Women Deserve Better Than Both Lives Matter
The debate surrounding abortion legislation in Ireland has been unavoidable in recent weeks, with the high-profile statements by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and the announcement of a referendum to be held by the end of May. In the North, campaigners will be watching closely to see how it all plays out.
The Both Lives Matter campaign will certainly be watching. They are only the latest group to attempt to reframe the debate on the Northern Irish side of the border in terms of the lives of both mother and baby. But by cynically appropriating the discourse of the Black Lives Matter campaign in the U.S., they have managed to gain notoriety in the year since they formed.
Described in the Guardian as "nothing more than a word association game meant to draw a provocative parallel with a real struggle," they use the language of civil rights to deny civil rights to women in Northern Ireland.
The word association game is not just about both lives mattering. It begins with the term “pro-life”. The Both Lives Matter campaign is only the most trendy and insidious attempt to derail the possibility of debate on these matters. Anti-abortion organisations have succeeded in framing their points through a form of narrative inversion. The phrasing of pro-life suggests that people who want abortion reform must be pro-death. But only if we uncritically accept the term pro-life in the first place.
The idea of calling a campaign “Both Lives Matter” may be laughable, but they have already been mainstreamed. Not only were they starting out on the side of the status quo, they won “Best Campaign in Northern Ireland” at the Public Affairs Awards 2017 and successfully had an Advertising Standards Agency complaint about their billboards thrown out.
They have skillfully divorced the language they use from the realities of abortion in Northern Ireland. The slick PR campaign and pastel imagery can't hide the moral bankruptcy at their core, however. They’re right, women deserve better.
But it's not enough to simply dismiss them out of hand. By attempting to monopolise the very concept of Life itself, and by seizing the language of minority struggle in the U.S., they adopt the guise of the weak in order to deflect attention away from the strong. Instead, we must critically assess their actual strategy and show it up to be the mess that it is.
What do they want?
The campaign claims to have four objectives:
- To re-frame the abortion debate in Northern Ireland & beyond
- To advocate for better care in pregnancy crisis
- To create a culture that values every woman & her unborn child
- To safe-guard the current law which protects both women and unborn children
Campaign Objective 1. “ To re-frame the abortion debate in Northern Ireland & beyond”
“Too many people have been silenced by the false accusation that they are forcing their views on others” (Both Lives Matter).
A debate implies that there is the equal opportunity for discussion and reply. However, this campaign is about the avoidance of any semblance of a debate. The lines of battle are drawn around three positions:
- the possibility of a human being is considered equal to an actual human being,
- that there can be a middle way balancing the rights of zygote and mother,
- that by not accepting UK legislation, NI has allegedly saved itself up to 100,000 non-aborted human beings (Yes, this really is their guess).
By adopting the language of historical grievance the Both Lives Matter campaign adopts a sham victimhood in an attempt to blur lines between two fundamental contradictory positions. It simultaneously creates the impression of a fair and even sided discussion whilst obscuring the real world context in which the debate is held. Young people with socially conservative views may find themselves unable to share them with their peers, sure. But let’s compare that with, say, women raided by the PSNI on the mere suspicion of possessing abortion pills.
One thing is state sanctioned and the other thing is not. To see an absolute equivalence, or to feel able to take on the mantle of the vulnerable minority in the face of this is quite disturbing. Yet, these ‘victims’ do not once acknowledge their own position of power in NI, and their full-spectrum mastery over the terms of debate. At the end of the day the law of the land states that “This Act does not extend to Northern Ireland” (UK Abortion Act 1967).
Don’t view them as an oppressed minority in a callous, godless, utilitarian world - these people represent NI’s status quo. Rather than focusing on why abortions happen they have chosen to simply punish the most vulnerable women for daring to decide what’s right for their own body. This is no pragmatism, no middle way. It is a signal of virtue though.
Campaign Objective 2. “To advocate for better care in pregnancy crisis”
Banning abortion doesn’t actually stop abortions. Rather, it raises the number of unsafe abortions taking place. The World Health Organisation estimates that “30 women die for every 100 000 unsafe abortions” in the developed world alone.
However, NI has another option - it simply moves abortion elsewhere. Between 2013-14 there were only 23 legal terminations of pregnancy in Northern Ireland. Sources gathered by Amnesty International estimate that annually, at least 1000 women and girls travel to Great Britain from NI for these procedures. This makes abortion more a question of class and means.
“Choice” exists in NI, but only for the wealthy. Ireland as a whole has long benefitted from its proximity to the more liberal UK legal environment. Deep in their hearts politicians, in both Northern and Southern Ireland, knew that they didn’t have to confront their social conservatives; the gravity well of the NHS would draw enough of their problems away from them.
Until 2017, NI’s situation was a fudge with choice only available to those taxpayers who can afford an added “Easyjet and Hotel tax” on top of paying for a procedure in the UK (the cost could run to almost £2,000). If you were poor you were still a tax payer, only without access to NHS services; one who could go to hell or risk life imprisonment. This situation changed when ministers bowed to pressure and announced funding for procedures for the NI women who could travel to Britain. Yet this occured only after Theresa May was deprived of her majority at the 2017 general election and was desperate to avoid a commons defeat.
Financially, that still leaves the cost of travel, accommodation and missed working time. What’s really horrifying is the psychological trauma to be endured far from home, friends and loved ones. This cost does not include the added emotional labour and care work foisted upon women of all ages. This often makes even the idea of time off a luxury even simply for leisure. If you have never had to worry about those things then you’re lucky. Sadly, Northern Ireland remains home to some of the most deprived parts of the UK.
Campaign Objective 3. “To create a culture that values every woman & her unborn child”
The reality of Both Lives Matter’s words again shows anything but concern. The main result of restrictive choice laws around the world has simply been a higher risk of death from sepsis and other horrifying complications under unsanitary, unregulated conditions.
The real result of this message: humanised cells, dehumanised women.
Not a very pro-life outcome. But then again it’s true that restricting choice has always been about control, not concern for life. The demand for choice historically grew in response to shocking mortality figures faced by women the world over. We have traditionally not been a welcoming place for unwed mothers. Within the Catholic community alone, Magdalene laundries were an all-Ireland operation, acting as a punitive regime for ‘fallen’ women.
Campaign Objective number 4. To safe-guard the current law which protects both women and unborn children
The biggest gap between their stolen Back Lives Matter rhetoric and their punitive objectives opens up when we wonder why they included this fourth objective at all: since no legal regime prevents abortions.
By focusing their campaign on denying women the ability to have the freedom to choose Both Lives Matter would rather see them imprisoned, temporarily exiled or dead than admit that restrictive legislation only makes things unsafe for women
Abortions occur for a variety of social and cultural reasons. Bodily autonomy is simply the right to respond to your own context, in trust. If Both Lives Matter only focused on changing those factors then they would have simply remained an annoying pressure group. However, the landscape for reproductive rights in NI lies in the shadow of the Offences against the Person Act 1861, Victorian era legislation that criminalises “procuring a miscarriage” or assisting a woman to have one - which leaves anyone found guilty liable to life in prison. It’s clear that Both Lives Matter are not out to protect anyone.
Arguing in bad faith
Neither the Both Lives Matter campaign, nor the arguments underpinning it were ever about being principled or even about maintaining debate. It never makes an attempt to understand why women all over the world fought and won the right to choose. Instead, it is about throwing up a moral smokescreen over one of the last remaining gaps in NI’s civil rights struggle: women’s rights.
Societies can always be judged on how well they treat their most vulnerable members. In NI, this means poor women. They are at the bottom of the list for most parties while subject to police harassment, arrest and severe legal consequences. That brings us to the flipside of virtue: punishment.
The virtue/punishment dynamic fills the space occupied by medical evidence and trust elsewhere. On either side of the sectarian divide and border we can see what amounts to pro-life “virtue signals”, rather than arguments driving opposition to abortion reform.
Whether expressed as a wishy-washy hands off approach, or one more akin to a hardened fundamental culture war, one thing is clear: what unites the majority of NI’s fractured political parties is a shared concern for the bodies of women. It’s an arc that joins the SDLP, UUP, Alliance Party and DUP. SF, too, aren’t in favour of extending the British 1967 abortion act. South of the border they had abstentions during a motion supporting unrestricted access to abortion up to 12 weeks to cover cases of rape and incest during a repeal the eight committee vote.
The cessation of the Troubles has lain bare the underlying pro-natal inertia of a society in doubt. In NI, both communities have long been policed and under surveillance from both the state and various paramilitary groups. Though the watchtowers and checkpoints have come down, what unifies them both is the fight against attempts to deintensify that watch over the female populace. It’s all too possible to see NI’s culture war over abortion as a holdover from the recent war footing.
In lieu of sectarian community based violence, there’s a divide opening between those favouring policies that only serve to tell people how virtuous they are and those favouring actual universal civil rights.
Why this matters
Opponents of abortion reform in other countries have been successful, not only in curtailing access, but in finding ways to criminalise women even further. For example the creeping criminalisation of miscarriage in the USA, with mothers of miscarried or stillborn children being locked up after failing drug tests - even if the autopsy shows that the drug abuse did not in fact lead to the baby's death.
For those arguing that their personal moral belief should be state practice, look no further than El Salvador: where women can be prosecuted for miscarriages even in circumstances of rape. It’s merely an example of what's possible when the coercive nature of anti-choice legislation express themselves within a fully receptive environment.
We live in a part of the UK that was unable to have this conversation until 50 years on from the UK Abortion Act 1967. If you choose to have one it should be safe, with access to after-care. If you have religious or ethical reservations make your mind up for yourself. The realities underlying Both Lives Matter’s rhetoric shows them to be, if not pro-death, at least indifferent to female life.
Women do deserve better.
If you or someone you know need help, there are still resources out there to support you:
ASN is a charity that provides financial assistance, accommodation and confidential, non-judgmental information to women forced to travel from Ireland and Northern Ireland and pay privately for abortions in England or occasionally abroad. The cost of this ranges from £400 to £2000 depending on circumstance and stage of pregnancy.
From Northern Ireland call: 07897 611593
From Ireland call: 015267370
From Isle of Man call: 07897 611593
Or email: email@example.com
BPAS works closely with organisations in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to ensure that women living there receive appropriate access to contraceptive information and abortion care.
From Northern Ireland call: 03457 30 40 30
From the Republic of Ireland call: +44 1789 508 211
The IFPA provides extensive information on both the legal position in the Republic of Ireland on abortion and the range of help available, as well as access to other sources of help.
From the Republic of Ireland call: 03457 30 40 30
These international organisations offer pills that are safe and effective medications but please note that they are not legal in Northern Ireland.
Women on Web is an international collective that answers thousands of help-emails every day in many languages from women around the world. As Women on Web helps women in very many countries, there is no phone number to the helpdesk, but they will respond to every email and will support you.
Women Help Women is an international group of activists, trained counselors and non-profit organizations and foundations. We bridge the gap between reproductive rights advocacy efforts and service provision.