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‘Free, Safe, Legal’ – Large crowds turn out at March for Choice

Dr. Tiernan Murray of Doctors For Choice says he does not see the issue of conscientious objection impacting on the availability of abortion.

Saturday’s March for Choice attracted significant crowds in Dublin’s city centre, in an event that celebrated the success of the Together4Yes campaign in this year’s referendum on repealing the 8th Amendment.

Starting from the Garden of Remembrance, the demonstration proceeded down O’Connell’s Street and onto Merrion Square, where activists heard speeches from Evie Neven of the Social Democrats, President of the Union of Students of Ireland Sheena Cahill, asylum seeker’s rights campaigner Zanele Sibindi and others. Representatives from UCD Students’ Union, Sinn Fein, the Labour Party, the Social Democrats, Solidarity-PBP and the Green Party were present, along with Simon Harris, Sen. Catherine Noone and Kate O’Connell of Fine Gael.

Speaking to the University Observer, Orla O’Connor of the National Women’s Council of Ireland said that while the march was an acknowledgement of what had been achieved, the legislation for abortion had not been passed by the Dail. She said that the march “was about keeping the pressure on and making sure that abortion is provided by January. I think a clear message will be sent to the government today that people from all around the country, women and men, want to see that happen in January”. She added that there was need for a strong information and awareness campaign regarding the facilities and services and how they can be accessed. This was a sentiment echoed by Ailbhe Smyth, the co-director of Together4Yes, who also drew attention to the lack of abortion services in Northern Ireland, saying, “we have been saying since the day we won that the North is next”.

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For some, the day was a moment to reflect on how the referendum had affected rural Ireland. Bernie Linnane of Leitrim Abortion Rights Campaign told the University Observer that “we were told that Leitrim was a foregone conclusion, that It would go No. So we canvassed hard and we knew we were getting the right results. We weren’t even in any doubt about the percentages, we knew Leitrim would go heavily ‘Yes’.” Deirdre Maher of Roscommon for Choice told a similar story: “The media were on us big time throughout the campaign, we got interest from all over the world. But the people voted, and Roscommon people showed that, actually no, we’re not as conservative as people like to think”. Linnane pointed out that, while pockets of conservatism remained, rural Ireland was a progressive place.

Other demonstrators felt that certain groups had their perspectives ignored. Aoife Fitzgibbon-O’Riordan from Bi-Ireland felt that Bisexual issues, alongside minority issues overall, were ignored during the debates, in an attempt to pander to ‘middle Ireland’, something that she argues is a far more diverse cohort than people realise. Nevertheless, she felt that the campaigning was very inclusive of many minority groups; indeed, she believes that the campaign helped to create a more active bisexual rights movement in Ireland, saying “What we have seen in the past year or two is actually a blossoming of [a specific Bisexual community]…We are dealing with issues like visibility, exclusion and inclusion, which in a way are a lot harder to tackle than just a law, because you’re actually going to have to change hearts and minds. But…by being present, by being ‘out’ we can let people know we’re not stereotypes, we’re human beings.”

Fitzgibbon-O’Riordan also noted that for her community, bodily autonomy is a crucial issue, which gives them a particular insight into how it affects other communities, including women in general.

For migrants, a similar desire to have their perspective heard motivated their participation in the march. “I think [our issues] were silenced, as a matter of fact, because there were no reports or highlighting of people in Direct Provision”, said Rua Hamad, an NUIG student marching with Migrants and Ethnic Minorities for Reproductive Justice (MERJ). While she accepted the issue of Direct Provision was a different issue to that of the 8th amendment, Hamad wanted to see the experiences and struggles of minorities put forward in future, “because they’re much more difficult to encompass: they don’t have money, there are cultural issues. People don’t have papers, people don’t have a permanent address”. Speaking on stage, Zanele Sibindi of MASI reiterated this, and called for the government to take action to address this.

Another set of issues that the march highlighted was of how the health service would implement abortion services, especially in Catholic Hospitals. Dr. Tiernan Murray of Doctors For Choice did not see the issue of conscientious objection impacting on the availability of abortion, claiming that 80% of young GPs are female and work extensively in contraception and reproductive rights, whereas those opposed to abortion he described as tending to be “older, near retirement, male GPs”. He also rejected the suggestion that the Government needed to legislate for a ‘conscience clause’ in legislation, saying “It’s very clearly laid down in the ethics of the Medical Council, in relation to the contraceptive pill for instance. If you wish to object, you have every right to object, but you must not obstruct a woman in accessing a service that is legal.” However, a member of Midwives for Choice claimed that the patronage of hospitals by the Catholic Church presented a major obstacle to the provision of abortion services, including by making conscientious objections more likely. She referred specifically to emergency contraception not being available  in children’s hospitals, which meant moving victims of child rape to adult hospitals. She also drew attention to the potential situation of those living in rural areas. “A woman down the country who has to spend €65 to vist her GP who ‘conscientiously objects’, how is she supposed to afford another €65 plus if there’s a 72 hour waiting period? How are they meant to be able to access this ‘free, safe, legal’ system?” She also claimed that medical practitioners were concerned that there was insufficient facilities to perform abortions, as well as little education in abortion care.

A press statement from the Pro Life Campaign circulated after the march, accusing Minister for Health Simon Harris of “railroading abortion proposals through the Oireachtas”. In the statement, solicitor and Galway for Life spokesperson Eilís Mulroy alleged Minister Harris was reneging on a commitment to properly debate the provisions of the abortion legislation and that it amounted to an attempt to censor debate and oppose scrutiny of the legislation.