It’s rarely easy to be openly pro-choice in Ireland. This country has no shortage of people willing to tell you how you’re a murderer, selfish, disgusting, a baby-killer. How you’re heartless. How you should be ashamed of yourself.
The last major pro-choice demo I was at, two years ago, was a counter-demonstration to the March for Life. A couple of hundred of us, thousands of anti-choice marchers led by Youth Defence who didn’t hesitate to get in our faces, shout abuse at us, call us things I’m not going to repeat here. Being openly pro-choice can feel like running a gauntlet where you’re never sure what’ll happen next. So it’s not surprising that I was more than a little bit nervous before Saturday’s March for Choice. That nervousness, that apprehension, made what happened next even more incredible than I could have imagined.There were so many of us. Meeting at the Spire on Saturday afternoon, I couldn’t help but be amazed at how many people had showed up. I’d expected the usual suspects. There were, when I arrived early, hundreds and hundreds of us. And people just kept on arriving. And in these crowds of people was none of the usual tension of a pro-choice demonstration. As I walked through the crowd to check out what groups and banners were here and to say hello to friends I’d spotted, I heard so many people talking about the numbers. About how they couldn’t believe there were this many of us here. How they’d never seen so many people at something like this before. We were genuinely and collectively in awe at our numbers, here on O’Connell Street. For the first time in my life, I felt that we might get somewhere with this. That we might really have some power to change things. Living in Ireland, it’s hard to truly explain what a truly big deal this is. How much of a revelation.
Walking through the streets, crossing O’Connell bridge, down Westmoreland Street and Kildare Street before turning up towards Merrion Square, it felt even more like a turning point. Here we were, chanting pro-choice slogans on the streets of Dublin, and the counter-demonstration was… where? I saw one man with a sign on O’Connell Street. I saw no abuse from passers-by. And our numbers continued to swell.
In Merrion Square, the speakers were as varied and inspiring as the march itself. We weren’t on the defensive - we were on the offensive and proud of it. They spoke about how we won’t be shamed any longer. About how the majority of Irish people have consistently voted for women’s right to choose, and how we are fed up of being ignored. How if TDs want to follow God’s law and not the law of men (oh, how ironic), they should get out of Leinster House and join a seminary.
Feminist Ire’s Ariel Silvera spoke about the LGBTQ community and the pro-choice movement, arguing that we are natural allies. LGBTQ people need abortions too. Even if queer women don’t need abortions themselves, their sisters, daughters, mothers, and friends do. Ariel also highlighted the fact that it is not only women who need abortions. Many trans* men can get pregnant as well, and abortion providers and campaigners must be aware of their needs.
Mara Clarke from the Abortion Support Network spoke about her experiences raising funds for Irish women to access abortions they would otherwise never be able to afford. Banning abortion does not and never has prevented abortion. It just means that rich women can travel for abortions, and poor women are forced to give birth. The twelve women who travel to the UK every day for abortions are those who can afford it. The Abortion Support Network provides grants to Irish woman, and runs solely on private donations and fundraising. Needless to say, if you’re able to support them please do. Irish women should never be forced by lack of money to become mothers. Nobody should.
But finances aren’t the only reason that people in Ireland could be forced to give birth against their will. The Irish Feminist Network’s Osaro Azamosa reminded us that many immigrant women are simply not permitted to access visas to travel to the UK. These women’s reproductive rights are not only financially but legally denied by the current situation.
And so much more, from Sinead Ahern, Ivana Bacik, Claire Daly - if I’ve left anyone out do tell me! And it wasn’t all about abortion. Pro-choice isn’t just about the right to choose abortion. It’s about full reproductive rights - and that means the right to reproduce free of coercion. For a real choice, women need to be supported to raise children without cutbacks to welfare. Without cutbacks to disability allowances for themselves and their children. Just as nobody should be forced to give birth because they can’t afford abortion, nobody should be forced to choose abortion because they can’t afford to raise a wanted child.
The Irish State needs to face up to its responsibility for the many thousands of women who have travelled overseas for abortions. It has a long-standing habit of brushing inconvenient women under the carpet - years ago to be incarcerated in Magdalene laundries, now on Ryanair flights to Britain. At Saturday's march we came together to say that we are no longer going to accept this. We’re sick of being silenced and of our choices being villified and shamed. We’re not going to accept being caricatured as heartless murderers anymore. We care deeply for the rights and well-being of all of us, for everyone in this country’s right to self-determination. And we’re not going to be quiet anymore.
Image top: infomatique.