“Hi Enda,” one tweet began chirpily. “My ovulation day was a week ago today. 11 more days of freedom. And then it’ll be a bloody nightmare.” Another message, directed at Ireland’s Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, was less flippant: “1st period since my stillborn baby. I carried her for 6 weeks after her diagnosis, losing my mind with grief.”
Over the past weeks, Irish women have been tweeting details of their menstrual cycles at Kenny, using the hashtag #repealthe8th – a reference to the Eighth Amendment to the Irish constitution, which puts the foetus’s life on an equal footing with that of the pregnant woman. The campaign was started by a stand-up comedian called Gráinne Maguire, who decided that if the state was going to take an interest in the contents of her uterus, it would only be fair to offer regular updates.
Here in England, we are used to thinking of the abortion debate as settled – frequent raids by MPs such as Nadine Dorries and Fiona Bruce notwithstanding. Across the Irish Sea, the situation is very different: an estimated ten women a day travel outside Ireland to have an abortion because the procedure could get them jailed for 14 years at home. The referendum on gay marriage – which was won by LGBT campaigners in the summer – was supposed to mark the birth of a new, more liberal, less religious Ireland. But feminist campaigners complain that it is impossible to get the country’s politicians to engage with the abortion debate at all. (Kenny has stonewalled those chasing a response to the period tweets.)
In Northern Ireland, access to abortion is also severely restricted because the Abortion Act 1967 was not implemented there. Women on both sides of the border are seeking their own solutions: going abroad or ordering drugs online.
In June, 215 Northern Irish women wrote an open letter admitting that they had used such drugs – and daring the government to arrest them. (It did not.) That gesture became a cause célèbre on social media, as did the period tweets, suggesting that there is an international appetite for revisiting the issue. This has prompted feminist activists to ask themselves: is it better to fight by drawing attention to the big, global picture, or by staying local?
Their opponents have made their choice. In the US, for example, “pro-life” activists have long tried to chip away at the Roe v Wade judgment at a state level after getting nowhere with the Supreme Court. And that is what Labour’s Yvette Cooper fears will happen as abortion law is devolved to Scotland under the post-referendum settlement. “It would be naive to think that anti-abortion campaigners won’t try to change the law or to test the commitment of the Scottish Parliament over its new jurisdiction,” she wrote in the Guardian. “Surely we are stronger if we stand together?”
Some campaigners disagree. One told me that devolution was a chance to make the law more liberal in Scotland and then to try to make England and Wales catch up – and that Labour risks looking parochial in questioning a done deal.
Whatever happens, both the jokey tweets and the serious questions show that abortion is back on the political agenda.
This article appears in the 11 Nov 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the threat to Britain