Stickers, fly-postering and generally getting creative with a sharpie are Dublin traditions at this stage. Whether it is rival football teams, antifascist sketches, maser designs or penned declarations of teenage love. But a recent wave of feminist activity has got the locals a flutter to the extent that it was even covered by those virtuosos of women’s rights VICE magazine. Aoife Campbell investigates…
Women On Web are a non-profit group based in the Netherlands who provide early abortion pills to women living in countries with restrictive abortion laws. The website refers you to a survey about your health and a consultation with an online doctor. If you are deemed suitable then they will post you out a drug called Mifepristone, commonly known as the abortion pill. This is the most commonly used drug to induce an abortion before nine weeks. It is not safe to use after this stage of gestation. A suggested donation of €90 covers the costs of the medication although there is flexibility according to a woman’s means.
Under Irish law these pills are illegal, as is sharing information about them. The newly passed Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill allows medical abortions only in limited circumstances, where there is risk to a woman’s life (including suicide). It criminalises women who have abortions on Irish soil outside of these grounds with a possible maximum penalty of 14 years imprisonment.
WOW maintain strict confidentiality on behalf of the women who contact them. They do not release the number of pills dispatched to any given country however they said: “Women in Ireland, just like all other women in the world, need abortions. The legal status has no impact on their need to access abortions. Those women are you and me, our sisters, friends and mothers. Making abortion illegal does not at all reduce abortion rates. It only makes abortions unsafe, pushes it in the underground”.
The Irish state still prefers to export its abortion ‘problem’ abroad at over 4,000 a year. Yet, ironically the right to obtain information about foreign abortion services is still severely restricted. Although the days of removing offending ads from international publications are over. The 1995 Information Act still prevents an Irish doctor from referring a woman for an abortion abroad and restricts her access to information to face-to-face counselling sessions. And we’re only talking about exporting the problem here. Advertising the pills to self-administer an abortion on the soil of the Republic-of-holy-Ireland is a criminal offence. Which under the new legislation could result in 14 years imprisonment.
So the stickers and posters advertising WOW’s services throughout Ireland are a bold statement in the face of the consistent failure of the Irish state to care for the health and lives of women. The stickers are not mass produced and appear to be the work of a number of groups or individuals.
Molly a confident young women in her early twenties, began making the WOW stickers after she woke up to a “barrage of pro-life posters lining her street in North Dublin”. Despite the possibilities of jail-time for her actions, her ‘nervousness’ lifted after the first week of counter-canvassing the poles on her street. For Molly, it was the concern over the desperate measures the women will go to to prevent an unwanted pregnancy that spurred her actions. She choose to highlight WOW because Molly believes that they are trustworthy and “dedicated to ensuring women have safe abortions with safe medication which has been approved by the World Health Organisation.”
Once the first stickers went up it began a domino effect. The message took on a viral energy we usually associate with social media. Jessica, a mature student not previously involved with pro-choice activism, was inspired to get together with two friends. They made simple posters, using paper, markers and sellotape to advertise WOW’s service. Jessica explained: “I now see the website written in pen in toilet cubicles and even in a library book in my college. Lots of them are being ripped down and scribbled out but it’s not something we can give up on. Even though it’s positive that women can access the pills from a safe reputable site a woman might still be left with the feelings of anxiety that come with taking any medication and left to cope with those feelings alone. Which is barbaric”
This grassroots DIY tactic is not new in the battle for Choice in Ireland. Before the constitution was amended in 1992 to allow the advertisement of foreign abortion services, pro-choice groups illegally distributed information on abortion services. Publicly defying state censorship, the Women’s Information Network advice line number was handed out on leaflets, scrawled on women’s toilets, placards and laneways the same spaces which now advertise WOW over twenty years later.
Indeed tourists enjoying an unexpected heatwave on Dublin’s streets might be puzzled by lampposts extensively topped with glossy pro-life signs funded by Youth Defence fighting for space amid a variety of home-made stickers, posters and graffiti declaring ‘safe abortions with pills’. These stickers speak boldly and directly to women seeking abortions, evading a pro-choice/pro-life message turf war.
The reality is that criminalising abortion doesn’t stop it happening. It just makes it difficult, expensive or unsafe to access. Irish women know this already. In the last decade the HSE have released statistics which suggest a decrease in the number of women travelling for abortions. This does not indicate a drop in abortions but rather a drop in those travelling to access them. This decrease may reflect better knowledge and access to the abortion pills which WOW provide. While we wait for our elected representatives to get their heads out of the 1950s we will continue the surreal experience of accessing public health information on the city’s lampposts.