We have come a very, very long way, and we’re not going back: an excerpt from our book LARCs, Larks & Other Lovely Things

We have come a very, very long way, and we’re not going back

by JoAnne Neary, who is a f**king force of nature

It is 31st December 2019, almost one year to the day after abortion became legally available in Ireland. Where should my Abortion Rights Campaign story start, I’ve contemplated this for months. Does my story even have a beginning, middle and end? If it did, the end would be much like the long stretching roads in cartoons, they keep on going, perhaps there is no end.

Whilst I struggle with the chronological order of my own story, I don’t struggle to recall the best bits of it. The Abortion Right Campaign journey has been complex and empowering. For me, it has been about so much more than fighting for the legalisation of abortion in Ireland. I’ve forged new and wonderful friendships, learnt a hell of a lot and have been empowered to the point that I feel confident in my pure bowldness… I love it. But it’s easier to feel the fluffiness this distance from Repeal Campaign, (nineteen months post referendum), there was a time when my body wasn’t afforded this comfort, particularly during the months preceding the vote to Repeal the 8th.

I had attended a couple of ARC information days in the past, there were about 6 or 7 women at the first. We worked as a team to arrange a timeline which started with St Brigid performing an abortion sometime around 500 AD and ended with the most recent tragedy resulting from the lethal eighth amendment. A while later I attended another called ‘Chats For Choice’, this time there was a packed room of activists. The energy in the room was phenomenal. People shared their experiences of campaigning at public stalls and the responses they got. I felt hopeful, there was a real sense of humanity and compassion in the room. Change was coming, not quick enough though. The same timeline exercise was done again, this time there was even more damage to be added, along with the damage there were also some positive milestones added. Things were shifting in the right direction.

My involvement in the Abortion Rights Campaign was dictated by other demands. I wondered how I would be able to devote any meaningful time to Leitrim’s campaign to Repeal when it seemed there was none to spare. I did ‘my bit’ online. We do what we can I said to myself. As time wore on, the words Repeal the Eighth were echoed everywhere, radio, television, newspapers, online, you couldn’t escape it. A referendum would soon be an inevitability which meant houses would need to be canvassed and conversations had throughout Leitrim. One evening I sat on my sofa thinking about what this referendum meant to me, what it would mean to my daughters, all the daughters of Ireland. I felt very strongly in my gut that Repealing the Eighth was the very least we should be doing for the women of Ireland. I hated the hypocrisy of it, you can have an abortion elsewhere, just not here in Catholic Ireland. I hated that the Church reduced the status of women’s bodies to that of an incubator, shaming those who chose abortion whilst they continued to protect perpetrators of abuse. In the following months, the No campaign would deny religious influence over their arguments, but I will never forget Savita Halappanavar. Anyone reading this will remember Savita being denied a termination for an incomplete miscarriage in University Hospital Galway in October 2012. I wasn’t alone in feeling disgusted and enraged on reading that a termination of an incomplete miscarriage was denied because Ireland is a Catholic country. The world looked on in disgust at Ireland’s barbaric abortion laws and deemed them murderous. Savita’s unnecessary death was undeniably a turning point for many, it is something that will never leave my mind.

One vivid memory from the repeal campaign was the way the antis would almost froth at the mouth at the mention of Savita. I remember watching the news the night before the vote, ( I can’t do any more now, can I ?) , images were being shown of ROSA posters with Savita’s face on them, they were being ripped off poles and burnt along the Navan Road. I was born in a home along on this road, an awful place. When I watched these posters burn, close to where many women were forced to birth alone, it epitomized for me the anti-choice campaign, offensive, disrespectful of women, aggressive. It was and is deliberately ignorant to any pain gone before, uncaring about any pain that may follow. This was a desperate act by those with a strange lust for controlling and shaming women.

My own lived experiences and family motivate me to campaign for Abortion Rights. My mother gave birth to me in an ‘unmarried Mothers’ home on the Navan Road, and was pregnant with my brother when she got married three and a half years later in 1980. I have few memories of her being a happy mother. I ended up being the eldest of many kids, (Life of Brian eat your heart out!) and she ended up drinking a lot. She spoke very little of the Navan Road. She said that the nuns were cruel, she scrubbed steps when in labour with me and after she gave birth, they repeatedly tried to force her to give me up for adoption. I feel for her. She had no options and spent her whole reproductive life having her reproductive rights dictated by the Vatican. She was always in a lose-lose situation, any choice she could make would be wrong and she would be shamed for it. It was hard work not inheriting her trauma, shirking ‘bastard child’ shame in a ‘faithful society’ over time was one thing, impacts of her addiction radiated more. She has a passive nature towards faith-influenced laws that deliberately hurt women, I abhor them. Back then some things were different, contraception and abortion were illegal, unfortunately though, some of the cultural and societal oppressors have lingered. Shame! Women are still shamed for making necessary and painful decisions that will have an impact on their lives, and the lives of their families. And, we have no idea of the extent of the trauma and damage caused by this shame.

As the Repeal campaign ramped up, I slept badly at times, often waking a ball of anxiety in stomach. Most conversations I had throughout the campaign were positive, but there were some that triggered horrible feelings and sadness in me. One man I canvassed in a small rural town was particularly callous. He spoke flippantly about rape and forced pregnancy. Needless to say, I didn’t stick around…I won’t repeat what I said after I left his doorstep but the air definitely turned blue in North Leitrim. I found it hard to sleep that night. My efforts were mostly concentrated in Leitrim during the Repeal campaign, and the sentiment echoed most in the conversations I had was, that ‘it’s only right’, ‘women should be able to choose’. So many felt the time was right for this change. I desperately wanted it. One night in the Heraghty’s pub in Manorhamilton, Tommy Heraghty asked how the campaign was going, when I told him people wanted change, he said ‘Good, I’m glad…Years ago, there were girls who got pregnant and they were taken out of their houses at night, they were never seen around again’ . I imagine this is much like the scenario depicted in John Boyne’s The Hearts Invisible Furies, where a young pregnant woman is denounced as a whore and banished from her hometown. Unfortunately, it is no fictional tale, the cruelty of this country was profound.

I cried when the exit polls were announced. I sat on a pier in Lanzarote (I travelled after voting). For me it meant we were making a statement, that we rejected the evil Ireland that shamed and ostracised women. I felt so homesick for the beautiful people who bared their souls, those who I had campaigned alongside. They like me, knew Ireland’s referendum to legalise abortion was about so much more than legalizing abortion. On May 25th, 2018 that 66.4 % was an acknowledgement that life is complex and sometimes very painful, and that women can be trusted to deal with these complexities themselves. I felt lost without my kindred spirit campaigners. They sent me count updates and selfies from the count centre, I sobbed into beer. The image of Annie West’s epic Together For Yes illustration was sent on countless times, in it, there she was in her sari, dancing on the grass, Savita. I sobbed.

#shehadaheartbeattoo #neveragain

66.4% yes also signified Ireland’s move away from blindly following the clergy, many of whom are informed perhaps by the long-held belief that women’s reproductive suffering is a form of divine punishment for Eve’s sin and is therefore not to be avoided or prevented.’(T.Beattie, 2009). People do not want to be told what to think any more. At a stall on the last Sunday before the vote, one regular mass goer told us they hadn’t gone to mass that day. ‘I’m sick of it now’ they said, ‘they’ve been going on about nothing else but this in mass over the last few weeks, everyone is sick of it…I know how I am voting, I don’t need to be told what to think.’ Nobody did need to be told what to think, according to statistics everyone had made their mind up long before a date for the referendum was called.

I’ve been very lucky to have formed and maintained some great friendships through the Abortion Rights Campaign. The support and laughs I get from Lyn Brookes and Bernie Linnane are second to none. I think we’ve bonded over our shared motivation for Abortion Rights, and our ability to get shit done whilst having a bloody great laugh. So, whilst campaigning to repeal the eighth was emotionally tiring at times, it was also hugely rewarding. My continued journey as an Abortion Rights Campaigner continues to teach me new things and introduce me to many wonderful and inspiring people. And it does continue.

The world watched on to see how conservative Catholic Ireland’s abortion debate would pan out. Repeal’s landslide victory has become an inspiration to other countries with restrictive abortion laws. People in Brazil, Andorra, Gibraltar and Malta feel hopeful looking on, and we have reached out. In 2020 Leitrim ARC will travel to back to Northern Ireland to join our allies in celebrating the roll out of abortion services there…‘bout bloody time! We’ll also travel to Gibraltar’s first Rally For Choice, Germany, and back to support Malta’s second rally. Needless to say, we’ll continue to highlight the deficits in Irish abortion provision and the dire need for safe access zones, it would be negligent not to. At a recent LARC conference, Isolde Carmody, a disabled activist living in Carrick On Shannon said, ‘Mullingar is the closest place I can access abortion care if I need it, that is a 150 km round trip on a train, I’d also need a taxi to the hospital, at that rate I may as well take a flight to Liverpool’ which dispels the myth that we ‘have it all sorted’ since abortion is legal here now, definitely not. The law is too restrictive, the three-day wait is misogynistic and unnecessary, and abortion stigma remains very much ingrained.

I believe banning abortion is a means of maintaining the patriarchy. As pointed out by Gloria Steinem, ‘Opposing women’s right to control our own bodies is always the first step in every authoritative regime…I feel we cannot ever be complacent about our reproductive freedom. From Alabama to Germany, we can see the backlash that we will always have to work very hard not to be overcome by. But we have come a very, very long way, and we’re not going back. (Steinem,2019)