Intersectionality in Ireland’s Abortion Debate

by Elizabeth Egan

Elizabeth Egan ’19 was a Program on Human Rights in the Human Economy Fellow in the summer quarter of 2018.

During the summer of 2018, I completed a co-op at the Centre for Disability Law and Policy(the Centre) at the National University of Ireland, Galway. The Centre advocates for the rights of persons with disabilities throughout the world, through research and legislative submissions grounded in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. A central lesson of my co-op experience was the critical importance of including individuals with disabilities in social justice movements — and recognizing that such individuals are not a homogenous group, but vary with respect to characteristics such as age, gender, race, and nationality. This was highlighted through my observation of the last week of a heated debate in Ireland on abortion rights, and through attending the Centre’s annual summer conference on disability issues.

When I first arrived in Galway in late May, the abortion debate in Ireland was in full swing. A referendum on the Constitution of Ireland’s Eighth Amendment, which had effectively banned abortion since it was signed into law in 1983, was scheduled for the end of my first week there. Whenever I stepped outside, I was inundated with confusing rhetoric regarding the referendum, including a controversial sign for the “No” campaign suggesting that repealing the Eighth Amendment would lead to the widespread abortion of fetuses with Down’s Syndrome.

In the lead-up to the referendum, stereotypes about disability frequently played into the discussion surrounding abortion. Pro-life campaigners emphasized the possibility that expectant mothers would terminate pregnancies if a physical or intellectual disability was discovered in-utero. This argument was made over the objection of prominent Irish disability advocates, who argued that many people with disabilities felt tokenized and exploited by such assertions.

The pro-choice movement, for its part, excluded disabled women and girls of child-bearing age from the wider discussion by failing to take into account the ways the Eighth Amendment disproportionally impacted such individuals. For example, these individuals are more likely to experience barriers that would prevent them from traveling beyond Ireland for an abortion. In addition, they are more likely to have complex health needs which might exclude them from some types of abortion procedures available to able-bodied women.

The “Yes” campaign ultimately prevailed, and on May 25, 2018, Ireland’s Eighth Amendment was repealed by a wide margin, with almost two-thirds voting in favor of repeal. A few weeks later, the Centre held its annual International Disability Law Summer School conference, which provided an opportunity to reflect on disability issues in general, and on the ways in which these issues had surfaced in the abortion debate in Ireland, in an academic setting. The conference, Intersectionality in the areas of women, older persons, and children with disabilities, was attended by delegates from 50 countries. The event highlighted the fact that treating individuals with disabilities as a homogenous block has negative consequences in the disability context — and serves to exclude people with disabilities from other social movements.

The conference provided a setting for analyzing the shortcomings of the “Yes” campaign with respect to disability issues. I was impressed with the diverse perspectives of speakers and panelists, and left the conference with a greater understanding of issues faced by activists within both reproductive justice and disability justice movements. Conference attendees called for a more inclusive and thoughtful reproductive justice movement. I have no doubt that the Centre will continue to advocate for the needs of women and girls with disabilities as Ireland moves forward with post-referendum legislation and policy on reproductive rights.

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