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(en) alt. media Interview with Irish Pro-choice Activist*

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Sat, 2 Aug 2003 09:54:39 +0200 (CEST)


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SPUC, X-case and more....
As part of our series on past social and political
movements in this country we conducted an interview
with Aileen OíCarrol who has been involved in the
pro-choice movement since SPUC (Society For The
Protection of the Unborn Child) moved against the
distribution of information on abortion. In this interview
she talks about that, the impact of the X-case and the
pro-choice movement today.

How did you first come to be involved in the pro-choice
movement?

Aileen: Yeah, trying to remember how I first came to be
involved, I was a student at the time in Trinity, the
students' union had information on how to get an abortion
in their handbook, and SPUC (Society For The Protection
of the Unborn Child) took them to court. So that made it a
campaigning issue, I was involved and there was a group
of people involved in it. I suppose in that way we were
reacting to what SPUC were doing. At the same time and
before I had gotten involved they started taking cases
against the clinics like Well Women and The Open Door
Clinic. Those cases had succeeded or were in the courts,
they were off the agenda, so they moved on to attacking
Trinity Students' Union. They moved to do other things,
they moved against the libraries, they tried to get 'Our
Bodies, Ourselves' taken out of the libraries, against
magazines producing information. So there was a whole
load of moves by SPUC to shut things down, so thatís
where we got involved.

Why was the union publishing information on abortion
clinics? Was it part of a campaign on a pro-choice
position?

To be honest I cant 100% remember! I think it was one of
those cases where union policy that was passed and was
never an issue until SPUC suddenly made it an issue. I
don't think it was something people thought was a
problem, it was just something provided in the handbooks,
along with information on STD's, as part of women's
health. Then suddenly SPUC said it was illegal and
couldn't be done anymore. In Trinity obviously,
immediately the union was under pressure and brought to
court. But there was quite a large group of activists
around who were working with the union, so there was a
dynamic between the two. There was loads of issues
raised at the time about what to do, whether to pull the
information, whether they should fight it, make it political
or not. Actually one thing that came up within the union,
and especially in USI was the whole argument that if you
continue publishing the information in the guidebook you
will be shut down completely, and the argument was
raised that to do that meant you could no longer provide
information for women. I can't remember exactly it was
coached in terms, whether that meant we took it out of
the handbooks but still provided it through the backdoor. I
remember people saying at meetings that as long as one
women got the information that was good, when they
were arguing against people making it political. So you
definitely have a dilemma between providing a service
and a political campaign, because when you are providing
a service you are always going to defend that service,
protect it. Where as fighting a campaign, you are willing
to lose a service in terms of the bigger issue, changing
things in more general terms.

What sort of climate would this have taken place in both
within the colleges and outside as this would have been
before the X case?

In terms of student politics, I thought at the time the 80's
were pretty crap in that a minority of students were really
interested in political action. But in hindsight since they
were followed by the 90's, I think the 90's were much
worse. But we were looking back at the 70's I suppose,
we heard of Joe Duffy and big marches and we were
always giving out that things weren't the same as that,
but I think they got worse in the 90's. In terms of the
whole abortion thing, for a long time there were very few
people campaigning on the issue. So for a long time it
would be pickets of the Dail of maybe twenty people, you
know seven people outside the Ilac Centre picketing
about libraries and that didn't really change until the
X-Case.

When the X-case happened what sort of impact did it
have on the pro-choice movement in Ireland?

Oh that completely changed everything. It's a real
example of no matter how much you struggle you are
really tied to the conditions of the society you live in
because we had been working on abortion rights for a few
years, and there were different groups, there were
students and people who would have been around since
the 1983 referendum, older feminists. We were all kind of
lone voices in the wilderness, and the X-case just
changed that. I mean the biggest illustration is that before
the X-case happened.... No, I remember reading about the
X-case in my flat, it was on the front page of the Herald
and I remember feeling very depressed and angry about it,
ah fuck it this is just going to go ahead and no one is
going to try stop this happening. And things just changed
completely, there seemed to be protests at the Dail every
night of the week. And we met as we usually did in a pub,
the Dublin Abortion Rights Group. And said look we
better organise a march on this, I mean there were only
ten or fifteen of us, a really small group. In the end the
march was 15,000 or something. It was huge, the sort of
march where your brother and sister were there,
classmates and the people you worked with.

In terms of mobilising for these demonstrations, you're
saying there was no pro-choice movement on the ground,
there were ten of you in a pub and the students' unions
were involved with fighting SPUC in the courts, there
would have been quite a large pro-life movement on the
ground. In the past, in any thing to do with social policy,
the state would have acquiesced to catholic moral
teaching, there was a movement away from the catholic
hierarchy to lay catholic groups like Youth Defence.
Would these have had support on the ground?

They didnít have such large numbers, but they were
certainly a danger to us and they were physically a danger
to us. I mean we were attacked a few times, a friend of
mine had his finger broken, were attacked with hurley
sticks twice, so it meant that you had to be a lot more
careful if you were going on protests, making sure
everybody left at the same time. I never really got the
impression that they were that strong a force numerically.
To be honest, in fact, I think Youth Defence worked in our
favour, especially after the X-Case because it meant a lot
of people who were in the middle ground definitely wanted
to disassociate themselves from Youth Defence. It split
the pro-life movement and that's what was good for our
side. I think again like the X-case it may have made
people say 'no thatís not the kind of Ireland I want to
be part of. I think the Irish pro-life movement is really
influenced by the US pro-life movement, and there's
certainly been a lot of money on spin. Apparently, Youth
Defence are seen as examples of good practice, and
people come here for training seminars on relating to the
media and present your arguments. I've noticed recently,
a lot of their spokespeople are young women or mothers.
So there obviously trying to get a way from being seen as
old women and priests. Despite this, violence was
something Women on Waves were very worried about.
But it didn't materialise. But I think the fact it didn't
materialise, was because youth defence decided not to go
down that road, and to seek mainstream approval.

Previous to the X-case, would the pro-life movement have
dominated people's ideological perspectives on abortion?

Yeah, I always think that the thing about abortion in
Ireland is that it's a taboo subject, which means it's not
discussed. And thatís the success of the pro-life
movement. In 1983, and I only vaguely remember it, the
whole issue was so emotionally laden and hysterical that
meant it became an issue nobody talked about, so if you
were in a pub with your friends that was the one topic
upon which you didnít want to know their opinion on
in case they disagreed with you. So, I think they
succeeded in creating a silence around it.

Do you thing they still maintain that? Considering there is
not a wholly pro-choice movement on the ground and
where there is it tends to be reacting to their agenda
instead of creating a pro-choice agenda.

Yeah, I think they do maintain a silence. I think it's very
hard to break that silence. Thatís the big problem,
how do you break the silence? And I'd agree that the
pro-choice movement is reactionary, but it's hard to see
what else to do, I don't know how we can put it on the
agenda. The Women on Waves project was the first
attempt to be pro-active and that had a mixed success I
think.

Do you feel the 2002 referendum would have been scaling
back on any gains from the X-Case period? It never even
afforded any protection to services like the morning after
pill.

Yeah thatís the trouble with the referendums. With
the x-case we got legal judgments, which made the
position of women better, but they were never enacted in
the law and the referendum was aimed at getting rid of
those legal rights, the rights that were given by judges in
their interpretation of the law. It's kind of hard to explain
to people, because people don't realise the x-case gave
you legal rights and the referendum was trying to take
them away. So I mean the only way you can introduce
abortion now is to change the law and get rid of the eight
amendment. The eight amendment has equal protection to
the right to life of the child and mother, except where
there's a threat to the life of the mother, the x-case added
on the phrase including the threat of suicide. That was
important because it was interpretating life in a broader
sense than just you physically got a disease it brought in
issues of psychological welfare. But then youíre
talking about legal niceties.

In terms of the pro-choice movement in March 2002, well
the ANV wasn't pro-choice, but in terms of a movement
entering into a discourse with the public on the issue,
because it was a response to a referendum, do you think
there may have been a confusion of the issue.
Considering Dana Rosemary Scallon was also advocating
a no vote?

Oh yeah there definitely was a confusion, that's because
we were both advocating a no vote for entirely different
reasons.

Do you think there was a deliberate confusion within that
referendum?

Well the government was trying to play the middle
ground, you know and the government has always done
that. It attempts to present pro-life and pro-choice as two
extreme ends of the spectrum, and they go for the middle
ground. Of course there really isn't a middle ground in
reality. I think the pro-choice movement in Ireland has
become better, in that as its developed and grown up a
bit, it's less willing to play for the middle ground and more
willing to advocate a right to chose. And there is a
stronger right to chose element there in the arguments.

Why do you think successive governments since the
mandate received from the x-case have refused to
legislate?

There'll all afraid they're going to lose votes, because they
all remember what it was like in 1983, when the country
was torn apart, they don't want to touch it with a barge
pole. And I guess there's no pressure, I mean we've got
an Irish solution to an Irish problem, we solved the
problem through transport, and that's happened in other
countries as well. It's the same in Spain as far as I know.
What would you say to people that would raise the moral
argument that 'abortion is murder?' Those that address it
solely as a moral issue?
Oh God! I mean I would say, thatís a position you can
hold privately, but you canít apply to other people. So
if you believe abortion is murder, then don't go have an
abortion. But it's up to every single person to make their
own judgement on that issue. Thatís what women's
right to chose means, to chose to have or not have an
abortion.

You use Haugheys infamous phrase 'an Irish solution to
an Irish problem' which was his description of the
legislation introduced after Robinson's court cases over
family privacy to legislate for contraception. Basically a
prescription for contraceptives was at the discretion of
your doctor, but in the case of where a public doctor was
morally opposed, if you had the money you could seek a
prescription from another doctor. In a way do you think
that we still have 'an irish solution to an irish problem' in
that if you have the money to travel for an abortion, you
can, otherwise not?

Oh yeah, absolutely. Actually, thereís a funny
meeting about that, I was at a meeting in Dublin with
somebody from Belgium and she was talking about the
law in Belgium, where you have two different parts, the
Flemish part and the French speaking part. There are two
different laws, what she said was a Belgian solution to a
Belgian problem. So it's not an uncommon solution.
Basically you have the public face and the private reality.
You have the public face where abortion doesn't exist and
privately it does, and everyone knows it does. If we didn't
have England and the possibility of travel I think that we
would have abortion in Ireland.

Do you think that there's a greater need to address the
economic and class inequality around the issue, where
there is a pro-choice regime for those who can afford to
travel and not otherwise?

Yeah, that's the one thing Women on Waves brought
home to me, because I remember when they were coming
over I thought it was great as a symbolic form of protest,
but I thought no woman was really going to go have an
abortion on a ship surrounded by all that publicity, and I
was quite shocked by the numbers of women who are
willing to go have abortions in those circumstances
because they are so desperate. It brought home to me
exactly how much of an economic issue it is. But then it's
kind of hard to campaign on that beyond stating the facts.
The trouble is with any campaign..If your going to run a
campaign you have to have short term achievable goals
and long term achievable goals. Itís hard to work out
what they are in terms of abortion in Ireland. Even though
we werenít doing very much prior to the x-case, we
were able to sustain our existence by advertising an
abortion help line number that people could ring and
actually find out information on how to get an abortion,
and we had contacts with groups of irish women in
England who would go and help people who were going
over, and put them up. So, aside from the politics we were
actually achieving something by existing and itís hard
to know what pro-choice groups can achieve in the short
term because there is so little public pressure. I know at
one point there was meetings where women who had
abortions were willing to stand up and say it but it's
limited. The thing is, the trouble with a taboo subject is
you can talk about it, but people pretend it doesnít
exist and will ignore you. And people think there's no
need.
Tell me about the Dublin Abortion Rights Group
(DARG)?

If abortion comes on the agenda we provide a pro-choice
speaker, we see our role as putting forward the
pro-choice argument, so if there is a wider campaign
weíll be there putting forth the pro-choice argument

So where could a pro-choice movement today go, if you
were looking to younger activists in the colleges and
communities what would you say to them?

I don't know you see! I havenít a clue; I mean Iím
looking to you. I think thereís a bit of a problem,
abortion is an issue that burns people out. When I started
getting involved a lot of the people who had previously
been around in 1983 and you could see they were getting
tired. Now I've been doing it for quite a long time, and am
getting quite tired. You know I guess you get depressed,
after so long of not achieving anything, you lose your
iniative. To me the climate seems the exactly as it did
before the x-case, in that your pushing at a closed door.
You could do stuff through the students' unions, if you
could get them to say that they would financially support
women, like for example student unions used to
financially support students who were going for abortion,
don't know if they still do, they probably still do. You
could get emergency funding.

Was this something that was openly done?

No, no it wasn't, but you knew that if you were in trouble
and you really needed the money fast you could go to the
welfare officer. Iím sure if students did that in a
broader way and said they were doing it that would raise
the issue. I would question the students' unions..I mean if
you are going to make that commitment to women, you
have to be able to make good on it. That was the problem
with 'Women on Waves'. It said to women, we will
provide you with abortion and then turned round and said,
no, actually we can't. So, it's not really fair to be doing
that, if your going to say you will economically support
people, then you have to be able to economically support
them. I know there are people who keep trying to raise it
again, but Iíve got pessimistic. Until something
happens like the x-case or c-case, a big issue that forces
people to go 'hang on!í I think the government are
quite clever in avoiding it.

After the X-case, a divorce referendum was passed as
well. Do you think the pro-life movement is part of a wider
movement and has latched on to abortion in a way in the
past it would have latched on the maintaining legislation
against contraceptives, divorce and so on?

Yeah, abortion, contraception, illegitimacy, the pope
visiting Ireland in 1979, it's all part of the same thing.
They've lost everything except abortion, abortion is still
there. In that case, it means we are defeating them, but
there is still that one issue there they've managed to hold
on to.

related link: http://www.socialistalternative.cjb.net

*[Ed. Note: Interview with Irish anarchist WSM member
Aileen O'Carroll on the pro-choice movement since SPUC
( moved against the distribution of information on
abortion in the 1980's.]


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