My Experience as a Repeal Campaigner

As Ireland faces the abortion referendum today, Irish feminist writer, Sarah Lennon Galavan writes about her experience of being an active campaigner of the Repeal the 8th movement.

Words by Sarah Lennon Galavan
Photography by Ruth Guest

“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.” – Article 40.3.3, Bunreacht na hÉireann/Constitution of Ireland.

Dublin is my home. Her streets are my streets. Now, she feels like a city under siege. Posters in primary colours climb lamp posts, boldly proclaim their slogans. From the Irish, sluagh ghairm. War cry. “A LICENCE TO KILL?” “MY BODY, MY CHOICE” Last September, I made a poster of my own with cardboard and red craft paper. NOLITE TE BASTARDES CARBORUNDORUM, which read; ‘Don’t let the bastards grind you down’, a quote from Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale. I carried it with me like a shield as I marched for the repeal of the 8th Amendment at the annual March for Choice.

Introduced in 1983, the 8th makes abortion illegal in all but the most limited of circumstances. It rules that the life of the foetus is equal to that of the mother. As Irish women, we live and die by it. I go canvassing. Vote Yes. “Is that a bum?” the veteran asked. It was. There was a miniature Grecian goddess in the window, her mabled ass mooning whoever so happened to ring the bell. A middle-aged woman came to the door. Saw our badges and high-vis vests. The Maser heart across my own. ‘REPEAL’ across my chest. “This is a pro-life house.” The door slams. 

“I’m not sure how I’m going to vote.” She wears a gold cross around her neck. Soft Dub accent: “t’s are “ds”.  I tell her why I’m voting ‘Yes’. For the nine women who travel to the UK every day. For the 3 who take illegal abortion pills in secret, risking incarceration and death. “We already have abortion in Ireland,” I say. “Yeah, I can see both sides. I’ll make up my mind.” She takes a leaflet. Her nails are long and fuchsia pink.

I knock on doors for the women who can’t. 

Miss X: You were only 14. A neighbour raped you. You wanted to go to England for a termination. Suicidal. They wouldn’t let you go. You won the court case. Miscarried before you were free. 

Miss Y: Asylum seeker. You came to Ireland for safety. To escape the man who raped you back home. You tried to go to England. They stopped you. No visa. You wanted to die. Went on hunger strike. They forced you to drink. Kept you alive until the baby was born. 

Miss P: You were already a mother. Two kids of your own and 15 weeks pregnant. You started getting bad headaches. One day, you collapsed. Brain dead. They kept your body on life-support, as it swelled and rotted. 

Savita: A willing mother. A wanted child. You were miscarrying. The baby couldn’t survive. You asked for an abortion. Not want but need. Sepsis had taken hold. They refused. “This is a Catholic Country.” Dead in Galway,  hospital bed. Your face haunts us. 

The house is a little scruffy. The lawn hasn’t been mown. Probably someone older. We wait. As the door opens, I can smell boiled ham and dusty carpets. She’s reticent, hiding behind the door. “Have you considered how you’ll vote in the upcoming referendum?” I smile. “I am voting….” She takes a breath. Lets the word hang in the air. Like one of those competitions on TV, where the tempo builds as cameras zoom in on the worried faces of the contestants. “YES”.

It’s yes that makes it all worthwhile. There’s an “of course” from a stylish woman in her thirties. Inside, I can see her children playing on the immaculate wooden floorboards. “Sure, who would vote no?” a father asks me with a smile. Fine lines around his mouth, a smoker. “It’s not my house,” he says as he opens the door, a little dishevelled. A little older than I am, paint splatters on his T-shirt. We start to leave, but he stops us. “But they’re all voting yes.” I want to shout for joy, throw my arms around them. But I just say thank you. And I mean it. Thank you for understanding that life isn’t black and white. Thank you for trusting women to make the right decision for our circumstances, our bodies, our families. Thank you for believing my life matters. I just wish I didn’t have to ask.