This afternoon I was fortunate enough to be in Dublin to attend the third day of Amnesty Ireland’s two-week campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment. Each day for fourteen days they plan to have a presence on Merrion Street, outside Government Buildings; each day twelve more people will add to their numbers, to represent the twelve people forced, each day, to travel to the UK to access a legal abortion.
The simple force of this this protest is visible in the photos taken each day – three, so far – the numbers swelling and the corresponding pile of baggage getting higher. There is something deeply resonant in the action of placing oneself physically in a particular space to represent someone whose physical agency has been removed from them.
Discussion of physicality and embodiment are central to the work of gender and sexuality law. As much as current – and correct – thought trends toward removing the medical and physically-based definitions of queer identities (and I am using ‘queer’ in the sense of non-normative, challenging), the issue remains that the body is the site of conflict with the law when such conflict arises. The law meets these challenging identities in the regulation of gender identity and expression; the freedom to have sex, marry, form a family; and, in the instant case, the decision to regulate pregnancy status.
Asserting these freedoms brings the individual into contact with the regulatory power of the law, in their very corporeal existence. It is probably not the foremost thought in most people’s minds as they book a ferry ticket and try to think of an excuse for needing two days off work, but the conflict between the individual and the institutions of governmentality is playing out in their physical person as they do so.
Writing on transsexuality, Judith Butler interrogates our use of the phrase ‘doing justice to [someone]’. While her paper centres around gender identity regarding intersex children and non-consensual medical intervention, her critical examination of the space in which law and society allow individuals to exist is worth noting:
This is what Foucault describes as the politics of truth, a politics that pertains to those relations of power that circumscribe in advance what will and will not count as truth, that order the world in certain regular and regulatable ways, and that we come to accept as the given field of knowledge. We can understand the salience of this point when we begin to ask: What counts as a person? What counts as a coherent gender? What qualifies as a citizen? Whose world is legitimated as real? Subjectively, we ask: Who can I become in such a world where the meanings and limits of the subject are set out in advance for me? By what norms am I constrained as I begin to ask what I may become? What happens when I begin to become that for which there is no place in the given regime of truth? This is what Foucault describes as “the desubjugation of the subject in the play of… the politics of truth.”
Another way of putting this is the following: What, given the contemporary order of being, can I be?
When we interfere to the core of people in their most vulnerable moments, we are doing (in)justice unto them. The pregnant person does not get to decide if they wish to buy into the justice system of the state; they are merely the object of its dictats. They do not get to challenge the system in which they live; their survival needs render them extra-legal. Can one ever feel like a legitimate citizen when the regulatory power of the state has reached into the very blood and marrow of them and declared their physical needs non-normative and their mental wishes deviant?
But as noted, this is not the primary concern of the person in crisis, if indeed it is a concern at all. Into this space, then, step pro-choice activists. While it could be said that Irish women and AFAB people are always potential sites of conflict with reproductive rights law, not being currently in crisis offers the opportunity to stand in place of those who are.
Máiréad Enright wrote last year of the position of pro-choice activists in political discourse, using Rancière’s distinction between police and politics. She relates this to the importance of the presence of outsider voices and representation as a challenge to the status quo:
True politics, by contrast, is about upsetting the dominant distribution of the sensible. Politics takes place when in moments of dissent “the part of no part” – those who normally should not be seen or heard – intervene in the established system of meanings, questioning it, and by that questioning insisting on their equality with others as political subjects and members of a broader “we”. For example, at this year’s March for Choice, the comedian Tara Flynn spoke movingly about Ireland’s abortion regime. In a lighter moment, she noted that reproductive rights campaigns were often construed in the public sphere as a ‘women-y fringe-y thing”. But, she said, of the assembled pro-choice marchers, “we are not some women-y fringe-y part of society, we are society”.
We are society. We are political, we are visible, and we are choosing to use our physical autonomy in the defence of those who are denied theirs. Creating this community, this space wherein we act to queer the strictures of the Irish legal system’s understanding of gender roles, resonates far beyond the hour spent at Government Buildings. It is a rebellion, a deliberate step into transgressive territory. When physical oppression is enacted, physical challenge is the only freedom left us. We’re using it.
I’ll be back on Merrion Street next week. Amnesty will be there all this week and next. Twelve people a day, tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. Be their advocate. Sign up here, particularly for the latter days when 100+ people will be required: https://www.amnesty.ie/news/demonstration-outside-government-buildings-show-abortion-cannot-be-ignored-government-formation