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Derek Speirs
VOICES

Opinion We've tracked Ireland's road to repeal - it would be foolish to believe the struggle is over

Therese Caherty and Pauline Conroy, alongside photographer Derek Speirs, are the editors of a new book about Ireland’s road to repeal – here they take us through their work on it.

FROM ITS FOUNDATION, the Irish State followed the lead of the Catholic Church in maintaining that a woman’s place was in the home, making babies.

Both institutions conspired to insert that belief into the 1936 Conditions of Employment Act and the 1937 Constitution (Article 41.2). This very article will be subject to a referendum next year.

Mothers were promised they would “not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in their home”. Contested at the time to little effect, in 1970 a group of women burst onto the scene with five demands for a more equal society.

The manifesto of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement, Chains or Change, demanded equal pay, equality before the law, equal education, justice for deserted wives, unmarried mothers and widows. Contraception was the linchpin: without being able to decide themselves when or if they got pregnant, women would never enjoy full social, economic, political and workplace parity.

Herein lay the beginnings of what would culminate in the repeal movement and was the springboard for a 2014 decade-by-decade exhibition we held in Filmbase, Temple Bar, Dublin.

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“Women to Blame – 40 years of the Struggle for Contraception and Abortion in Ireland” was a visual and feminist account of the Eighth Amendment / Article 40.3.3. It depicted the repression, shame and criminal sanctions that women and girls experienced before and after its arrival into the Irish Constitution. And its focus was a stubborn and regenerating grassroots anti-amendment movement that despite decades of limited progress, setbacks and individual tragedy stood its ground.

The exhibition featured campaign souvenirs and artefacts all entrusted to us by veteran activists who had emptied attics and basements for our sakes. Campaigning photographers donated their work. All these images spoke for themselves.

Short film interviews by Cathal Black and Ruth Jacob were included. Our title recalled writer and IWLM stalwart Nell McCafferty’s account of Joanne Hayes’s torment at the hands of the State.

So what more could our latest book Road to Repeal, the photobook sequel to Women to Blame, say about contraception, abortion and the right to give birth safely in Ireland? Plenty, as it happens.

Continuing struggle

(1) Contraception Action Programme members leading a march in December 1978 to demand the provision of free legal contraceptives. Photo by Derek Speirs. (1) Contraception Action Programme members leading a march in December 1978 to demand the provision of free legal contraceptives. Derek Speirs Derek Speirs

We now have an accompanying narrative for the five decades along with redesigned and up-to-date artefacts. We situate the struggle for women’s freedom to make decisions about their own bodies alongside other major political and economic events and justice campaigns.

We have a victory to explore and more heroines to identify.

Our account is not exhaustive. While Church and State were to the fore in repressing reproductive rights, Road to Repeal is more a story of the movement whose founders and supporters rose up with an alternative vision and reality.

Our account is presented within a broad “choice” framework, embracing many of the issues women and girls in Ireland have had to brave by continuing or terminating a pregnancy.

Between its covers, Road to Repeal depicts the wave after wave of young people who have taken up the struggle for legal and safe contraception and abortion, risking arrest and imprisonment.

Journalists, lawyers and doctors have been among the professions who have intervened in debates on a conscientious basis to affirm their belief in a rights-based Ireland. Trade unions, student unions, service-providing agencies and artists have added very specific contributions. Many of the reproductive rights cases spilled out into courts and institutions across Europe. This has been a vital aspect of upending brutal law.

(3) It’s a Yes Derek Speirs Derek Speirs

It would be foolish to believe the struggle is over.

Ireland’s new abortion legislation is flawed. The absence of a law on exclusion zones (though Cabinet has signed off on plans to legislate them) around facilities that advise on or offer abortion services illustrates this point. Then there is the peculiar waiting period for a termination, extraordinary criminal sanctions for breaking the law, unequal access to services in various parts of the country and the lack of alignment north and south of the border.

Not all doctors prescribe the abortion pill. And not all hospitals supply full medical care for pregnant women. In 2022, doubts persist over ownership of the proposed National Maternity Hospital and its ability to comply with abortion law and provide other reproductive treatments.

The Eighth Amendment may have gone away, but this book’s trajectory shows the habit history has of repeating itself. There is no room for complacency and every need for continuing vigilance.

Road to Repeal: 50 Years of Struggle in Ireland for Contraception and Abortion, published by Lilliput Press, is out now. Image of Therese Caherty and Pauline Conroy by Emma May Photography. 

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Therese Caherty and Pauline Conroy
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