The citizens’ assembly on abortion in Ireland – a pre-emptive critique of anticipated hype

For readers living in any country that is not Ireland, you might have missed it but the campaign to legalise abortion has made huge mileage over the last few years and – not wanting to jinx it – will probably win a fairly unrestrictive regime later this year. A central element in this struggle has been the Citizens’ Assembly on the 8th amendment: a panel of 99 randomly selected people from across the country charged with making recommendations to the government in terms of what should be done regarding a constitutional article that currently guarantees the right to life of unborns and therefore effectively removes decision-making rights from women within the borders of the irish state about the functioning of their own bodies. This article has led to some barbaric treatment of women including the X case – a fourteen year old who was raped, planned to travel to the UK to have an abortion, and when the family asked the police if DNA from the aborted foetus would be admissible as evidence against the rapist, the state sought and won (later overturned on appeal) an injunction to prevent her from leaving the country in case she might go and exercise control over her own body. That was in 1992. Twenty years later, an Indian woman called Savita Halappanavar died in hospital when her pregnancy began to miscarry and caused an infection in her blood. Early on during the miscarriage, she requested the pregnancy be terminated, which would have saved her life, but was told “this is a Catholic country”.

The citizens’ assembly sat and deliberated for seven months in 2017 before finally recommending unrestricted access to abortion up to 12 weeks of pregnancy. And despite a cynical attack from the ageing political class and establishment media which framed these recommendations as extremist, a date for a constitutional referendum has been set for next month, May, and it looks likely that it will be easily won. On paper this sounds like a positive example of participatory democracy at work. And that’s exactly what I’m afraid of and why I’m writing this piece. On paper, and with the main details, I can already see liberal and progressive journalists and political science researchers praising it and urging other European countries to implement similar structures. What I am afraid of is that said journalists and researchers will attribute the ‘success’ of the experiment to its design features and hail it as a model to be replicated. So I’m going to give a pre-emptive correction to this view.

But first, the background. The Irish state inherited a law from the british colonial government, but after independence when the british government legalised things, Ireland remained stuck in the dark ages. Which gave rise to the practice of travelling across the water for those who could afford it, while backstreet abortions or being forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy was the lot for those who could not. This regime was not enough for some reactionaries, who in the 1980s formed a campaign to have foetuses’ right to life made constitutional. The governments of the day were slaves to the power of the catholic church and so organised a referendum which was passed in 1983 as the eighth amendment, which effectively prevented any legal liberalisation. Then there was the X-case as outlined above. Although the horrific injunction imprisoning a teenage rape victim was initially granted, this ruling was subsequently overturned in a higher court, which argued that the right to life of a foetus does not outweigh the right to life of a pregnant mother, including if she feels suicidal.

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Image from Shirani Bolle

In normal circumstances, a ruling like this would lead to legislation to establish this principle in law, but successive governments have been happy to shit on women rather than risk alienating the church or their conservative support base. Instead you had what is euphemistically known as an Irish solution to an Irish problem: abortion is unconstitutional, except in some cases; but the state isn’t obliged to tell you want those case are; certain abortions could be legal in Ireland, but the state doesn’t know and won’t inform the medical profession or women, so it is mostly up to the conservatism and fear of legal consequences of individual doctors; people may travel to access abortion, if they have the means, but the role of state-based medical boards is a grey area; giving out information on the possibility to travel is also a grey area.

And that was how things stayed until into 2010-2013. There was always a pro-choice movement but they were successfully demonised and liberal public discourse consistently gave ‘balance’ between ultra conservatives and moderate conservatives. But then there were two events which shook things up and injected this movement with anger and momentum. First, three women took a court case against the state claiming that the regime violated the European Convention of Human Rights. They weren’t entirely successful, but the court did rule that chaotic and uncertain environment where women cannot figure out what their rights are, this was a violation of the ECHR. This led to a government-appointed body to review the situation and announced their recommendations that the state was obliged to provide ‘clarity’. This announcement came in 2012. The very next day, news broke of the death of Savita Halappanavar, mentioned above. The widespread disgust that people felt on hearing about her treatment translated into growing support and visibility and acceptability for the pro-choice movement, which forced the government to do something. That something was the diplomatically and ambiguously titled ‘Protection of Life during Pregnancy Act’ in 2013. For all the time it took to produce, it didn’t do much more than implement both the eighth amendment from 30 years earlier and the X-case ruling from 21 years earlier into law (i.e. abortion is possible if the life of the woman is in danger including through suicide) so as to provide the needed ‘clarity’.

So far, so familiar. Anybody can look that up on wikipedia. Oh, did I fail to mention that under the 2013 law, whether a woman was considered suicidal would have to be approved by a 3-5 member panel of medical professionals (so, quite far from a woman having choice over her own body). Or that it established that women having unapproved abortions faced up to 14 years in prison. And that the regressiveness of it was illustrated the following year when an asylum seeker who had been raped in her home country discovered she was pregnant in Ireland, wanted to terminate but could not travel to the UK under the terms of the asylum application, became suicidal, went on hunger strike, the courts ordered that she be force-fed and then her pregnancy was delivered by c section. You can also look that up on wiki.

But from here there are a few points that are harder to come by. Officially, the CA was established as “an exercise in deliberative democracy, placing the citizen at the heart of important legal and policy issues facing Irish society today”, and has been marketed as the brainchild of grown up visionary politicians. However, anybody could have told you back in 2016 that the real reason for establishing the CA was to avoid being seen to make a political decision. There is an influential conservative minority to whom the political class has always either explicitly or by default given deference. But over the last eight years or so, the pro-choice silent majority has been growing in confidence with pro-choice individuals realising that their views are not as isolated as they are often told. So, along with the growing momentum of the movement, the scandal of high-profile abhorrent cases such as Savita Halappanavar and anonymous victims of the courts, politicians were caught between a rock and a hard place: do nothing or do something, either way you leave an angry constituency royally pissed off. Some limited concessions were granted with the 2013 PoLDP act but it was clear that the government were not powerful enough to keep the growing movement in check forever and that further, limited, concessions were on the cards. The CA was a way to disarm the movement with these kinds of limited concessions without losing credibility with their conservative support base through being the ones to grant those concessions.

What they didn’t realise was the extent of the gulf between themselves along with their conservative support base on the one hand and the values among the younger, less well-paid, more female, wider population. And so, 99 randomly selected people rocked the establishment through recommending something that wasn’t even on their radar: unrestricted access to abortion up to 12 weeks.

And straightaway came the spin: [The prime minister] says the country is not ready for abortion on demand”. “The consensus in the [parliament] is that the assembly’s recommendations were an overly-liberal interpretation of the current thinking of middle Ireland on the issue”. “Sometimes these debates are dominated by hard-line views on both sides and I think the government has a responsibility to go through a process that can allow a much more respectful and informed debate”. A pro-choice Independent minister, often portrayed as radical, even went so fat as to say “I expect that the people will not be in favour of a liberalisation of the abortion legislation to the extent that the Citizens’ Assembly put forward”.

The implicit message behind each of the statements was that the 99 members of the CA (and not the political class or establishment media) were out of touch with the public and that visionary deliberative democracy would be given the shaft and a referendum would have to contain something much more moderate if it was to have a chance of passing. And they were on track to get away with this as alternative watered-down proposals were being drafted. But then came a poll in late 2017 which found that 60% of people supported abortion upon request, and even higher numbers favouring abortion given certain circumstances. In other words the poll directly contradicted the spin emanating from the political and media establishment: the public was of a broadly similar opinion to the CA, and actually it was political class who are out of touch.

Faced with this evidence, the establishment class found themselves backed into a corner. A strategy to disarm a movement through granting limited concessions, but at the same time not be seen to be the ones granting those concessions turned out to be a bungle and has put on the table a far greater devolution of power with respect to women exercising choice over their bodies than was ever expected. A referendum was announced for May, and at the time of writing looks likely to be won.

So what were the keys to success of the CA? Two things: (1) a miscalculation on part of the government and (2) a movement of committed activists who knew every cynical trick of the government as they tried to regain ground lost through this miscalculation and who knew how to respond to it. So there you have it, for all these political scientists or functionaries who want to replicate the CA model, this is something you won’t find documented anywhere. But interview anybody involved in the movement and they will give you a perspective something like this. And make to include those two recommendations – government miscalculation and strong movement – in your report to the European Economic and Social Committee or your paper in the European Journal of Law and Public Administration.

Communique #1 London Assembly – international women’s strike

Statement from the London assembly of the international women’s strike. Very red feminism, centering black women, trans women, sex workers. I especially like the Voice of Domestic Workers bloc (follow the link to the original post to see the images). Well worth a read, worth sharing, and why not join in as well?

Communique #1 London Assembly

The International Women’s Strike in the UK began with women coming together to explore our visions of the red feminist horizon – what it could look like and how we could get there. The Women’s Strike is not a one-day event set to coincide with International Women’s Day each year – it’s not an activist campaign or a women’s project. In the UK and across the world we are witnessing an emerging international women’s movement that is experimenting with and struggling for a feminist future. We are not the first generation, nor will we be the last, to know in our gut that women’s liberation must be central to all social movements. We are not asking for our fair share under capitalism, we are seeking to destroy altogether a system that is designed to divide and oppress us. We already know women’s liberation to be at the heart of the struggle. To be clear: there will be no revolution until women’s lives and our labour are central to every political question.

In moving towards a red feminist horizon we continue the work of our feminist mothers and grandmothers in destabilizing ideas of womanhood. We refuse to be divided into good and bad women. We are not interested in reproducing a version of feminism that only makes some women visible, namely those who are white, middle class, cisgender and heterosexual. Nor is there anything stable, inherent or natural about being a woman. As Chandra Mohanty so forcefully argued 35 years ago, the relationship between “Woman” – a cultural and ideological construction and “women” who are real material subjects of our collective histories is one of the central questions that feminism seeks to act upon. We have to confront the reactionary and patriarchal ideas of what it means to be a woman today. Like that we are ‘naturally’ caring, that we all want to be mothers, that most of the time we are asking for it and the rest of the time we are in need of protection. Simultaneously, this confrontation must revalue care work and emotional labour, to support people who have children and combat the structural and systemic forms of violence and exploitation that harm so many women.

Reducing what it means to be a woman to set of biological characteristics and reproductive capacities and claiming that women’s oppression and exploitation is the direct result of having a certain genital configuration recognised at birth is a specific form of reactionary and misogynist politics that we have no interest in. From decades of black feminist thought we have learnt that universalist claims of what it means to be a woman serve the interests of some women at the expense of others. Such claims actively work against the possibility of meaningful connections and solidarity being forged between women who experience womanhood in different ways.

The red feminist horizon demands that we have full and final say on the meaning of our bodies, what they do, how we labour and what is done to our bodies. At the heart of that fight for bodily autonomy is reproductive justice: the right to reproduce when and how we want. For women to be free, we require full and free access to pregnancy termination, contraception and social services for children, parents and carers. But we also need full and free access to sperm freezing before trans women undergo hormone replacement therapy which results in infertility. We call for autonomy over our biological reproductive processes, whether they constitute a tendency to reproduce or, a tendency not to.

We are no longer interested in the faux-debates of whether sex work is ‘real’ work, whether the millions of hours we spend caring and cleaning is ‘real’ work, if the Women’s Strike is a ‘real’ strike or if trans women are ‘real’ women. Attempts to undermine the strength of our movement and thump the table about ‘authenticity’ say far more about those that seek to reduce women to our biological functions and confine us into victimhood, than it does about the vibrant and militant movement we are building. By looking to the wealth of knowledge produced by black feminism, transfeminism and sex worker rights movements we know who our sisters are. We know that trans women and sex workers have a central role to the play in dismantling the capitalist patriarchal systems of power that oppress us all.

We began the Women’s Strike as we intend to proceed. On the morning of the 8th March 2018 we organised a defiant direct action at the Department of Health to demand urgent action on trans healthcare. In the afternoon, 1000 people assembled for over four hours in central London, arriving from university picket lines in their hundreds and walking out of their offices, homes and factories. A social reproduction collective of mainly men organised collective childcare and cooked food to feed the whole assembly. We stood in solidarity with our Kurdish sisters, making it clear that we will defend the revolution in Rojava because their liberation is bound up with ours. Later on, we picketed pro-life religious organisations, joined striking cleaners who occupied Topshop to highlight their disgusting treatment of workers.

In the evening we took over the streets of Soho and marched behind sex workers who were on strike for the decriminalisation of all forms of sex work. The strike4decrim rally began with a minute of noise to remember the late Laura Lee, a fierce fighter for sex workers rights in Ireland. We heard from migrant sex workers who were arrested and humiliated during ‘anti-trafficking’ raids that did nothing for women in the sex industry and everything for property developers. We listened to strippers who are organising in their workplaces against being made to pay to get work and are denied basic employment rights. Our evening ended with hundreds of comrades, including sex workers and trans activists, joining the Picturehouse workers who have been striking and protesting for over a year to demand the living wage and decent working conditions. In bringing together service workers, sex workers, Kurdish women, single mothers, students, university workers, domestic workers, cleaners, artists and refugees we demonstrated our collective power. we exceed the narrow categories of womanhood forced upon us and make good on our promise to make feminism a threat again.

Open letter: the resistance is not over, after World Africa Day.

Open letter from the Internationalist Commune of Rojava following World Afrin Day. Shared from the ICR’S website.

The resistance is not over – Open letter after the #WorldAfrinDay

We, who are working here in Rojava as internationals, are part of the worldwide fight of the opressed against the reign of state, capital and pathriarchy.

– șehid Hêlîn Qercox

The #WorldAfrinDay has been a historical example of resistance and international solidarity. Thousands took to the streets and stood up against this war, giving their support to the resistance and values of this revolution. Solidarity came from more than 50 cities from all around the world, and it proved how important what is happening here is for people. New groups and new people are organizing their solidarity, getting involved and defend the revolution. From Canada to Australia, from Mexico to Japan, the world has shown that Afrin is not alone.

For two months, the bombs of the Turkish army have been falling and killing people in Afrin. During these same two months, there have been worldwide actions against this occupation. And they will continue. Afrin, as the western canton of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, will be defended as the beacon of hope that it became, as the source of inspiration that it is. The bottom-up democracy, with women at the forefront building social ecology, is what the capitalist system tries to keep locked up, claiming that ‘there is no alternative’, that utopia is not possible. But here, we learned that another world is not only possible, but necessary, and it just depends on how much we believe in it, how determined we are to bring this utopia into existence.

Afrin is now under the occupation of the Turkish army. After these months of resistance, to see the occupation forces entering the city may seem like the utopia is going away once again; but no one said the revolution would come around easily. It was something we had only imagined before coming to Rojava, and witnessing with our own eyes what’s going on here. Today, here, we are taking on several centuries of the capitalist system and nation-state model. We are challenging thousands of years of patriarchal oppression and male rule power. We are challenging the essence of how society itself is perceived and organized.

But today we also need to examine ourselves and assess what we have done. As the internationalist commune, we did not manage to develop the full potential that international solidarity can mean for this revolution. We were not able to follow all the initiatives and actions that people shared with us, we were not able to give our perspectives and answers to all the ideas and proposals that were presented to us. We were not able to give the right answer to the attacks that struck us. We were not able to understand the real dimensions of the revolution that is going on here and the importance of defending what today is being developed.

But we will reflect on that, and we will learn from our mistakes. When the next attack of the ruling powers strikes once again, we will be wiser and more experienced, and more capable of defending ourselves and the people around us. We know that this can happen at any time, maybe tomorrow, and we know we can not do it alone. We need to be able to see the threats before they are too big to overcome. We need to have better and deeper analysis of the situation we are in. We need all the hope and the international solidarity that this revolution is raising in people’s hearts. And that’s why we call on you to come here.

Come and see with your own eyes what is happening here. Come with an open mind and heart, ready to challenge what you believe humanity is able to accomplish. Come to learn, to support and to organize this revolution. Come and help us to create the international movement that will be able to change the capitalist drift that humanity is suffering.

But if you can’t come, there are still a thousand ways you can contribute to this resistance. We need to think how we can make this revolution successful, and what can be done in every place to achieve this aim. As internationalists, we need to be able to act and interact with the society we are in. We need to learn from the past movements and analyze what are the best ways to face oppression. From mass mobilization, to civil disobedience. From solidarity demonstrations, to direct actions. Yesterday, we showed the world that together we are strong. But the situation in Afrin today showed us that this is not enough. So now, we need to open a global debate about what should be the next step.

– This open letter is a call to all the people and groups who took an active role in the #WorldAfrinDay, and also to other initiatives in solidarity with the Afrin resistance. We want to open a public debate. We will be expecting your answers, your ideas, your proposals. We also call for your support to spread and translate this letter, you can find our email in our website.

Internationalist Commune of Rojava
25/03/2018

Book reviews: To dare imagining: Rojava Revolution by the Autonomedia collective and A small key can open a large door by the Strangers in a Tangled Wilderness collective

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A small key can open a large door – front cover. Image from Combustion Books.

Something incredible seems to be happening in Rojava. The first revolution ever to be pre-figuratively anti-patriarchy, anti-state and anti-capitalist, and doing all this in the most difficult of circumstances. Of course the Rojava Revolution is not without its contradictions: they have a military alliance with the US, there is the hero-worship of Öcalan, official feminist and libertarian ideology seem to have been decided on by the leadership of a formerly Stalinist Communist Party. But as Marx said, “every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes”, the Revolution in Rojava is something real, happening, and it is something to be supported and deserves our solidarity.

The problem I have is getting info on it. The many online resources are great to keep abreast of things. But like a lot of things on the internet while being swamped with updates I don’t really have a clear idea of what is being updated. On the other hand the problem with books is that they take so long to write, publish, distribute, become affordable, and finally to read them that they are hopelessly slow at keeping pace with the situation that changes everyday. And usually long single-author reads are just inappropriate for reflecting a real democratic revolution that is by nature full of diverse and often conflicting viewpoints and is constantly fluctuating.

Two books which kind of address this are To dare imagining: Rojava Revolution by the Autonomedia collective and A small key can open a large door by the Strangers in a Tangled Wilderness collective. Both books are short, accessible compilations of multi-author texts, and published relatively recently. Compiled to specifically address this dilemma outlined above they are aimed at international audiences to raise awareness about what is going on in Rojava and to stimulate solidarity movements.

To dare imagining was motivated by an utter failure on part of the american media “to report on the real story of what is happening in Syrian Kurdistan, i.e. Rojava”, believing that “journalists are literally unable to comprehend the very idea of a social revolution” which they outline as:

“a left-tradition of resistance to oppression, and like those struggles, the Rojava Revolution has identified the State itself – nationalism, hegemony and patriarchal power – as the force to be overthrown. Alone amongst all recent armed uprisings in the world (except that of the Zapatistas), Rojava’s is an anti-authoritarian insurrection” (p7).

Compiled of texts (sometimes new, sometimes ‘borrowed’) written by visitors to Rojava, commentaries on the work of Abdullah Öcalan, and a few excerpts of his work, the collection reflects “a distinct urgency about getting this book out and into the american conversation”. It contains a diversity of viewpoints and is sufficiently coherent yet retaining the rough and ready feel that reflects its role as emerging from an ongoing and changing situation. In short, it is anarchist publishing at its most useful. Among the highlights are a set of interviews with women combatants in the YPJ discussing the experiences and feminist reasons for taking up arms, an essay on the sociology of biopolitical and necropolitical wars – the Kurds are victims of both state/imperial rationalised violence and the communal ritualised violence of the likes of ISIS with the implication that new logics and institutions need to be imagined as appeals for protection on the grounds of citizenship or humanitarianism don’t work – and a great piece by Dilar Dirik, a Kurdish activist, phd candidate, and one of the editors of the book.

A small keyis similarly motivated by the observation that “Radicals in the West have been mostly silent as regards the Rojava Revolution” arguing that although “it is absolutely true that it is easier for radicals to travel to Chiapas, Greece, Palestine, or Ferguson” because the “danger is greater in Rojava then so too is the necessity of our support” (p41, 42). But beyond supporting the experiment,

“we also need the Rojava revolution for our own work here in the West. Revolutionary politics in the West have been waiting far too long for an infusion of new ideas and practices, and the Rojavan Revolution in all of its facets is something we should support if we take our own politics at all seriously. […] we can not wait for the selective safety of hindsight to analyze the revolution now unfolding. The people of Rojava have chosen to fight and so must we” (p. 42).

Unlike To dare imagining, A small key is built almost entirely on translated statements, documents, or interviews from groups in Rojava or Turkey and not original pieces, apart from a very informative introductory chapter written by the editorial collective and another great piece by Dilar Dirik on what it is that gives the revolution the will to succeed in the face of so many forces against them (“In the midst of war, Rojava’s cantons have managed to establish an incredibly empowering women’s movement, a self-governance system that operates through local councils in a bottom-up grassroots fashion,and a society in which all ethnic and religious components of the region work hand-in-hand to create a brighter future […] the anticipation of such a free life is the main motor of the Kobani resistance”).

If there are drawbacks, the most obvious one is that both are very much oriented to US audiences. A small key compensates a bit being based on translated texts, as mentioned above, from people or groups taking part in the revolution or activists in places like Turkey. This gives it more of a feeling of talking to a friend who has family and friends active there, whereas To Dare imagining feels more like being taken on a tour by a group of Western academics. Added to this, you have to be cautious and aware that both books only contain a very partial view of the revolution. With To dare imagining you have to keep in mind that the writers are themselves being taken on tours, most likely PR tours, by the welcoming committees, drivers, and translators who bring them everywhere. I’m sure there is as much hidden as there is shared with these messengers. And the other drawback, which is generic to this form of communication, is that they are already woefully out of date – A small key was published in March 2015, while although To dare imagining generally feels rushed and hastily prepared, the most recent of pieces date from January 2016.

Despite being dated, there is still a lot to learn from both books. What is going on in Rojava, if these books are in any way accurate, is nothing short of a new way of thinking and doing feminism (undoing male domination of women and society inherent in the birth of ‘civilisation’, hierarchy and the city-state thousands of years ago) and a new way of doing anti-capitalism (through practicing “the peoples’ economy”). It has made me rethink my perspectives on militarism and nationalism: I used to have answers – both were bad; now just uncertainty.

If I had to choose one of them, I would probably go with a small key. It feels closer to the revolution. That said, to dare imagining does convey more of the philosophy which is (apparently) behind it – particularly in terms of feminist theory and Öcalan’s writings on Sumerian roots of civilisation-as-patriarchy-and-hierarchy and on democratic confederalism. And it is that bit more up-to-date.

But I probably would also prefer the newer book, Revolution in Rojava: Democratic Autonomy and Women’s Liberation in Syrian Kurdistan which is more up to date and at least written by people who had spent more time there (written by three Germany- and Turkey-based activists who have been working for years with with and in Kurdish groups, they visited Rojava and spent a month there and compiled their notes into the book, which originally appeared in German but has been translated into English recently by Janet Biehl). Hoping to get my hands on a copy of that as soon as I can. But in the end, it is not so important which book or blog you follow. The most important thing is to spread info about what seems to be an incredible struggle that should be supported and learned from as much as possible.