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Dublin: 15 °C Saturday 2 August, 2014

Column: Mass protest is the only way to win change on abortion

It is tragic that it took Savita Halappanavar’s death to galvanise action. The Government must be told that a failure to act now will damage them, writes Stephanie Lord.

Stephanie Lord

MORE THAN TWO thousand people descended on Kildare Street on Wednesday night after the news of Savita Halappanavar broke.

Emotions were raw. People stood with candles and cried for a woman that they’d never met, so moved were they by what had happened to her after she was prevented from having what could have been a life-saving abortion. Thousands of emails flooded in to Oireachtas members inboxes questioning how this had happened and phones rang constantly.

The very next day, TDs lined up to question the Tánaiste during Leaders’ Questions and asked, nay demanded to know when legislation for abortion in life-threatening situations would appear. In the months previous, however, there had been little or no discussion on the matter aside from a few parliamentary questions since the debate on ULA TD Clare Daly’s bill back in April this year.

The Tánaiste would not say when “legal clarity” would be given, but he said it would be provided. Members of the Government who had voted against Clare Daly’s bill looked very uncomfortable as the reality kicked in that had it been passed, perhaps this young woman’s life may have been saved. Thousands of people outside Leinster House forced them into talking about it.

Too late

It is tragic that it took a woman’s death and mass public outcry to get the political establishment to have a discussion on this. It is too late for Savita, and it may be too late for a woman who could be out there in an Irish hospital right now being refused an abortion, because her doctor is not sure whether it is legal.

A march and vigil will take place today, Saturday November 17, starting from the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin at 4pm and marching to the Dáil to call for the introduction of legislation. Pro-choice activists are calling on people to respectfully honour the memory of Savita and to demand publicly – and together – that enough is enough. Never again should a woman die in these circumstances. Another demonstration outside the Dáil is being planned for next Wednesday 21st. We should not have to wait for another woman to die, and clearly a mass mobilisation is the only thing that will affect change.

It took a few thousand people on Kildare Street to get politicians talking about it the next day. It will take thousands more out on the streets to get them to actually do something concrete on it. The anti-choice groups have a history of being out on the streets, leafleting and marching to keep women from having control over their medical decisions. It has worked, and now a woman is dead because of it.

Grieving

Savita Halappanavar’s death has changed the political landscape. We have heard the voice of her grieving husband. This is not a faceless woman represented by a letter of the alphabet.

For too long, women’s rights have been held to ransom by the religious organisations. Politicians have run scared in the past, unwilling to come out and take a stand for women. Those in the election game don’t like to upset the applecart for the most part, unless it’s a sure bet. Most TDs in the political establishment were unwilling to do or say anything on the issue for years because either they were anti-choice themselves or the idea of taking on the anti-choice brigade was a little too much for them when they were knocking on doors and seeking votes. Anecdotes do the rounds in political circles of rural TDs who are threatened with billboards by anti-choice campaigners if they endorse anything other than a hardline ‘no to abortion’ view.

It is more important than ever before for people to come out and show that the majority of people in Ireland believe that no woman should ever be left to suffer like that. Members of the Oireachtas need to be shown that as far as every right-thinking individual in Ireland is concerned, legislation must be introduced immediately. It would be wonderful if the Government did it because it was the right thing to do, but going by Irish political history that is not going to happen. If the wilful political inertia on abortion in Ireland has taught us anything it is this: He who shouts loudest gets heard.

No hiding

The Irish public should come out in their thousands now and tell the Government in no uncertain terms that a failure to act will damage them. TDs need to be told: If you do not legislate, we will shout and shout until you do. We will be outside Leinster House. We will be outside your constituency office. There is no hiding from this issue any more.

Part of beginning to shout loudly means coming out on the streets to say ‘never again’, and calling on the Government to legislate for X now. We have had women hauled through the High Court and Supreme Court in abortion access cases. We have had the European Court of Human Rights tell the government that the legal situation must be changed. And yet, no change has come. One can only shout so loudly in the Supreme Court, and it’s high time that we collectively made our voices heard on this issue.

We, the Irish public, should not be made complicit in the needless death of another woman because we have elected people who have abandoned any pretence of caring about women. There should be no more martyrs for abortion law reform in Ireland. If the courts cannot force them to change the law, then we must come together and force their hands ourselves.

Stephanie Lord is a spokesperson for Choice Ireland and blogs at Feminist Ire, and occasionally Irish Left Review and RH Reality Check.

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