Thousands of campaigners and activists marched through Dublin on Saturday afternoon, demanding a referendum to repeal the 8th Amendment to the Irish Constitution.
The Amendment was introduced in 1983 and many campaigners now say that the majority of Irish voters should have the right to have their say on that amendment for the first time.
This was the third annual "March for Choice".
Attending this year’s march were many familiar faces and groups in Irish political, entertainment and activism circles.
Zoe McCormack of Athlone Institute of Technology explained that she was there as “part of the general women’s movement” and that she believes the Government “need to hold a referendum ASAP on the Eighth Amendment.”
Others, like Gráinne from Queens University Belfast, believes the discussion on abortion does not need to be one of extremes or hard cases.
“It doesn’t have to happen within an argument of extremities in terms of ‘abortion is only right if there is real risk.’ Abortion is always right if it is the woman’s choice and I think that’s what we’re here really to promote today,” she explained.
“We’re here to show with our feet that things must change. We are not the women of our grandmothers generation. This is the twenty first century and the laws should reflect the equality and the respect that women in our society absolutely demand.”
“I think everyone in society has a duty to drive change but students in particular are taught to think critically and part of that critical thinking is to look and see what is wrong within society and to see what you can do to achieve something. I think students, in particular student women, [are] the next generation of leaders and so it’s up to us as the next generation of leaders to ensure that our children don’t face the same struggles as we do.”
Other young women attending the march, like Fionnghuala and Catherine, explained that despite the apathy often found in students, a change can and must come in Irish abortion laws with the help of the student movement. Catherine sees the issue as a responsibility which students in particular must face up to.
USI president, Laura Harmon added to the calls on students and young people to become involved.
“The Union of Students in Ireland is a pro-choice organisation. This is clearly an issue that effects students. We know that one quarter of those availing of abortion services in the UK are between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, therefore this is a huge issue that effects young people and it effects students, and we are proud to be here campaigning on this issue and we are calling for a referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution,” Harmon said.
Other recognisable faces on the day included TDs Catherine Murphy and Richard Boyd Barrett, who both reiterated their support for a referendum on, and repeal of, the Eighth Amendment. Both also intend to support the recent Coppinger-Higgins Bill, introduced to the Dáil last week, to call a referendum on the Amendment.
Murphy said the Amendment “put women’s lives at risk and will continue to put women’s lives at risk.”
She went on to say she would keep pressure on the Government to “acknowledge that public opinion is way ahead of them and we need to repeal the Eighth Amendment and grow up, and take responsibility for the lives and health of women and they need to have the choice with their medics in their care when they are pregnant.”
Meanwhile Boyd Barrett said the change was “long overdue,” calling it an “archaic and reactionary amendment.”
“We’ve had so many tragedies now because of the hypocrisy of Irish law on abortion,” he said.
“It’s a straight-forward matter and I just hope the political cowards in the Dáil will finally bow to the demands of women and I think the majority of people in this country.”
Former student activist and sitting government senator, Ivana Bacik, said she wished to show solidarity with everyone attending the march and to show “how awful I feel that this is still going on, many decades in fact after I was involved in the student movement and threatened with jail for distributing information on abortion.”
Unlike Boyd Barrett and Murphy, however, Bacik does not intend to support the Coppinger-Higgins Bill. She believes the Bill “will inevitably not succeed.”
Bacik also pointed to the student movement in Ireland as “hugely important” in changing Irish laws on abortion.
“I think the student movement has a very proud history in Ireland of fighting for women’s rights and I think it’s essential that we engage the student movement and students unions in particular on the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment...I hope [students] will be one of the driving forces,” she added.
Goretti Horgan, lecturer at Queens University Belfast, explained her view on the issue.
“I work in a university myself and what I find is that most students start off being quite anti- abortion because they have just come out of the school system and they are full of religious myths and stuff about abortion. But real life tends to then start to work on them and they start to have friends who need abortions, they start to understand that actually it’s not a black and white issue, that women’s lives are very complicated.”
Journalist and civil rights activist, Eamon McCann, explained: “Students will have to be one of the driving forces behind change. For all the pressures on students they still have the privilege of intellectual activity, of considering matters with a bit more space.”
“One of the things that strikes me about this march is the age profile. It is very young, the numbers of young women in particular, but also young men, on this. Many of them, I would imagine, students. They are the future of this campaign and issues like this.”
On the 1992 X Case protests, McCann explained: “I remember young people in secondary schools who were told they couldn’t come out on demonstrations actually going through the windows and then had to come out into O’Connell Street, so strongly did they feel about Ms. X.”
Reflecting McCann’s observation were some of the attendees at Saturday’s march.
A young woman, fourteen years old, from the feminist group ROSA explained why she was there.
“I just feel that everyone should have the right to choose because it’s a right. We look at cases like Savita and Ms. X, Ms. Y. It’s not fair because Ms. X was a fourteen-year-old, I’m fourteen. It does effect people our age and we should have the right to choose,” she said.
Another group of young school students, Marie, Max and Méabh, explained their reasons for being at the the march.
“I think that the country’s very backward in it’s laws, not just on abortion, but for women in general and for people having autonomy over their own bodies,” said one.
“The other side like to think that if we banish it, it’s not going to happen but it just increases the suffering and the women have to feel stigmatised and are forced either over to England or have to take risks in Ireland that can be damaging to their health,” she added.
Pointing to the influence of schools on the issue of abortion, one of the students explained: “In Catholic secondary schools, all of the posters about anti-abortion and stuff are just all over the place and it’s just a really horrible perspective that scares people away and makes them feel guilty for it. I think it’s terrible.”
“As a young person you don’t really know where to go and you especially don’t know where to go if something was to happen where you might have to consider an abortion. You wouldn’t know where to go or who to turn to,” the students added.
Amongst the many pro-choice groups attending the march were Mayo Pro-Choice, Galway Pro- Choice and Limerick Pro-Choice.
Well-known LGBT rights activists also explained their reasoning for attending the march.
Ailbhe Smyth, who has been involved in national LGBT rights and feminist activism and campaigning for a number of decades, pointed to the student movement as a key part in the move towards reformed abortion laws.
“There are an awful lot of young people, obvious students, here today and I think that’s hugely important because this is about your future. This is about how you’re going to be able to live in this country. And it is about women’s everyday access to abortion but it is also about the kind of country that we want to create, where there is genuine equality, where there is justice, where there is respect for women and I believe that every young woman and every young man in this country actually does want to fight for respect and trust and the right to make decisions about our own lives,” she said.
“We won’t win it without students because you have the drive, you have the energy, you have something at stake. It is yours to win and it is hugely important that that will happen and I genuinely believe that Irish students want to do that. And I certainly am prepared to come and support or speak or do anything that’s necessary, but basically this is going to be your fight for your referendum to get this out of our constitution.”
Finally a number of entertainers made their position on the issue of abortion clear.
Rory O’Neill, commonly known by his performance name, Panti Bliss, explained: “I’m here because I believe in personal autonomy and I believe that where possible people should be able to make their own decisions about their own lives and their own bodies and I think that’s the same impulse that sends me to an LGBT rights march...and I think that women should be able to make their own decisions about their bodies too.”
“I think it’s easy when you’re a student maybe to think that some of these things [won’t effect you]. These things will eventually effect you, so for some girls in your class it’s going to effect them, it could be tomorrow. All women might have to make the hard decisions about their own reproductive choices at some point, so yes, I think it effects everybody,” he added.
Comedian and actor, Tara Flynn, put her support for the issue simply, saying: “Equality is equality. I’m terrible at maths but that’s maths. If we’re all equal, we’re all equal. We have the right to govern our own lives. We have the right to make our own decisions and choices and without the interference of church or state and that’s what I want for Ireland.”
Members of the National Union of Journalists also reiterated the need for engagement with students and young people.
“We will be working through some of the media departments in some of our colleges to try and bring some of those students on board with us, over the next period of time, between now and the referendum.”