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When Archives Meet Activism: The Role of Historical Research in the Irish Abortion Debate

In less than three months the Republic of Ireland will vote on a referendum that, if passed, could mark a watershed for female reproductive rights within the country. Merely an hour’s flight away, Ireland has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe. Under the Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution a woman cannot legally obtain an abortion if she is pregnant due to rape, nor if the foetus will not survive outside of the womb. The legal repercussions for those who go against the laws are hard-line and any woman who procures an abortion illegally within Ireland faces prison for up to 14 years. In the lead up to the vote, human rights campaigners and women’s groups have been working tirelessly to educate voters on the archaic brutality of the Amendment, which has forced over 154,000 women to seek abortions abroad since 1980.

The question, in light of this pivotal moment in the history of women’s rights, is how can we, as students, academics and scholars, use our research skills and expertise to engage in acts of social activism, aligning ourselves in solidarity with the #RepealtheEighth campaign?

As historians, our role starts by looking at our research outside the confines of our discipline. We are already encouraged to relate our understandings of the past to the contemporary issues of the present. Fundamentally, our research can help bring depth and brevity to current affairs such as the #RepealtheEighth debate, anchoring social movements in a larger legacy of oppression and social injustice. Moreover, history is a discipline grounded in the written word. Our work itself is an act of storytelling as we are primarily occupied with the construction of narratives that help explain both the past and the present. Whilst we may, occasionally, dress up these stories with impassable academic jargon, there is much to be said for refining them to their simplest, most accessible form – for consumable popular culture can change minds quickly and emotively. For this reason, storytelling, especially that of stories grounded in human experiences, should form a key battleground in the fight for gender equality, where our words can educate others, challenging opinions through art.

One project that is attempting to unite academia, activism and art is the publication project, Autonomy, which explores the possibilities of ‘activism literature’, using creative writing to raise awareness in light of the upcoming Irish referendum. Autonomy is a women-led anthology comprising of a collection of poetry, fiction and prose, which explores and celebrates the boundaries of female bodily autonomy across history.

In an interview the project’s curator, Cork-based poet Kathy D’Arcy (Encounter 2010, The Wild Pupil 2012), noted that she hopes the immersive nature of collection will help give a human voice to the campaign, saying that:

‘I believe in the power of story and creativity to gently challenge distorted perceptions about the world in a more efficient and colourful way than angry debate, or even facts.’  

One contribution, The Contaminating Agent, focuses upon the forced testing and treatment of women for venereal diseases within European displaced persons camps after 1945. By highlighting this largely undocumented aspect of the post-war period, this narrative uses historical experience to draw attention to the long pattern of medical manipulation of the female body by governing forces. As a result of its innovative fusion of art, academia and activism, Autonomy, as an anthology and a statement of protest, goes beyond the topic of abortion, and beyond Ireland for that matter. It is about women, as writers, taking back control of their stories, their words and their bodies − the perimeters of which have been, for so long, dictated to them.

What this collaborative project also illustrates is that activism and social engagement comes in a plethora of shapes and sizes, which can fit the nuances of our work, our skills and our lives. In the era of #TimesUp and #MeToo, language and storytelling have become tools of great sway and power in the move towards social justice and equality. Therefore, as historians and academics it has never been more important for our research and writing skills to be employed within social activism movements − for with words we can produce great change.

 

For more information on the history of abortion legislation in Ireland and the Repeal the Eighth campaign, you can visit:

https://www.abortionrightscampaign.ie

https://www.repealeight.ie

 

For more information on the anthology see:

http://newbinarypress.com/product/autonomy/