Lessons Learned – Irish Activists and the Fight for Abortion Access

In the US, abortion restrictions are mounting, and threats to abortion access are more significant than ever. In many parts of the world, abortion remains illegal, increasing the risk of unsafe abortion. No matter where we are, we struggle against systems of colonialism, religious imperialism, and patriarchy.

Abortion activists in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland organized, agitated, and campaigned for years to bring safe, legal abortion to their communities. Finally, in 2018, the Republic of Ireland voted—overwhelmingly—to legalize abortion. Northern Ireland followed suit in 2019. A panel of Irish and Northern Irish activists who helped shepherd legal abortion shared their experience organizing in traditionally religious, conservative areas and their work in expanding abortion access.  JoAnne Neary from the Abortion Rights Campaign; Jamie Canavan, Aisling Hayes, and Maraleeze Keane from Galway Pro-Choice; and MSFC alumna Jill McManus from Alliance for Choice discussed their work in chipping away at the oppressive systems that harm their communities.

Tips for starting conversations with conservative communities.

  • Meet people where they are at and understand they aren’t coming from a bad place. They aren’t against human rights, but they’ve been socialized to think anti-abortion is the most compassionate choice.
  • Reframe the conversation. This debate isn’t about the difference between abortion and no abortion, it’s the difference between safe abortion and unsafe abortion.
  • Be patient. Give people time and space. The levels of indoctrination and anti-abortion rhetoric we’ve gone through from a very young age can take a long time to undo.
  • Give people more credit and don’t make assumptions. We assumed things about the older communities and danced around the topic. These people have seen some stuff. They have seen the trauma of unwanted pregnancies. They’ve witnessed pregnant people leave their homes and never return. You can’t judge people’s attitudes until you have a conversation.
  • Use the word abortion more.
  • Remember being religious and being pro-choice are not mutually exclusive.
  • People often have a list of arguments. Break it up and confront one.
  • Always being visible. Wear a badge on your bag or jacket when you go out. People will ask and start the conversation themselves. They are the simplest actions, but they help keep the issue in people’s minds. It felt lonely to campaign in rural areas, and visibility can give sense of community and security.

Medical school is often hierarchical and conservative. It is a challenging place to speak out against the status quo and advocate for change. Here are Jill’s tips for being a pro-choice activist in medical school.

  • Finding allies in medical school may seem daunting, but it’s essential. Jill talked about abortion to anyone and everyone, and even if they were hesitant at first, they found her when they were ready to engage in this work.
  • Reach out to your local community organizations and feminist collectives. They can offer support outside of the mainstream medical system and keep you motivated.
  • The desires of feminist activists tend to be far more radical than the people in medicine. They are very good at making you aware of patients’ stories, how the medical system has negatively impacted them, and the trauma patients experienced. It’s important to stay aware and not dismiss the patient experience. It’s also motivating to be a better doctor and patient advocate.

Although gaining legal abortion services for the first time is a monumental win, it’s clear there is more work to be done. Here are our panelists’ ideas on how to keep motivated.

Yesterday, I dared to struggle. Today I dared to win.” – Bernadette Devlin McAliskey

  • This is a life-long fight. So do what you can, when you can.
  • You may not have a big reaction to each event, but if five people show up, they can tell five more people. So, every person who hears your message is victory.
  • You gain more activists the more educational events you can put on. People leave feeling empowered and want to join the bigger cause.
  • It’s easy to feel like you aren’t doing enough, but by doing what you can, you are making a difference.
  • Find your people. Finding that community is a comforting place and empowering place to be.
  • You don’t have to look too far to find badass feminists to inspire you. (If you are reading this, you are probably one of them).
  • Be kind to yourselves.
  • Talk about abortion unashamedly.
  • People remember their interactions with doctors. Being a doctor is one of the most trusted professions. You have a lot of influence and a lot of personal power. So every single interaction is an opportunity to make a person feel cared for, respected, valued, and listened to.