Unseeing pedestrians smudge the white chalk underfoot as they rush past the Irish embassy, unaware of the demonstration that has taken place minutes before.
Look at the pavement more closely and they’d see a powerful silent protest. Each of the 205,704 women from Ireland and Northern Ireland who have had to travel to the UK to have an abortion since 1983 are represented with a tiny white mark, a tribute made at London’s March For Choice demonstration on Saturday.
For years, women have had to take on the traumatic journey alone to carry out the operation in a country where the procedure is legal, at great emotional and financial cost. But, for the first time in 34 years, there is a real possibility that the abortion ban in Ireland could be lifted, following Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s promise of a referendum on the topic in May or June next year.
Sarah Murphy, a volunteer for demonstration organisers London Irish Abortion Rights Campaign, welcomes the move but is concerned about what form the vote will take. “The referendum has been promised to us, but there's been no date set and unfortunately no wording,” the 34-year-old told The Pool. “What we want is the full repeal of the Eighth Amendment in the Irish constitution – we want full access to free, safe abortion. We hope it's not going to be a watered-down version, but we just have to wait and see what's on the table.”
Among the 500-strong protesters is activist Jojo Holland, born in Ireland in 1983, the same year the Eighth Amendment was voted in with a referendum. Backed at the time by two-thirds of Irish voters, the amendment recognises the equal right to life of the mother and unborn child, effectively making it impossible for any government to introduce legislation allowing abortions except in exceptional circumstances.
“For me, it’s not just about abortion – it’s about power,” says Holland. “When you equate the rights of a foetus to the rights of a fully grown human woman, you’re immediately taking power away from women.
Once the wording is decided, the referendum campaign is likely to be fraught in a country where more than 78 per cent of residents identify as Catholic
“People need to realise that Ireland is now a multicultural community with many different religions, many different viewpoints. Abortion rights should no longer be dictated to by the Catholic Church or by any religion, or by a government that is mostly male.”
Once the wording is decided, the referendum campaign is likely to be fraught in a country where more than 78 per cent of residents identify as Catholic. Ireland’s abortion laws are some of the strictest in the world, only allowing abortion if it happens as the result of a medical intervention performed to save the life of the mother.
Avril Corroon, an artist and activist who has just moved to London from Dublin, believes it’s vital for feminists across the UK to raise awareness ahead of the referendum to support their Irish sisters. “I think it’s pivotal that there’s solidarity,” she added, referencing the 40-odd pro-choice rallies taking place across the world to support the thousands marching in Dublin. “It’s very important to have political pressure from outside Ireland as well and to make people realise that this is happening, get it into the press in Europe and elsewhere.”
The 26-year-old said she found it “shocking” how many people were unaware of the criminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland, despite the fact it’s part of the UK. Both Irish immigrants and non-Irish supporters have important roles to play, she said.
“Everybody needs to get on the campaign, to knock on doors, to have that difficult conversation with your grandma, to talk to your neighbour,” Avril explained. “People need to be really honest, talk about it in the workplace, question how they think about this and, if it’s a choice, framing it properly and educating each other.”
Support is more vital now than ever ahead of what could be an extremely close referendum. A poll by Ipsos MRBI/Irish Times in late May indicates that two-thirds of Irish voters were against abortion on request. The survey found 82 per cent agreed with abortion when there was a serious risk to the health of a woman, 76 per cent when the pregnancy was a result of rape and 67 per cent when there was a foetal abnormality that was likely to lead to death.
If free, safe, legal abortion is to become a reality in Ireland, it is clear that there is a lot of work to be done by feminists in and outside of Ireland. Standing before their chalk symbols, volunteer Sarah is defiant.
“The priority is that there's solidarity, that women are not alone,” she says. “Women who make this voyage are often doing it alone. So, it's quite symbolic and it's quite important to us that, just because we're not there, we can still help represent them."
Their needs were simple, she insisted. "We would like a full repeal of the Eighth. This is something we should be fighting for all day, every day, regardless of our nationality.”