Impressions of yesterday’s abortion rights meeting in Dublin

The following is the text of my report to Cork Women’s Right To Choose about the national abortion rights meeting in Dublin yesterday afternoon.

I found it quite a strange meeting that didn’t really know what it was about. In some ways it was good and in other ways not so good and even a bit worrying. There were well over 100 people present, overwhelmingly from Dubin and many who were new activists from the Dublin protests. 

As a meeting to integrate those new activists who have attended the protests in Dublin I think it worked pretty well. It provided information about the history of the pro-choice movement in Ireland and did some inclusive workshop style exercises to generate ideas, these were perhaps a bit rushed but that is a minor criticism. One good idea they had was a code of conduct for the meeting which was put on every chair – Sandra took a copy and is going to add a couple of things for us to use for our meeting on Monday.
However as the launch meeting of a new national campaign (as I heard Sinead Kennedy describing it in a radio interview as I drove home later that night) it was very deficient in my opinion.
They referred a few times to earlier meetings of activists which had made the decisions on the initial structures and come up with the proposals on campaign name and aims. These were presented as being democratic and involving activists from all over the country – as we know from Sandra’s experience this is, at best, something of an exaggeration.
The issue of the name was dealt with in something of a farcical way. Apparently they had as many as 20 suggested on their internet forum and somehow these had been whittled down to three. Even the chair of the proceedings said she didn’t know how the three had been chosen which seemed strange. Anyway the three were “Abortion Rights Campaign”, “Choices, Abortion Rights, Equailty” & “Right to Health”.
The agenda for the meeting had a space for a vote on these but that didn’t happen and what they tried was a show of hands in favour of each one – with them all being clearly defeated by the numbers against or abstaining. Then they opened the floor for suggestions and a large number were put forward – I suggested “Irish Pro-Choice Alliance”. They propose to decide by means of an internet poll – survey monkey – presumably after someone has collated them and made decisions on how to merge the many similar ones.
There was a short session where the proposed aims of the campaign (unclear exactly where these came from) were discussed by the attendees.
My notes of the proposed aims are (they were quite long and I didn’t copy them word for word – they were only available on an overhead projector):
1. Educate the public and policy makers about the need for effective action on X & C by the government to legislate for clarity on the circumstances to save the lives of women.
2. Educate the public and policy makers about the need for access to safe and legal abortion options in Ireland in line with provision of other basic healthcare options.
3. To mobilise support from a diverse range of groups, communities and individuals nationally for the right to choose.
4. To promote relevant up-to-date information to support evidence based policy-making and challenge anti-choice rhetoric that threatens reproductive freedom.
It was quite difficult to assess these on the day after only having just seen them and I also didn’t feel I had any mandate from the Cork campaign to make any definitive statement so I limited myself to reporting that we felt somewhat excluded from the process and that the meeting on Saturday didn’t really have a mandate to be making these decisions and there should a proper national conference early in the New Year. To the extent we had discussed aims we felt that there should be a focus on repeal of the 8th amendment and an open call for women’s right to choose.
There were a good number of suggestions for amendments and additions to the 4 aims. I think what they are proposing is that these will be collated and circulated to the list of names of people who attended the meeting with further discussion on that email list and/or the existing internet forum and a decision will be made at the next meeting – proposed for Saturday 19 January. How exactly any pro-choice activist who didn’t attend the meeting is supposed to participate in that discussion is unknown.
In terms of the general discussion I discerned 3 main themes for what should be the initial focus of the campaign – an open focus on women’s right to choose; trying to shift/strengthen the emphasis of the public discourse from threat to life to threat to health; maximising the parameters of the X-Case legislation that eventually gets passed. There seemed to be general agreement on moving to a campaign for repeal of the 8th amendment as the central organising focus once the govt has legislated for the X-Case.
There were a number of proposals for activity before the next meeting on 19 Jan but no concrete decisions taken or explanation of how a decision on any of the proposals might be made.
No-one else picked up on my call for a proper national conference and the 19 Jan was described as a meeting to come up with a “work plan” – whatever that is.
We were told that there was an “interim” steering committee made up of some officer positions and representatives from the 5 working groups () but there was no explanation of how these people were selected, could be added to or replaced, or even who they currently were.
In the workshop part I put down the need to be clear about whether this was a top-down centralised campaign or a grassroots network/alliance based on local groups around the country. My big worry is that the model they are proposing is of the first kind and this concern is compounded by the lack of transparency about who is running things.
I think Cork Womens Right To Choose needs to formally propose that there must be a proper national conference (probably in February), with adequate time for prior circulation of proposals on the name, aims and structures etc, to properly launch a real national campaign that is democratic and inclusive of all the activists and existing pro-choice groups around the country. And that the new campaign should be a grassroots network/alliance based on local groups.

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