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A Letter From the Frontlines of the Abortion Fight

A Letter From the Frontlines of the Abortion Fight

Non-Binary+ Ireland at the March for Choice in September 2016
Non-Binary+ Ireland at the March for Choice in September 2016

Janet O'Sullivan is one of the founders of Ireland's Abortion Rights Campaign, the group behind the annual March for Choice in Dublin. More than 20,000 people attended this year's demonstration in September. Here is a recollection of O'Sullivan's personal story, as told to Kay Cairns.

I'm one of 170,000 residents in Ireland who have traveled to the United Kingdom for abortions since 1967. I was 18 and my contraception had failed. Even while I waited for the test result, I knew I didn't want to continue the pregnancy. I was working, was planning on going to college, and knew I was too young.

Traveling to have my abortion wasn't easy. Money had to be sorted, as well as a passport, accommodation, time off work, and lies told to workmates and family about where we were going and what we were doing. My partner at the time came with me and couldn't have been more supportive. But there were many, many unknowns that didn't help, and the lies had to be kept up when I came back. It was an experience shrouded in secrecy and shame, and I remained silent about it for far too long afterward.

I'm 41 now and have a teenage daughter. I worry about her life living in a country that won't respect her human rights as a pregnant person. Because this isn't just an abortion discussion--it's about medical negligence. We've had a number of situations in Ireland where women have lost their lives due to a lack of lifesaving treatment, in which doctors have failed to perform due to fear of prosecution under our draconian laws.

Savita Halappanavar died in 2013 in Galway after being denied emergency termination. A woman in Dublin was kept on life support to keep her baby alive while she decomposed brain-dead in her hospital bed in 2014. A woman in Northern Ireland, where there are similar abortion laws, was given a suspended sentence in 2016 for carrying out an abortion at home using pills. Her housemates had alerted the authorities.

It's for this reason we have the March for Choice every year. We had our fifth one in September, attended by more than 20,000 people, marching through Dublin city center calling for a referendum. Two women tweeted from the event, posting a picture from their march 30 years ago alongside an image from today, and it went viral. It's sad to see that's it's taken so long for this obvious breach in human rights to have been taken on board by the wider population. There's not much documentation of the earlier abortion rights movement, as everyone who was involved was too busy dedicating all their time and energy to the cause.

I'm a founding member of the more recent Abortion Rights Campaign started in Dublin in 2012. What began as only a handful of us online has turned into a national movement with 17 campaigning groups all over Ireland. Abortion has been such a taboo subject, but as more people share their stories and talk about it, we need to make sure our discussions include everyone. We've been mindfully intersectional since our very founding five years ago.

Before agreeing on a name for the campaign, we discussed how the lack of abortion rights affects a whole range of people. How people with money and privilege could travel to the U.K., but those who don't have the money, can't get travel documents, are too ill to travel, or struggle with different axes of oppression are most affected by our incredibly restrictive laws. And women aren't the only people who can become pregnant and may need to access abortion--transgender men and non-binary people can get pregnant too.

At the March for Choice we had speakers from Transgender Equality Network Ireland, the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland, and Traveler and disability rights activist Rosaleen McDonagh. Non-binary+ Ireland marched with us too.

As more people, groups, and organizations come on board to change Ireland's abortion laws, as the country prepares to have a referendum on the issue, we need to have more nuanced conversations about abortion on a national level. The Abortion Rights Campaign continues to work for the rights of everyone who may ever need abortion and to make sure they are not left out of these conversations.

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