Artists take to the streets of Limerick in emotive abortion rights protest

Procession organised by Artists’ Campaign to Repeal the Eighth Amendment marks launch of Eva International biennial

Artists’ Campaign to Repeal the Eighth Amendment march through the streets of Limerick Gareth Harris

Artists’ Campaign to Repeal the Eighth Amendment march through the streets of Limerick Gareth Harris

A campaign group comprising artists and writers calling for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland—which gives a foetus the same rights as the woman carrying it—marched through the town of Limerick yesterday (13 April) as part of the 38th Eva International biennial (14 April-8 July). The amendment was introduced in 1983; Ireland is one of the few countries in Europe that subsequently bans abortions in cases of rape and also if there is a risk to the mother’s health.

The march, organised by the Artists’ Campaign to Repeal the Eighth Amendment, comes ahead of a highly divisive referendum to be held in Ireland on 25 May, when voters will be asked whether the wording of the amendment should be changed. Brendan Leahy, the Catholic bishop of Limerick, told The Irish Times that the possible repeal is a “pivotal moment for our society and how we cherish life in this country”.

Banners designed by the artists involved in the campaign—Alice Maher, Sarah Cullen and Rachel Fallon, Áine Phillips and Breda Maycock—were carried along the route; one is based on the painting David and Goliath by Orazio Gentileschi (around 1608). Fallon says that there were only “three very small moments of dissent and heckling during the procession. The general consensus seemed to be that both the quiet and the absence of negative imagery silenced many.”

Maher points out that “we are reclaiming the streets and countering the lies plastered on the posters around Limerick”; the posters, mounted by a campaign group called Save the 8th, claim for instance that one in five babies are aborted in England. The procession began in the city’s art college, which once housed a Magdalene laundry run by Roman Catholic nuns; these brutal workhouses were set up to intern “wayward” unmarried women who were pregnant, or deemed promiscuous.

Fallon tells The Art Newspaper: "This is a hugely emotive issue and we want to open up the debate. It's a really hard issue for men to take on; people also did not realise the ramifications of the Eighth amendment. There are so many consent issues and the moment a woman falls pregnant, she loses bodily autonomy under the Eighth.”

An accompanying EVA International publication stresses that in the constitution, women are only mentioned twice: “First, to say that the women’s place is in the home (article 41.2) and second, to say that the foetus has exactly the same rights as the mother (article 40.3.3). The latter amendment… means it is entirely illegal to procure an abortion in Ireland.”

Women are subsequently forced to seek abortions abroad, a traumatic and dangerous option for many. Testimonies by individuals affected by the Eighth, along with the archive for the Artists’ Campaign to Repeal the Eighth Amendment, are on show at Cleeve’s Condensed Milk Factory, an Eva International venue.

Artists' Campaign to Repeal the Eighth Amendment Gareth Harris