On Monday night, when the Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar announced that there would be a referendum on abortion in May this year, hundreds of thousands of Irish women celebrated. Many had been waiting for this moment for decades.
Ann Rossiter was one of them. The first time I spoke to the 73-year-old, she was busy sewing a costume to wear at a rally outside the Irish Embassy in London. “I’m going to be up until midnight making this!” she said, laughing. “But when you hear my story, you’ll understand why I’ve dedicated most of my life to this issue.”
Originally from Limerick in the Republic of Ireland, the artist, writer, performer and teacher has been campaigning on reproductive rights for over 50 years. Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws, which force thousands of women to travel abroad every year for terminations or illegally purchase pills online, have been a particular focus.
A co-founder of the Irish Women’s Abortion Support Group (IWASG), Rossiter has helped hundreds of women access safe abortions in the UK over the years. Today, she performs with activist group Speaking of IMELDA, whose stunts include “knicker bombing” former Irish prime minister Enda Kenny during a London dinner.
I have family members in Ireland who think what I do is evil. But I see my work as political, and that’s what keeps me going
The reasons behind Rossiter’s work are deeply personal. She first came to London as a student in the early 1960s; shortly afterwards she got pregnant. Abortion was still illegal in the UK, so Rossiter, desperate to have “a life before a child” (as she terms it), found a backstreet provider through a friend. The abortionist botched the procedure and she suffered septicaemia, a damaged uterus and a huge loss of blood. “I didn’t want any other woman to have to resort to what I had,” she explains.
After living in France and Spain and witnessing the start of the women’s movement, Rossiter returned to London shortly after the 1967 Abortion Act came into place, legalising the procedure in the UK. “Many Irish people were moving over and a network of women grew,” she explains. “I think those of us who’ve been touched by this issue [of abortion] naturally find each other – we have an antennae of sorts.”
Rossiter explains that backstreet abortion providers didn’t really exist in Ireland, but travelling to the UK wasn’t possible for many. Irish women faced huge barriers. Information and support was hard to come by, particularly for poorer women in rural areas, who would often travel to payphones to contact organisations such as Marie Stopes. “And when you called an international number through the switchboard, the operator sometimes stayed on the line,” she recalls.
“We had a rota of up to six volunteers running a helpline,” she explains. “Sometimes we just supported women over the phone, but often we’d assist with the whole process – meeting her at the port or train station, taking her home and providing dinner, getting up at the crack of dawn to escort her to the clinic then eventually helping her travel back to Ireland… I had so many people in and out of my house, it was like living in a hostel!”
To evade detection, the group invented the code word “Imelda” – a common Irish first name – for women to use if they were in danger of being overheard on the telephone or in public areas.
In 1985, a huge crackdown took place in Ireland and providing information or travelling abroad for a termination were made illegal. Phone numbers of UK-based support groups were ripped out of the Yellow Pages and the back of magazines such as Cosmopolitan.
“We went over there and put stickers in women’s toilets with our telephone number on, or spray-painted it on the sides of bridges,” says Rossiter. “Women took huge risks to travel to Britain. They’d give a cover story at the port such as going on a shopping trip or visiting a sister.”
The ban on travel was lifted in 1992, and the IWASG remained active until 2000. “Our services were less required thanks to the internet, cheap credit and flights, and the removal of the overnight clause,” she explains. Rossiter rarely stayed in touch with the women she hosted or helped. “There was so much shame involved, they usually just wanted to return home and cut ties,” she says.
Rossiter continued campaigning and wrote a book, Ireland’s Hidden Diaspora, on the history of the underground women’s networks. She also kept in contact with her fellow ex-IWASG volunteers. “All those shared experiences supporting women in desperate circumstances, and the hairy moments when planes were delayed, women were held at army checkpoints or gestation deadlines were missed,” she recalls. “You could say the bond between our sisterhood remains.”
In 2013, she and other ex-IWASG women teamed up with younger activists to form Speaking of IMELDA (Ireland Making England the Legal Destination for Abortion), named after the code word used by the IWASG. The group raises awareness of the issue through performance and direct action. “It’s a shot in the arm to be working with younger women,” she says. “We learn from them and they learn from us.”
Although news of the referendum has been met with excitement, Rossiter is cautious, too. “There’s no certainty we will win it, and if we do it may be tight,” she says. “It’s not the same situation as the equal-marriage referendum.”
IMELDA will be campaigning heavily in the run-up to May and, despite the recent turnaround, Rossiter admits that fighting this issue for over 50 years hasn’t been easy. “I have family members in Ireland who think what I do is evil,” she tells me. “But I see my work as political, and that’s what keeps me going."
“If all our demands are realised, I’ll be looking for another cause – I guess campaigning is in my blood now.”