Organizing Towards Reproductive Freedom on the Island of Ireland



In a country that still struggles against British colonialism towards reunification, catholic-inspired legislation restricting abortion access provides another front for feminists on the island of Ireland. Maeve O’Brien, who has experience of organizing on both sides of the colonial line, describes the many efforts carried out by activists towards reproductive freedom.

One night in May 2022, like heartbeats across the island of Ireland, mobile phones sprang to life with dormant WhatsApp groups jumping to the top of the conversation queues once more. I received one such notification myself, and, blurredly looking at the screen, could feel the exhumation of a collective national rage that had quietened during the COVID-19 pandemic and since the Repeal referendum of 2018.

These messages called reproductive justice activists to action, to once again protest the institutional intertwining of sexual and reproductive healthcare with the Catholic Church. In a plan staggeringly devoid of reflection, it was proposed by the Irish Government that the new National Maternity Hospital (NMH) should be built in Dublin on land rented to the government by the Sisters of Charity, a holy order founded in Ireland in 1815. Offering the government a lease for 299 years, the Catholic Church’s stake in sexual and reproductive healthcare would be felt for generations.

Less than 48 hours later, the issue was trending on Twitter under #MakeNMHOurs, and hundreds of activists and representatives from civic society were standing at the gates of Government Buildings demanding this actions to be ceased: the island was once again abuzz with feminist resistance.

In post-Repeal Ireland, with two-thirds of the country having voted in favor of abortion rights by removing the archaic 1983 Eighth Amendment from the constitution—an amendment that equated the the right to life of the unborn to that of the pregnant person—it was anticipated that change would and should come quickly. However, paternalistic three-day waiting periods, lack of provision (particularly in rural areas), and restrictions post-12 weeks are still forcing pregnant people to travel to England to access abortion services there. So too, in the north of Ireland, the devolved unionist Health Minister Robin Swann has refused to commission abortion services, despite the decriminalization of abortion in this region in 2019. This means that between April 2021 and 2022, 367 people from the island of Ireland made the traumatizing journey to England during a global pandemic to seek an abortion that they should have access to at home.