Miss D, this time a 17-year-old in state care, found out her pregnancy was affected by anencephaly. She wanted an abortion. She refused to say she was suicidal and instead decided to go abroad to access abortion. The Health Service Executive intervened and tried to have her arrested if she tried to leave the state, and tried to have her passport revoked. It was ruled that she had the right to travel.

2010: A, B and C v Ireland, the Grand Chamber of the ECtHR unanimously rules that Ireland’s failure to implement the existing constitutional right to a lawful abortion when a woman’s life is at risk violates Applicants C’s rights under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Court also ruled that the three women challenging Ireland’s ban on abortion did not have an effective remedy available to them under the Irish legal system in theory or in practice.

2014: A young migrant woman, known as Ms Y, who was pregnant as a result of rape, sought an abortion on grounds of suicide under the 2013 Act but was subsequently delivered of her baby by caesarean section, having been subject to forced feeding and hydration when she went on hunger strike.

2014: Ms PP – A woman was declared brain-dead but clinicians felt they could not withdraw life support because of uncertainty over the constitutional status of the foetus. She was kept alive for 3 weeks.

2016: The UN Human Rights Committee found that Ireland’s abortion laws violated Amanda Mellet’s right to freedom from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, as well as her right to privacy.

2017 – A teenage girl seeking an abortion due to risk of suicide was involuntarily detained under Section 25 of the Mental Health Act 2001 on the evidence of a consultant psychiatrist who reported that the child had a mental health disorder that could be managed by treatment, and that a termination of the pregnancy was “not the solution for all of the child’s problems at that time”. Following the employment of a guardian ad litem and assessment by another consultant psychiatrist, the Court discharged the Order detaining the girl.

This funeral march of death and injury has become known as the Alphabet of Oppression. The high profile cases that have pushed public consciousness forward and ignited grassroots activists to push for reform have predominantly concerned women and girls in precarious situations – there has been a threat to their physical or psychological well-being, they have been driven to psychological distress by the state, they have been migrant women or women of colour, they have received a diagnosis of fatal anomaly, they live in confinement, they are children, or they have been subject to violence and rape. For the most part, these are not wealthy, middle-class Irish people. They are people without power or representation, they are people constrained by their status in society, by their circumstances. They are the people who have fallen through the cracks.

Grassroots organisations emerge to fill the gaps left by ineffective political leaders and legislators who fail to promote human rights. There has long been resistance and protest in Ireland against restrictions on women’s access to abortion, but it did not truly catch fire until the death of Savita Halappanavar, a young Indian woman, in Galway in 2012. Her story resounded with ordinary people. Video footage emerged of her dancing just a few weeks earlier. She was young, vital, beautiful. She was happy to be pregnant. Then it all went wrong and she suffered an inevitable miscarriage. She needed interventions, but because there was a fetal heartbeat, she received no aid. She was told this was because Ireland is a Catholic country. She died of sepsis. There was a feeling that what happened to her could have happened to any one of us. People began to attend candle-lit vigils for her, began to talk, began to organise.

Around this time the Abortion Rights Campaign (ARC) was formed. As I said, other groups had been active before this, and there were certainly individual political representatives who strongly pursued the removal of the abortion ban, but ARC appeared at a crucial moment. There was anger and shame and momentum for change. ARC reached out to the small informal groups that were forming all over the country and built alliances and membership by offering facilitation and support. ARC was founded within an explicitly intersectional framing of abortion rights. This from their own mission statement:
“ARC aspires to be inclusive and representative of the varied groups of people affected by Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws. We believe this requires a particular focus on those groups that are disproportionately affected by these laws including women who are marginalised by poverty, racism, immigration status and disability”.

At this time, much of their focus around disability was on making the campaign itself accessible. Meetings were held in accessible venues. Time was spent making documents accessible. No doubt some of the members were themselves women with disabilities. Disabled women were invited to speak at the annual march and the march itself was made accessible. Outreach was happening, but it was slow.

It was not until Suzy spoke out in the national media that she felt that ‘both sides in the debate were abusing people with disabilities’ that the work began to move beyond tokenism. ARC wanted to start with co-authoring some myth-busting blog posts with disabled women to counter the ableist propaganda being used by the No campaign. A private google group was set up and women with disabilities were invited to come on board to liaise with ARC for the initial stages. We produced the blogs, which were useful enough, but they did not do enough to address the harmful discourse that was emerging around disability in the referendum campaign.

Every mention of disability related to prenatal screening and children. Prochoice spokespersons often displayed ignorance of the concerns of disabled people, or worse, revealed embedded ableism in their framing of disability rights in the abortion rights campaign. Disabled women were still invisible as sexual citizens with intimate and personal relationships, with families, with the same potential to experience crisis pregnancies as non-disabled women. Disabled women as rights-holders were largely missing from the debate.

The group that had come together to contribute to the ARC blogs decided to establish themselves as a distinct group – People with Disabilities For Repeal. This happened parallel to Evie’s establishment of Disabled People Together for Yes. My own involvement ended with their decision not to join ARC, and they have since gone on to form Disabled Women Ireland and have plans to continue and broaden their work.

At the same time there were collaborations between ARC and groups like MERJ, Migrant and Ethnic-minorities for Reproductive Justice, with TENI, the organisation for trans rights, with the Sex Workers Alliance, all with the aim of bringing those on the margins into the heart of the campaign.

Then the referendum was announced for May 25th, and the three main groups – ARC, the National Women’s Council, and the Coalition to Repeal the 8th Amendment – combined forces to form Together for Yes, the national campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment. Shivaun hinted yesterday that this was a unified movement, a way for all the diverse groups to come together and combine efforts to secure abortion rights. And what success we had! Well, yes and no. I’m quite sure that the history books will record the referendum as having been won by politicians reaching across party divides and communities coming seamlessly together. But it wasn’t quite like that.

We switched from being purely grassroots, home-grown, diverse, feminist organisations with flat hierarchies and transparent decision-making processes to a slick, centrally directed, professionally run campaign with strict messaging and zero tolerance for deviation from the messaging book. I do not think we would have won the referendum without a unified campaign, but I also recognise the damage done to marginalised groups by the disengagement from the collaborative efforts that had informed the movement up until this point.

The first to go was trans inclusive language. The situation of trans men was pushed to the side. The term ‘pregnant person’ disappeared from our campaign materials, everything became ‘women and girls’. Happily the Health Minister announced yesterday that trans inclusive language will be used in the forth-coming legislation, so at least those voices were heard. [*Voice from the future: Reader, they were not heard.]

I’m glad Suzy and Evie have given largely positive reports about their experiences of the referendum campaign. From where I stood, it seemed that disabled women, migrant and ethnic-minority women, and trans men were largely excluded from spokesperson roles and high-profile events, particularly in rural areas like my own. The faces of the campaign were Irish and white. They were concerned, polite, professional. Each discussion panel that we held had to have a doctor, a lawyer, and someone whose pregnancy was affected by fatal fetal anomaly. The women of Termination for Medical Reasons could probably have won this referendum on their own, and our debt to them won’t easily be repaid. The  professionals were incredibly good advocates and activists, but they were not representative of those women named in the Alphabet of Oppression.

For the most part, we didn’t hear from the messier edges of the campaign, from the places where multiple oppressions occur to squeeze people of their rights. There was no place in this exceptionally respectable campaign for the sex worker, the woman with a psychosocial disability, women of colour, migrant women, Traveller women, trans men. They were sacrificed for the greater good. Some groups rebelled, and we held breakaway events that we did not tell HQ about, but for most, there was a silent agreement that we would hold our tongues until the campaign was done.

In a piece called Our Aims Are Shared , disability rights activist Maria Ni Fhlatharta pinpoints the commonalities between the position of pregnant women and of people with disabilities under Irish law. Pregnancy and disability are the two criteria which can remove a person’s right to be the final decision-maker in their own care. Pregnancy and disability can cause you to be treated without your consent. As Fiona Walsh said yesterday, we did not hear from people with psychosocial disabilities, despite their common experiences of forced treatment, removal of capacity, disregard for informed consent. Will we now have a broad campaign to reform psychiatric services? Equally, people with intellectual disability do not have their bodily autonomy respected. Some are given contraceptive injections without informed consent. Recently it was ruled that an Irish woman with an intellectual disability was to undergo a mastectomy against her will. Will we wear a badge for her?

Single issue campaigns can be harmful and damaging. We have learned that collaboration and direct action is required to create the pressure needed to push politicians into action. We have also learned the importance of narratives and of personal stories to opening people’s minds to change. And those of us who campaigned by knocking on people’s doors to ask for our rights learned that ordinary people, the ones who are not engaged in actions or politics, are not as conservative or uninformed as we might assume.

This all sounds very critical, but is only by reflecting on the conflicts and failures that we will identify how to improve our work. There were successes too, of course. An early commitment to intersectionality gave us some sound foundations. We built alliances across groups. We pledged loyalty to each other. The work is not done.

As grassroots activists we look to varying dimensions of intersectionality to inform our work on reproductive rights. It can help if we treat intersectionality in two ways – and I draw on the work of Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge here – first, as a form of critical inquiry that informs how we organise our analytical work. This is how the term is most often used in academia and research as we criticise existing practices, theories, methodologies and knowledge in relation to social inequality. The second is intersectionality as a form of critical praxis. This is where we use the knowledge we gain in everyday life and reflect on those experiences, while also aiming to learn from formal knowledge like research, scholarly work. Where intersectionality is most potent is where we bring inquiry and praxis together, when we seek those connections and intersections common between us. But we cannot do this without keeping sight of the power relations and social structures which cause oppression.

We can build strong civil society groups. We should build a plurality of groups so that each works in the ways and for the purpose that suit it best. We must always look to those points of intersection, find the commonalities, but also find the shared points of attack, and combine efforts to dismantle the structures which contribute to oppression.
Ideas alone are not enough to move people to action; and action is more effective when it is informed by reflection and knowledge. The parts that worked well in this referendum campaign were the places where very different groups came together and listened to each other. The Centre here made a submission to the Citizen’s Assembly which preceded the referendum outlining how disability rights and abortion rights are not mutually exclusive. We did outreach to lawyers’ groups. Lawyers’ groups engaged with grassroots campaigners. We informed each other.

We must also continuously reflect on ourselves, on our own practices. Are we reaching out? Are we sharing our knowledge? Are we learning from others? Are we finding connections? What is stopping us? We must not be afraid to approach the other, to ask them to help. We must be willing to make mistakes, to recognise that our own good intentions may be lousy with paternalism or stereotypical assumptions about the other. We must forgive those who make similar assumptions about ourselves. And we must always, always be watchful for who is falling through the cracks.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s