#Strike4Repeal: Strike Against the Citizens’ Assembly?

This International Women’s Day sees women worldwide engaged in strike action. Irish women strike for repeal of the 8th Amendment: the constitutional provision which prohibits abortion except where the pregnant woman’s life is at risk, and the only means of avoiding that risk is to terminate it. But more than that, the law pledges the state to protect the right to life of the ‘unborn’, from the moment of implantation, against the actions of the woman who carries it. In recent years, this law has been used  to delay medical treatment to a woman suffering an inevitable miscarriage at the cost of her life; to keep a woman’s body on life support after brain-death in an attempt to prolong her second trimester pregnancy to viability;  to  forced Caesarean section on a young suicidal rape victim; to deny countless women the right to refuse a wide range of interventions in pregnancy and birth.  

Fearful expulsion is the abortion law’s most ordinary side-effect. Women needing abortions – perhaps a dozen a day – travel abroad, while others perform early medical abortions at home. Irish women save to pay for their own abortions: for travel, accommodation and medical fees. In the time it takes to save, they find that they need more expensive abortions because their pregnancies are further along. The abortion regime also depends on women’s ability to access abortion out of sight; whether by travelling abroad or by procuring one in secret at home. Some solidarity is available for funding, but nobody can buy you time.  On and off the job, abortions mark working time. Women plan abortions for weekends, ‘sick days’, paid and unpaid ‘holidays’. By taking women’s bodies out of the workplace for a day, this strike underscores not only the importance of reproductive labour in general, but these specific relations between work and managing and undoing unwanted pregnancy.

The publicness of this strike is an important counterweight, not only to the secrecy of travel and of home abortion, but to the shaming and silencing on which effective regulation of women’s reproductive lives depends. It makes visible many of the networks of care and solidarity which allow women to survive that silencing and shame. And in a week which saw yet another official ‘rediscovery’ of the recent brutal history of incarceration of unmarried pregnant women in Ireland in institutions which set store by the the terms of women’s assembly in church, in religious parades and in the streets, the importance of this black-clad public assembly, this unexpected return, cannot be overstated.

But Strike for Repeal is also about law-making. The strike is framed as a response to the government’s failure to call a referendum by March 8th. There is clear and growing public demand for liberalisation of the law. Left-wing TDs have repeatedly asked for an immediate response to that demand: not only in the shape of a referendum, but of a softening in the worst effects of the abortion regime, by reducing criminal penalties, regulating exploitative bogus pregnancy counselling and providing some relief for women whose foetuses are diagnosed with fatal foetal anomalies. The government has repeatedly blocked these demands. It installed the Citizens’ Assembly as a precursor to any legislative deliberation on the prospect of constitutional change. The Assembly consists of a judge (an ‘appropriate woman‘) and  99 citizens chosen by a polling company; supposedly representative of the people in terms of gender, age and geography. It is an exercise in ‘deliberative democracy’ designed to produce ‘vital consensus on behalf of us all’. However,  the government has made no firm commitment to implement the Assembly’s recommendation. These  will likely be filtered through further committees. No timeline has been set for proposal of a final reform bill. A popular referendum is not expected until 2018 (coinciding, of course, with a Papal visit). The strike protests delay: the refusal to recognise the abortion issue as urgent. That denial of urgency must be understood in the context of a broader attitude to law-making. The government presents aching slowness and caution as essential to any legal change on abortion  because it is understood as an issue of unique moral weight. The judge-led Assembly embodies a desire to discipline processes of legal change, ensuring an incrementalist approach which is presumptively civilised and civilising, never destabilising, immune to popular politics.

What the government calls disciplined law-making has two characteristics: ‘neutrality’ and ‘balance’. A concern for neutrality ensured that no lawyers who had expressed an opinion on the Irish abortion debate were invited to present to the Assembly, or appointed to the panel of academics which advised the Assembly on the selection of expert speakers. When the Assembly received over 13,000 written submissions, neutrality apparently justified the decision to select 300 at random for the Assembly members to read, without regard for content or repetition. ‘Balance’ means something more than impartiality. Speakers, whether advocates or experts, generally appeared in pairs: pro-choice and pro-life. Balance, then, is always binary. Presentations of the law, interestingly, were not made in pairs. Perhaps, once experts in abortion law had been excluded from Assembly proceedings, no balance was required in this respect. The perceived need to ‘balance’ presentations allowed ample voice for pro-life and conservative religious organisations and speakers, well in excess of their support among the broader population. In the process, it obscured the pluralism of the pro-choice majority. The Assembly heard, not only from pro-life medical ethicists and religious leaders, and Irish conservative organisations, but from prominent American pro-life activists, chosen by Irish organisations to speak in their place. Meanwhile, several Irish pro-choice advocacy groups were excluded, including important representative organisations for women who have had abortions, such as the Abortion Rights Campaign, and Termination for Medical Reasons Ireland. No organisation representing women of colour was invited to speak. When the Assembly heard women’s scheduled direct accounts of abortion, it was not in person, but in the form of short, edited and anonymised audio recordings of interviews with women who had ended pregnancies in a narrow range of circumstances. For ‘balance’, some of these recordings were of women who had not ended their pregnancies.  By adopting ‘neutrality’ and ‘balance’ as lodestones of the process, the Assembly suggests that the statements and presentations made to Assembly members are all equally valid and valuable found objects, which speak for themselves, rather than contested and contestable political artefacts created for and by the Assembly. In particular, non-interventionist neutrality ensures that the Assembly operates without any ‘fact checking’ resources. So, by and large, the members are left to weigh presentations and submissions for themselves, or  rely on other speakers to devote some of their allocated time to correcting misrepresentations. Several members of the Assembly have asked penetrating, and at times critical questions, and recently indicated support or displeasure through spontaneous applause. Some women speaking before the Assembly have also been able to subvert the imposition of particular forms of civility.Watch, for example, the gesture of Sinead Redmond of Parents for Choice giving her testimony with her baby daughter; their own pairing gently provoking conservative conceptions of the incompatibility of motherhood and choice. However, these moments of substantive critical agency  are just that – performative moments – which occur in spite of, rather than because of the formal Assembly process.

It may be that the Citizens’ Assembly process is supposed to reassure women. It is supposed to remind us of the Constitutional Convention, which we are assumed to remember as the liberal pump-primer for Marriage Equality. Watching the Citizens’ Assembly meetings over the last 4 months, I have been reminded of other antecedent processes established to address historical gender-based violence against women – also judge-led; also scrupulously careful to restrict space for women’s direct testimony; also insufficiently critical of narratives that seek to justify and legitimate treatment which women call injury and harm; also designed to settle, neutralise and rebalance women’s claims to reparative and transformative reproductive justice. The Assembly, on this reading, reinforces an expectation that women are not entitled to appear before law on their own terms, even where law is to be applied to the most intimate dimensions of their lives.

Jon Berger wrote that mass demonstrations were not, as is often commonly thought, an attempt to convince the state to change a hated policy. Instead, they artificially created events, separated from everyday life, which ‘express political ambitions before the political means necessary to realise them have been created’. The state’s response to these ambitions does not matter very much. What matters is that those participating, and those sympathetically witnessing the demonstration become more aware of their shared purpose and fate; feel themselves standing together against the state’s projects. Berger argues that demonstrations are ‘rehearsals of revolutionary awareness‘; they may foreshadow revolution, or perhaps revolutionary return of something suppressed. Strike 4 Repeal is a complex movement. In its demand for an immediate referendum, it enacts a struggle for law: it is a necessary agonistic demonstration of appetite for law and law-making processes which are not contained by appeals to balance and neutrality. It is a warning of the impossibility of suppressing women’s diverse and complex demands for legal change and a rejection of past governmental tactics of repression and control. Women gather in black today at 12.30.The recent work of Jesse Jones on gender, reproduction and Irish law references an Italian feminist protest chant which captures the possibilities: “Tremble, tremble, the witches have returned!” 

#Strike4Repeal: Strike Against the Citizens’ Assembly?

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