AFTER a while, we stopped counting and began, instead, to time the endless waves of people who braved the rain, and the bus strike, to march in the biggest pro-choice rally Dublin has ever seen, writes Clodagh Finn
It would take a total of 26.5 minutes for the sodden crowd and all the paraphernalia of protest – banners, real drums, frying-pan drums and loud speakers – to pass, ten or more abreast, into the northern end of Merrion Square in the city centre.
That might be 20,000 people, as some estimates put it, or it might be more, but whatever the final tally, it proves one thing – the movement to repeal the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution has gathered unprecedented momentum.
Hundreds more protested in 25 cities around the world, from Paris and Phnom Penh to New York and Toronto.
No wonder Abortion Rights Campaign spokeswoman Linda Kavanagh told the crowd at the fifth March for Choice to take photographs and to take selfies. “You’re going to want to remember this moment,” she said. “This has been an exceptional year for pro-choice activism.”
In 2016, the number of regional pro-choice groups increased from seven to 17, and some 65 organisations supported Saturday’s march.
But what was more striking than the numbers were the voices; articulate, loud and straight-talking. No one was afraid to speak their truth, from the organisers and activists right down to first-time marcher Aideen Quirke who came from Cork to join friends and relatives to march for choice.
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“I’ve never even been on a march before, but this is too important. Something has to be done. In Tipperary [her native county], 70 women went to England for abortions last year,” she said.
Singer Mary Coughlan spoke about her own experience of making that journey from Galway to London for an abortion.
“When I got to the clinic in Ealing, I was surprised to see so many of the women that had already been on the boat in the clinic that morning. I remember one girl, in particular. She was supposed to be studying overnight in a friend’s house for her Leaving Certificate. And she made the journey alone, as I did, as have thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands of women over the years.”
She said she had been involved in many campaigns but Saturday’s rally was surely the most joyous. And what a contrast from the attitudes of the 1970s when Mary Coughlan tried to set up a family planning clinic in Galway. “They threw eggs at us and said the rosary outside. We were shut down,” she recalled.
A new generation has grown up since Ireland voted in a referendum in 1983 to insert the eighth amendment into the Constitution. It reads: “The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.”
Earlier on Saturday, the Pro-Life Campaign said the amendment had saved an estimated 100,000 lives since 1994 and called for it to be retained.
As the crowd marched from the Garden of Remembrance through the streets of Dublin, there were others who spoke out against abortion. One man shouted, “abortion is to stop a beating heart” from the sidelines, but the counter-protests were few.
This was a day for the pro-choice movement and the campaign for free, legal and safe abortion in Ireland. There were high-profile marchers – actor Cillian Murphy among them – but the spotlight was on ordinary women (and men) who held their banners high.
“Treat us like queens, not breeding machines,” read one. “Ovary reacting for choice,” read another, and there was an impressive array of womb puns, such as “Womb for improvement” and “To womb it concerns”.
The march was bookended by speeches from women who fleshed out the experiences behind those slogans. Louise Bruton, who writes Legless in Dublin, the wheelchair access blog, said she wanted to know that she would be in safe hands if she ever got pregnant.
“As a disabled woman, I spend my life following medical guidelines to make sure that I don’t fall apart. Doctors give me the ultimate choice in everything that happens to me. If I get pregnant, these choices are gone,” she said.
Traveller and disabled activist Rosaleen McDonagh said the Irish pro-choice movement needed to broaden and include the voices of speakers from every minority, a view shared by asylum-seeker Ellie Kisyombe.
“This issue is for all of us. I don’t lose the fight without a fight,” Ellie said, raising a deafening cheer from the crowd and echoing the theme of this year’s march, ‘Rise and Repeal’.
“This is our Rising,” said organiser Linda Kavanagh. “Enough blood has been spilled, enough women have died. No more shame, no more silence, no more stigma.”
WHAT THE MARCHERS SAID
Emma Burns, Tipperary
We are marching because, every year, women from Tipperary have to travel to the UK to access abortion. There were 70 in 2015 and 101 in 2013. We just feel it is time now that women are able to access care in their own country. We hope the march will show that the 81% of people who support some change in the law are ready to become active and to make their voices heard. This issue can’t be swept away any more.
Aifric Bruen, Galway
Final year student in English and Drama at UCD
I believe that the eighth amendment should be repealed because it’s your own body and you should be able to do what you want with it. There are a lot of countries where you can do that. We are a western country and are ahead in so many other areas. This [amendment] is old-fashioned and it belongs in old Ireland. Hopefully, the march will mean the eighth will be repealed.
Ranae von Meding, from Chicago and Dublin
I think it’s really important that everyone has a choice. Everyone has slightly different views on abortion, but you don’t have a right to choose for someone else. I’ve just had my own daughter Ava, with my wife Audrey. I think, what if something had been wrong with her and she had been incompatible with life. It’s so traumatic to have to end a pregnancy without having to go abroad to do it. That is unthinkable.
Peter Davidson, Belfast
A coachload of us came down from Belfast for the day. I am gay myself and I’ve had people come to Pride events to support me, so I thought I’d pay them back. [Repealing the eighth] is long overdue. Looking around and seeing the number of people here, it’s only so long before the voices in these kind of numbers can be ignored.
Hazel Moran, artist from Dublin
I’m completely pro-choice. I think it’s important to come out so that women have rights over their own bodies. It’s important to be supportive of all women, even those who didn’t come out today.
Andrew Robinson, Dublin
In 1983, the Constitution was butchered and this unclear amendment was put into it. It took ten years before it was determined how the amendment would operate legally and that was done by the Supreme Court in the X Case. It took a further ten years for the legislature to catch up. The law we have on how it operates doesn’t really help women in this country. I believe that hatchet job in the Constitution should be removed and repealed.
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