Ahead of further planned action on abortion legislation, two Daily Shift contributors, Catherine Collins and Laura Hogan, who were at last week’s protests, give us a taste of events…
The face on the posters hadn’t changed and neither had the message; ‘Never Again.’
Many people clasped candles wrapped in foil and others held posters raised high for all to read. The words on the posters were different, but the message was the same. No woman would be allowed to go through what Savita Halappanavar had experienced ever again.
The crowd that gathered outside Leinster House last Wednesday for the Action on X demonstration was a mixed one. There were women and men of all ages and also a substantial number of children. The feeling of solidarity was infectious.
‘The World Is Watching’ was written on one banner in bold black print. It was a warning to the government, reminding them that the pressure to legislate for abortion is not just being applied from within our small island. People all over the world are aware of what had happened to Savita and they too are waiting to see what is going to be done to bring about change.
There was an eerie calm in the moments before the demonstration began. And this continued as Justine Murphy sang a rendition of ‘Siuil a Run.’ Even the little boys to my left seemed to realise that this was a quiet time. They listened to the song with smiles on their round faces which were slightly pink from the chilly evening air.
The feeling of calm continued as Tania Kaur’s voice came through the microphone. “I am not a physician, a lawyer or a politician.” Instead of any of these things, the lady of Indian origin described herself as “an Irish citizen.” Talking in a clear, steady voice, she said that Ireland could no longer hide behind “legal obscurity.”She was present because “she felt the need to protest against a system that had failed to protect” her fellow countrywoman, Savita.
As Tania stepped down from the steps of the building on Molesworth Street, I looked to my right to see Savita’s face smiling back at me. It was a poster of the young Indian woman depicting the picture of her smiling that we are all familiar with at this stage. Underneath the picture were the same words I had read earlier. ‘Never Again.’
A woman introduced to the crowd as Suzanne talked of her very personal experience. She found out she was pregnant in August and decided that she did not want to have the baby for a number of reasons. “I didn’t see why I should carry a child I didn’t want.” Suzanne could not afford to travel to England to have an abortion and so she ordered pills online. “I have no regrets” she said. “No regrets.”
It was the booming voice of Claire Daly (United Left Alliance) that got the crowd cheering. “People do not want to listen to politicians!” It seemed that those around me were tired of being calm. There were shouts of approval from the crowd and clapping as Ms. Daly continued with her speech. She closed by urging people to “come next week” and to visit as many back benchers as possible between now and then.
Sinead Redmond was the last to take the mic, her eight month bump very visible as she stood in front of the crowd. Her voice shook with a mixture of anger and fear as she spoke. “Civil and criminal law has no place in my medical care” but “it did in Savita’s case.” It was obvious to all that the heavily pregnant woman was disgusted that Savita had died “a preventable death in an Irish hospital in 2012.”
The demonstration was closed by Sinead Kennedy who had acted as chair throughout. The fight was not over yet, she warned. She thanked those who had turned out but indicated the necessity for people to come in their “tens of thousands next Wednesday” when the Dail would be voting on the legislation.
The government would have one chance and one chance only she warned.
“We’re going to bring [it] down if they don’t act.”
The hum of people talking is semi-hushed around the Gate Theatre at the beginning of the protest, outside the Garden of Remembrance this Saturday 17 November. Candles are being lit by men and women in big coats and scarves, braving the elements. A child on his father’s shoulders has a cap with Cookie Monster on it. A man and his dog pose in front of the banners of Savita’s face for photographers. “It’s the pro-choice dog,” someone quips.
The air at the beginning of the protest is still, expectant. The chatter of the press dies away. Even the dogs stop barking. A low chant is rumbling upwards from the frontline of the protesters. “Never again. Never again. Never again.” People raise candles. The air is tense, electric. Garda escorts move ahead, looking back cautiously. We fall into step.
Dubliners are not surprised by the procession. Most people ignore us. Some are annoyed that they cannot cross the road on O’Connell Street. A few join in.
A small minority though, are here to jeer us. One man holds a foetal doll aloft, crying “Abortion is murder!” “This is not just one woman. This is all women,” reads the sign of another anti-protester, a pro-lifer. He’s young and stands at the edge of the footpath, staring impassively into the 20,000-strong crowd.
The 20,000 are here today to protest for the legal clarification of abortion laws in Ireland. “Legislate for Savita,” read some placards. The 31-year-old Indian native died last month in University Hospital Galway of septicaemia. She had asked for the termination of her dead foetus, and was refused. The abortion could possibly have saved her life. Irish law states that if the health of the mother is at risk, abortion is legal. This is since the X case in 1992. However, the actual legislation of the Supreme Court ruling has never been applied. This is what resulted in the death of Savita last month.
As the night drew in, more and more candles were lit. Dogs still barked, and wove in and out of the crowd, led by their owners. As we reached Doyle’s Bar beside Trinity College, smokers clapped and drinkers came to the door to cheer the crowd. Out of windows, “Legislate Abortion” banners hung. The turn-out here is greater than any of us expected. We stand in the freezing cold, to hear from Socialist TD Clare Daly, from Doctors For Choice spokespeople, from a woman who provides support to Irish women who have had abortions or are considering them. They speak passionately. They talk of attitudes in Irish society, of attitudes changing over the years. They talk of this problem existing for decades. They talk of the X case. They talk about the victims of the abortion laws in Ireland. As Claire Daly says, it is the poor women and the sick women who are the ones who suffer. The crowd are chanting. “Shame. Shame. Shame.” “Shame on Labour!” some call, getting political. “Shame on Fine Gael,” more chime in. “Shame on Fianna Fáil!” cries another. The rest of the crowd keeps up the simple, steady chant. “Shame. Shame. Shame.”
The cold is seeping into our bones, but we stand on anyway. There are gaps in the crowd and we stand apart, listening. The banners of Savita’s face are flying high, bending slightly in the breeze. It’s waiting. We’re waiting. “We will wait no longer!” Clare Daly cries.
The crowd cheers, and claps, and chants. “Never again. Never again.” It’s a mantra, low and loud, humming through the crowd like a heartbeat. Daly announces that there will be another protest on Wednesday at 6pm: “And we will have 40,000 people on our streets!” With the turn-out today, she could be right. Candles are still lighting, people are still listening attentively, cheering and clapping as we head into the last 2 speeches. Gardaí surround the entrance to the Dáil, as if to protect a session that isn’t ongoing. They fold their arms, chatting to each other. Maybe they agree with the crowd. Maybe if they weren’t on duty, they would be here too.
The last glimpse of the protest as we round the corner is a banner with Savita’s face on it. It’s a reminder of the pro-life banner seen earlier, but in a different way. This is not about one woman. This is for all women.