Hundreds gathered in front of the Dáil last month to take part in the 10th annual March for Choice, organized and led by the Abortion Rights Campaign (ARC). This year’s message of the march was loud and clear: deliver fully on the promises made by the 2018 Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act and make abortion services – and women’s healthcare – genuinely accessible throughout the entirety of Ireland.

“There was a solid crowd out”, said UCDSU President, Ruairi Power, who attended the march remarked. In regards to the demographics of the march, Power noted there were a “fairly diverse group of speakers” with a “good spread across age groups”. Further, Power recognized that the speakers highlighted the remaining barriers to [abortion] access to marginalised groups with a sentiment of determination.

ARC spokeswoman, Joanne Neary, was one of those who addressed the crowd of activists, many of whom touted signs with phrases like, “My Uterus is Mad”, and “Keep your ideology off my bodily autonomy”. Neary cited various challenges still facing women seeking abortion care in 2021 from the basics of transportation to a provider that offers abortion services, in particular the difficulty for those in rural Ireland, to simply finding a provider who does offer abortion services as approximately 90% of GP’s refuse to provide such services and only half of maternity hospitals perform abortions. Power described this lack of service as an overall “sense that what was promised was in 218 has yet to be delivered on.” 

Neary also criticized the restrictions set forth by the Act itself, namely the mandatory three-day period between consultation and procedure as well as the 12-week limit that restricts how long a woman has legal access to abortion services. Depending on where a woman lives, this short time frame could be the deciding factor in whether she is forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term.

She further denounced the provision that allows doctors to refuse abortion services; according to several anecdotes on the ARC website, it is not unheard of for physicians to abuse this right by illegally refusing to refer their patients to doctors who do provide such care. Under the Health Act, a doctor who objects to providing abortion care is obligated to transfer their patient to another physician who will. 

Among the speakers that day was Yvie Murphy of “Together for Safety”, a national campaign that is calling for “the implementation of safe access zones around all family planning centres, maternity hospitals and health care facilities in Ireland.” According to their website, “safe access zones are fixed areas around such facilities where protesting, intimidating behaviour and/or communication about abortion would be strictly and legally prohibited.” 

The need for these safe zones, Murphy recounted, is paramount – countless women seeking abortions have experienced fear, intimidation, and harassment from protesters that surround GP surgeries and maternity hospitals. Beyond patients, these protesters also negatively impact surrounding businesses, Together for Safety reports, pointing to the harmful effect their actions can have on the community at large.

In response to these particular points, Minister of Health, Stephen Donnelly, said that he “plans to have proposals for safe access zones on the legislative programme for spring 2022″. He affirmed his ongoing commitment to providing broad access to safe abortions, stating that it remains among his top priorities. 

Power echoed Minister Donnelly’s affirmation of support for those seeking better, safer access to abortion services, as well as Neary’s and Murphy’s specific legislative goals. Power states that the “establishment of safe access zones and regulation of rogue crisis pregnancy agencies is long overdue. We’re also supportive of scrapping the medically unnecessary 3-day waiting period and removing the 12-week limit.”

He went on to call for more and faster recommendations from the Oireachtas committee on the 8th amendment, particularly concerning the provision on “objective sex education, and the rollout of universal access to contraception.” 

The Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act of 2018 was a much needed first step towards universal abortion rights in Ireland – but clearly, when one looks at the picture that was painted by this year’s March for Choice, there are many more steps to take.

There has been one recent step towards free contraception very recently – it was announced on Tuesday, October 12, 2021, that beginning in 2022 free contraception will be provided for young women between the ages of 17-25, although the scope of that contraception is, for the moment, somewhat unclear.

Maura Corkery – Politics Writer