Una Mullally on Repeal the 8th Anthology

On 25 May, Ireland goes to the polls to decide whether to Repeal the 8th Amendment. The Skinny talks to Una Mullally on her anthology, which captures the movement

Feature by Heather McDaid | 27 Apr 2018
  • Repeal

[Content warning: abortion, miscarriage, sexual assault]

Jumpers are black, with a single word in bold white text emblazoned across it: REPEAL. It has become a symbol of protest worn across thousands of chests; that word speaks for a movement looking to claim body autonomy for Irish women, and give them legal access to abortions. The Repeal the 8th Anthology, edited by Una Mullally, is equally as bold as it lays the numbers bare, unavoidable in their impact: 3,989 women travelled to the UK to access abortion services in 2016 alone; 22 million abortions take place across the world unsafely each year; 14 – the number of years’ imprisonment any women or girl found procuring an abortion can be sentenced to under Irish Law.

Change, however, could be on the horizon. The Eighth Amendment has faced protest since its introduction to the Irish constitution in 1983 – equating the ‘life of the unborn’ with that of the mother, meaning that abortion was criminalised, and those involved in the process also. On 25 May, the country goes to the polls for a referendum on repealing the Eighth Amendment, and for new legislation to then be introduced.

They have been fighting for a long time, but a number of cultural shifts really brought the issue to the fore of public consciousness. “One particular moment was the death of a woman called Savita Halappanavar,” explains Mullally. “She was a 31-year-old woman who lived in Galway. She died in October 2012 when she was having a miscarriage; she asked for an abortion, that was refused in the hospital because it’s illegal, and she died of complications of a septic miscarriage. That created massive protest, and forced government to introduce legislation that allowed for abortion in extraordinarily restrictive circumstances. For example, a risk of life to the mother. That legislation is completely unworkable and has remained unworkable.”

Mullally talks about the waves of feminism sweeping the world with focus on body autonomy – the openness for people to tell their stories, particularly those in the public eye, has greatly helped raise the profile of the movement. She acknowledges at every stage of the discussion that for every one story told, there are many we’ll never hear; for every woman who goes through the pain of travelling for an abortion, there are many who could never afford to do so.

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And that’s how she came to launch the Repeal the 8th Anthology on Unbound – to capture the movement, experiences, creativity of protest; to showcase what women were fighting for, but also the lengths left to go, even if the vote is won.

“I’ve always been interested in social movements and in social justice,” she explains. “My first book was an oral history of the movement for marriage equality in Ireland, to document a very fragmented but really vibrant social and political movement. For this, I wanted to bring together the art and the literature that has emerged from the movement for reproductive rights and that has been inspired by the Repeal movement in particular. 

“I see social movements as very creative movements. There’s an awful lot of art and literature and creativity that comes out of campaigning. I often find that when the objectives of social movements are achieved, a lot of that creativity is forgotten or lost. People take down the posters, or don’t think of the art in the discourse.

“Look at the art that has emerged from the Black Lives Matter movement or the Gun Control argument in the US, you see these amazing artists, amazing banners, slogans; people making songs, everyone from rappers to folk singers really expressing themselves creatively about the environment that they’re in. T-shirts, badges – a lot of it doesn’t get archived. I wanted to capture that because there is something very creative about people trying to change their societies. It’s not just about lobbying and legislation, it’s much bigger than that.

“When we’re trying to change our world, the way we think about it is creatively and we try to move people in ways that parliamentary politics doesn’t really speak to. A few years ago I was in New York. I went to the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn; the two older women who had actually founded it were there. I went upstairs and they had these file cabinets and bookshelves of all these amazing t-shirts from the 70s and 80s, a lot of the activism, the magazines, zines. I’d heard of the movement obviously, but I’d never seen the creative work that had come out of it and it just got me thinking – there is so much amazing stuff that comes out of these movements and it just gets packed away.”

That messy nature, many grassroots movements coming together into one collective for a shared cause, was key in all areas. Even with the same goal, people come at it from different perspectives, and so she wanted to make sure those not at the forefront weren’t forgotten. “People who are most affected by the Eighth Amendment in Ireland, who are worst affected by it, are migrant women, and poor women, and trans people. When you talk about reproductive rights, a lot of people who have privilege are able to circumvent bans. That’s still a terrible experience but actually examining what’s going on in the North, where the British government has completely left women in Northern Ireland high and dry…

“I think a lot of people don’t even know about it – if, and hopefully when, Ireland Repeals the Eighth Amendment, women in Northern Ireland will still be criminalised for having abortions. There are women in Northern Ireland who have been arrested for taking abortion pills, there are feminist activists in Northern Ireland who have had their premises raided by police looking for abortion pills that they are illegally importing to help poor women. That is just an abomination.

“Migrant women in particular in Ireland – we have a system called direct provision, where asylum seekers are essentially imprisoned indefinitely. A couple of years ago, a migrant teenager arrived in the country having been raped, she was suicidal and couldn’t travel for an abortion – she was forced to remain pregnant and have a C-section. Those are the worst, most terrible cases.

“It’s always going to be most vulnerable, the most marginalised and the poorest people that suffer from this legislation. It’s really important to have an activist voice in there that’s actually looking at those opinions, and also the writing in the book is coming from different places.”

The Repeal the 8th Anthology captures a moment, a movement. What does she hope readers take from the book, whether they read it before or after the referendum? “I hope if they read it before the referendum they’ll get motivated to get involved in the campaign, to canvas, fundraise, have conversations with their friends and families about why we need to vote yes.

“I hope afterwards that it will remain an archive of this moment in time that will hopefully be over soon, that has been going on for far too long. I hope that people realise that social movements are driven by grassroots, they are driven by people on the streets, by artists and people from the margins, because that’s what’s actually changing things here. We’re constantly told that people don’t have any power but the reason we’re having this referendum is because of the hard work that has been done for decades and decades by activists, and also a new generation of activists now.

“For people outside of Ireland who are reading that and want to change something for the better, know that people do actually have the power. As trite as that can sometimes sound, that is a fact. The more people who agitate for change in a creative way, in a respectful way, and in a way that is forceful and has righteous anger behind it, those changes will actually happen. In any social movement, the thing that drives it forward is solidarity and we need as much of that as we can get.”

The Repeal the 8th Anthology edited by Una Mullally is out now. 50% of profits go towards the Together for Yes campaign