Right to protest, Right to choose

On Wednesday evening, Oxford Students for Life hosted a talk on ‘Abortion in Ireland’ in St. John's College with Breda O'Brien and Lorcan Price. Both are well known activists in Irish anti-choice movements. Breda is patron of the Iona Institute, Lorcan is legal advisor to the Pro-life Campaign Ireland. These well-financed groups are gaining momentum in the run up to a crucial referendum on the 8th amendment of the Irish constitution. It is vital that we stand in solidarity with women and pregnant people in Ireland and show our continued support for their right to exercise control over their own bodies.

Currently, abortion is illegal in the Republic of Ireland in all circumstances except in cases where the life of the mother is in danger, and is illegal in Northern Ireland with a few exceptions. Women and pregnant people are forced to either travel to the UK, or to break the law and risk up to 14 years in prison. A number of women have recently been prosecuted in Northern Ireland.

The 8th amendment in the Republic of Ireland’s constitution continues to deny Irish residents full access to reproductive healthcare. These laws are rooted in patriarchy and institutionalised misogyny. They strip women of their right to bodily autonomy. The speakers at last night’s event wish to maintain this status quo, placing women’s lives in very real danger.

This disproportionately punishes those who are most marginalised, including those who cannot afford to travel, and those with precarious legal status. It is also important to remember that the speakers advance a position that ensures that women from Northern Ireland are treated differently to the rest of their counterparts from the UK, despite being UK citizens and paying the same amount of tax towards the NHS.

This year children have been sectioned under the Mental Health Act, and suicidal women have been denied access to the abortion they’re entitled to under the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act because their doctor doesn’t think they’re ‘suicidal’ enough. Just a few days ago, on Sunday 28th October, was the 5th anniversary of the death of Savita Halappanavar, who died because she was denied access to a termination. This demonstrates the impact of Ireland’s abortion laws and why WomCam engaged in a protest last night.

We do not believe that the speakers invited should be hosted without challenge. WomCam was advancing its right to freedom of expression and expressing solidarity with the thousands of Irish women and people who are pregnant subject to “cruel, inhumane and degrading” treatment every year’ as cited by the UN Human Rights Committee

The status quo has to change.

Protesters, including some from WomCam, entered the event peacefully, and interrupted it by standing up and chanting pro-choice slogans for almost an hour. Security from St. John’s College attempted to forcibly remove protesters from the room almost immediately. Protesters did not use force in response.

After their attempts to silence us failed, the College called the police. This was a clear attempt to intimidate protesters, as we were not breaking the law. After chanting for almost an hour, we were escorted out of the college by police officers and porters while the event continued in the original room.

We were not protesting Oxford Students for Life or their speakers’ right to free speech. Rather, we were demonstrating that the speakers’ views deny millions of people bodily autonomy, that subject them to forced pregnancy, resulting in cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment, and sometimes death. Both Breda and Lorcan are a very powerful part of this lobby.

This is a matter of life and death that has a devastating effect upon the lives of the women and pregnant people it impacts.

Bodily autonomy is not up for debate; it is not a question of opinion. Access to healthcare is a basic human right. We will continue fighting until all people have access to free, safe and legal abortion in Ireland, and everywhere.