Storytelling and the Repeal of the 8th Amendment:
Narrative and Reproductive Rights in Ireland
As has been well documented by feminist scholars, silence and shame have long dominated attitudes to Irishwomen’s sexuality and experiences of pregnancy. The recent campaign to repeal the 8th Amendment (which had banned abortion in Ireland since 1983) saw previously taboo subjects become the topic of a national conversation, with women’s stories of abortion forming the linchpin of the pro-choice movement. One year after the referendum to repeal or retain this ban, the Facebook account “Everyday Stories” posted the following:
You told your story to [us]. You trusted us to tell it to others via art installations, written text and audio recording. You went on local, regional, national and international media to share your stories. You did so selflessly so that others won’t have to tell similar stories. (Everyday Stories 2019)
Similarly, “In Her Shoes: Women of the 8th,” a Facebook page through which anonymous women shared their experiences of travelling for terminations or taking illegal abortion pills, capitalised on the emotive power of storytelling in provoking societal reflection and social change. According to the page, 43% of people cited reading/hearing personal stories as a factor in voting to decriminalize abortion (In Her Shoes 2020).
Certainly, the airtime afforded to women’s stories in Dáil Éireann, in newspapers and on social media indicated an appetite for the stories of previously marginalised groups. As such, it is tempting to view this sharing of stories as a straightforward instance of mass national and feminist catharsis. However, if the sharing of stories went some way in removing stigma, it also insisted that women’s personal and private experiences should be subjected to national inquiry, thus feeding into the historic treatment of the female body as a symbol of nation. If “Mother Ireland” was a foundational myth of Irish nationalism, and the Irish Constitution states that “by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved,” then the women who shared their trauma stories in relation to the 8th Amendment were once again being asked to subordinate their bodies to the common (national) good.
Storytelling around the 8th Amendment was a varied affair. While social media profiles such as “In Her Shoes” and “Everyday Stories” facilitated anonymous proliferation, other women – notably journalists such as Róisín Ingle and Tara Flynn and academics like Susan Cahill – wrote and spoke publicly about their experiences of abortion. There is no doubt that these stories were impactful. As scholar of gender and sexualities studies Rebecca Anne Barr reflected, one year later:
[S]tories do things to people: they make people do things in response. The referendum on the repeal of the eighth amendment was won by narrative. The telling of stories from individual women took on the power of narrative: the cumulative energy of all storytelling. (Barr 2019)
However, as Barr went on to note, these stories did not comprise simple “activism” – storytelling is also an act of “radical public vulnerability” (Barr 2019). While this vulnerability was used to challenge and ultimately end the constitutionally mandated control of women’s bodies, the act of storytelling itself also runs the risk of re-entrenching women’s role as the suffering body for society in general. That is, the tyranny of Ireland’s own storytelling and myth-making – namely that Ireland was historically “abortion-free” – was revealed only through women’s specifically sexed and embodied narratives of miscarriage and abortion, all attesting to society’s insistence on female “corporeal openness to wounding and suffering” (Petherbridge 2018, 57).
As well as demanding women’s public vulnerability, the outpouring of stories about abortion ran the risk of dividing women into categories – those who had suffered enough to deserve abortion provision, and those who had not. This dichotomy was clear from the fact that, while most people had sympathy for individual “hard cases,” there remained a calcified distrust of what was termed “abortion on demand.” While abortion is, statistically, a normal procedure, an abortion “story” could essentialize the pain, suffering, and trauma in women’s experiences of abortion. Thus, there is conflict between abortion as “an ordinary and accepted part of life” and the “story” as a mechanism for “educating” people about “the hurt and pain that the 8th amendment cause[d]” (Everyday Stories 2018). For Susan Cahill, an academic writing in The Irish Times, turmoil and emotional pain were not intrinsic aspects of her abortion: “Decision made. Clear. Certain. No vacillation. Easy” (Cahill 2016). Yet for her decision to be easily achievable in Ireland, she and other women were required to divulge their stories. Indeed, making abortion a story to be publicly shared removes it from the normality of lived conversation and elevates it above other female bodily experiences, such as smear tests or periods, which are not “stories.” Cahill’s headline, “My abortion was not remotely traumatic,” thus challenges both the idea that women must have a story in the first place, and the belief that an abortion experience must take the form of an emotional saga (Cahill 2016).
Many of the platforms providing space for women’s stories were aware of the problems of asking women to share “personal and vulnerable stories” (In Her Shoes 2019). Indeed, many of these pages subtly resisted shoehorning women’s stories into an overtly political agenda, and thereby challenged the process by which the female body is made the subject of political machinations. The curator of “In Her Shoes,” for instance, insisted that no grammatical correction would be made to stories, thus highlighting the “real stories” behind the sanitised national debate (In Her Shoes 2020). Moreover, the page did not accept sponsored advertisements, and the booklets compiling women’s stories remained free from affiliation with any official body or campaign (In Her Shoes 2020). For these “grass-roots”, “organic” campaigns, it was important to “[bring] the conversation away from politicians and re-centr[e] the focus to the people at hand; those that need access to abortion care” (In Her Shoes 2020). However, national media coverage of the debate took a different approach. Women’s stories often played into the national political debate and were arbitrated by broadcasters charged with imposing “balance” between pro-choice and anti-choice representatives. Hence, the national debate was as much a “political game” as it was about the experiences of “individuals or families” (Farmers for Yes 2018).
One such instance of this is the testimony of Jennifer Ryan. Appearing on the current affairs programme “Pat Kenny Tonight” in 2017, Ryan outlined how a diagnosis of fatal spina bifida and undeveloped foetal kidneys led her to seek a termination in Liverpool. When asked how she felt on the journey to Liverpool Women’s Hospital, Ryan’s reply conveys the artificiality of sharing one’s story. That is, the fluid narrative and cogency expected of a story is not present in Ryan’s testimony: “It’s so isolating, it’s so lonely. It’s [pause] You’re on auto-pilot, you don’t know what [pause] [half-laughs, half-sighs] you just need your supports around you and you’re leaving your hospital and your family and your country and going somewhere you don’t know […]” (Kenny 2017). Here, Ryan’s narrative is prompted by Kenny, her male interviewer; tasked with creating a “story” for home audiences through a politically legible line of questioning, he submits Ryan’s fractured personal experience to a public, political agenda. Kenny’s closing question to Ryan, “Before this happened to you, were you madly pro-choice or pro-life […]?” signifies the need for women’s stories to adhere to, and derive from, established political positions. Ryan’s reply, “I suppose it didn’t really come into my line of thought previously,” serves to complicate the idea that women’s “stories” are politically legible, thus highlighting that the raw material of experience and the public form of stories are not the same thing (Kenny 2017).
Later in the programme, Kenny turns to Rita Harrold, a member of Rosa (a feminist socialist alliance focused on reproductive rights, combatting sexism and austerity, and other core issues), who draws attention to the “story” as a means by which women are separated into two camps: namely, those who can offer emotive justification for the abortions they have had or need, and those who cannot – or, in her words, those “who Enda Kenny [Irish Taoiseach or Prime Minister in 2017] would approve of their abortions” [sic] and those of whom he would not approve (Kenny 2017). Harrold’s intervention underscores two potential dangers of storytelling – firstly, that women are asked to account for their actions on an individual level by a political metric (as Ryan was asked to do in “Pat Kenny Tonight”) and, secondly, that reproductive rights should be granted on a case by case basis.
This latter issue was brought to the fore by the pro-choice campaign posters that went up around Ireland before the referendum. Posters created by the Green Party (the first party in Dáil Éireann to unequivocally back repeal), featured images of women who volunteered to be photographed alongside the slogan “Your sister, your friend, your daughter” (Fig. 1). These posters personalised the abstract woman who might need an abortion, asking the public to “trust” the women they know and vote “yes” for them. The overall message of the poster is positive, and even taps into the same idea as storytelling – through personalising women, these posters, like stories, assert women’s humanity and, thus, their desert of human rights. However, the posters’ messaging could be criticized for suggesting that women are deserving of human rights only when personalised as individuals who can be trusted. Other critics problematized the male gaze of the poster, with its implication that it is men (the brother/father of the sister/daughter to whom the poster refers) who will decide the outcome of the referendum on women’s reproductive rights. By contrast, the “Together For Yes” campaign was seemingly aware of the ethical dubiousness of asking women to justify healthcare decisions during pregnancy. Eschewing emotive, political, and moral nuances, the “Together For Yes” poster (Fig. 2) simply asserts that: “Sometimes a private matter needs public support.”
In conclusion, there is no doubt that women’s stories played a critical role in the repeal of the 8th Amendment to the Irish Constitution. As Gemma McSherry notes, storytelling was instrumental in forcing the referendum in the first place:
the stories of women, passed down from generation to generation, from those who lost their babies, sisters and mothers to the Magdalene asylums, to those forced to conceive in the absence of contraception and those who have lost their lives as a result of the criminality of abortion […] paved the way for this referendum. (McSherry 2018)
The Minister for Health, Simon Harris, similarly underlined the importance of storytelling in convincing many to vote Yes, tweeting on the day of the referendum: “[I] just voted Yes for a more compassionate & caring Ireland with the stories & experiences of all those I have met and chatted with to the fore of my mind” (Harris 2018).
However, while women’s ability to share abortion stories represents progress in comparison to the taboo, shame and stigma traditionally surrounding women’s experiences of embodiment, sexuality and pregnancy in Ireland, there is nonetheless need for caution – stories may overcome the abstract in ways that are neither politically sustainable nor ethically laudable. In effect, the practise of story-sharing asked women to be vulnerable one last time for the greater good. While ultimately seeking political and legal rights in line with men’s, women’s stories were often curated (or hijacked) by political agendas. “In Her Shoes” posits that “storytelling has been healing for those that have shared, and those yet unready to share – but take comfort in the comradre [sic] of support shown” (In Her Shoes 2020). While “healing” may have been the result of storytelling for many women, there is more generally a cynical dimension to providing women with a platform for their stories when this is not intended solely as a cathartic space. Rather, storytelling was a process by which women were asked to persuade external arbiters as to the legitimacy of their rights – women’s stories were not shared to elicit apology from the state responsible for their suffering, but rather to prove to the state that they were worthy of bodily autonomy. Despite the positive net-effect of pages like “In Her Shoes” and “Everyday Stories,” it would be problematic if women’s right to healthcare ultimately becomes tied to the telling of emotional sagas. Finally, the precedent of affording named, known women rights, rather than making rights for all women a pillar of contemporary society, is not one which warrants praise.
 The Irish parliament.
Barr, Rebecca Anne. 2019. “Repealing the Eighth: Abortion Referendum was Won by Narrative.” Irish Times. May 31, 2019. https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/repealing-the-eighth-abortion-referendum-was-won-by-narrative-1.3909909.
Cahill, Susan. 2016. “My Abortion was not Remotely Traumatic…I Have No Regrets.” Irish Times. February 21, 2016. https://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/people/susan-cahill-my-abortion-was-not-remotely-traumatic-i-have-no-regrets-1.2542740.
Everyday Stories. 2019. “One year on and all we have for every single person who told their story, to get Ireland to this place... in world history... is still complete and utter admiration.” Facebook, May 25, 2019. https://www.facebook.com/EverydayStoriesIrl/posts/2307541636164276.
Everyday Stories (@es_irl). 2018. “I just found these draft mission statements.” Twitter photo, December 14, 2018. https://twitter.com/es_irl/status/1073590988671717376.
Farmers for Yes. (@FarmersR8th). 2018. “In 1983, the wording of the 8th was a political game.” Twitter, May 25, 2018. https://twitter.com/FarmersR8th/status/1000006294898659333.
Harris, Simon. (@SimonHarrisTD). 2018. “Just voted Yes for a more compassionate & caring Ireland.” Twitter, May 25, 2018. https://twitter.com/SimonHarrisTD/status/999973824807555072.
In Her Shoes: Women of the 8th. 2019. “The personal and vulnerable stories that women have had to share to give justification for dignity, healthcare, compassion should never have been.” Facebook, October 21, 2019. https://www.facebook.com/InHerIrishShoes/posts/409982273009529.
-----. 2020. “Story – A Collection.” Facebook, February 21, 2020. https://www.facebook.com/pg/InHerIrishShoes/about/?ref=page_internal.
Kenny, Pat. 2017. “Pat Kenny Tonight.” Broadcast March 1, 2017 on TV3 Dublin. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=949VEqMwPMk.
McSherry, Gemma. 2018. “Regardless of Today’s Outcome, the Repeal the 8th Campaign is a Testimony to the Power of Women.” Fawcett (blog), May 25, 2018. https://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/blog/regardless-of-todays-outcome-the-repeal-the-8th-campaign-is-a-testimony-to-the-power-of-women.
Petherbridge, Diane. 2018. “How Do We Respond? Embodied Vulnerability and Forms of Responsiveness.” In New Feminist Perspectives on Embodiment, edited by Clara Fischer and Luna Dolezal, 57-79. London: Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.