Pro-choice Irish women go public on being ‘exiled’ by need for an abortion

X-ile Project challenges stigmatisation of abortion in Ireland by publishing photographs of women forced to travel to Britain by Republics near-total ban

Eleven Irish women who have travelled to Britain for abortions are allowing their names and faces to be published on the internet to highlight Irelands near-total ban on terminations.

The 11 are the first wave of an unprecedented project launched on Thursday to coincide with World Human Rights Day that will see dozens of women from Ireland going public about taking the abortion trail across the Irish Sea.

The publication of the womens faces will be accompanied by a protest outside the gates of Trinity College Dublin with 12 pro-choice activists forming a human chain for 12 minutes. The figure marks the average number of Irish women and girls who go to Britain for terminations every day due to the almost total ban on abortions in the Republics hospitals.

Katie ONeill, photographer of the pro-choice group X-ile Project, who took most of the pictures of the 11 women, said she instructed them to look straight at the lens in order to tell Ireland: I am here please look at me.

Abortion in the Irish Republic is only permitted in extremely limited circumstances. Pro-choice campaigners both within and outside the Irish medical profession have argued that there is a major chill factor hanging over medical teams even in cases affected by the law passed in 2013.

The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013 allows for abortion when continuing with a pregnancy would result in the mothers death, or in cases where the woman is suicidal. Despite this legislation, women who are victims of rape and in many cases suicidal are still refused abortions in Irish hospitals. The law also imposes a prison sentence of 14 years for any member of a medical team that carries out a termination beyond those limited exceptions.

The organisers of the campaign to highlight women who have travelled from Ireland to the UK for abortions. Photograph: Katie O’Neill

ONeill said the main aim of the new campaign was to de-stigmatise abortion by showing ordinary women who have been forced to leave their country. We feel women are being exiled from Ireland due to legislation here that is not allowing women to access their full rights to medical care. On average over 12 women per day leave Ireland to access basic procedures in Britain that they should be able to have at home.

What we are trying do with this project is to force the Irish public and the government to look at these women that they are exiling out of the country and to see that these women are their sisters, their mothers, their partners and people that they see every day in the street.

Everyone knows someone who has travelled over to England and we want to put a face to those stories, she said.

ONeill stressed that all the women who agreed to go public signed consent forms but did not have to explain their back story about being exiled on the abortion trail. Another of the X-ile Project campaigners, Laura Lovejoy, said the website would become an open door for other women who have had abortions abroad to add their names and faces to the gallery.

The women will get in touch with us and then we will set up photoshoots with Katie. Rather than us contacting them we have an open door that will allow women that want to join the gallery contacting us.

Lovejoy said that while most of the original 11 in the gallery are from Greater Dublin, with two now living in London, they range in ages from the early 20s to women in their early 50s.

She said that the overall aim was to put faces on the 1,000 invisible exiled women a year whom both the Department of Health in Britain and the Irish Family Planning Association say travel across the Irish Sea for abortions. Obviously, its about changing the law and the legislation, but its also about generating the sense of a community or a support network for women, Lovejoy added.

The Republics near-total ban on abortion is set to become a major issue in the countrys general election, which is expected to be held in February or March. The taoiseach, Enda Kenny, has suggested there will be a free vote in the next Irish parliament, or Dil, to allow for a referendum on the 8th amendment to the Irish constitution. The Irish Labour party has said a fresh referendum on the amendment may be a pre-condition for the party entering another coalition government.

The amendment was introduced via a referendum in the republic in 1983. Irelands then politically dominant anti-abortion lobby in alliance with the Catholic church forced the then Fine Gael-Labour coalition under the late Garret FitzGerald to hold a national vote on whether to in effect make an embryo into an Irish citizen. The amendment was passed with 67% voting in favour.

Any move to abolish the amendment would require a new abortion referendum, which could be far more divisive than the vote to endorse gay marriage in Ireland in May this year.

However, pro-choice groups such as X-ile Project believe there has to be full abortion rights with the same basis in law as in Britain, a move that would meet with fierce resistance from Irelands powerful anti-abortion lobby groups as well as the Catholic church.


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