An Interview with Sínead Kennedy- Pro Choice activist

Vigil for Savita

 

This the first interview I ever conducted.  Sínead Kennedy is a lecturer in NUI Maynooth and a spokesperson for the pro choice campaign.  She’s a member of the United Left Alliance and, as I told her TO HER FACE, is a bit of a badass.  I am still scarlet that I managed  to call my interviewee a ‘badass’ within the first ten seconds of the interview. I’d put my serious journalist face on for nothing!

The interview was written for the Student Standard, which is Maynooth’s only independant news source.  I am a massive hack for the Standard, do check it out!  It’s made with love. <3

I would like to thank Sínead, who was very friendly, reasonable and generous with her time in giving me this interview.  

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It’s been 20 years since the X case ruling and in that time seven successive governments have not introduced legislation clarifying the legal position of abortion.  At the start of this year, the United Left Alliance TD Clare Daly introduced a bill that would provide for the ruling in the X case.  That bill has now been voted down twice, and people are getting angry, none more so than the Pro Choice movement which has recently seen a huge surge in public support.  From a small march of under 5,000 people just a few months ago to the massive march of 15,000 after the death of Savita Halappanavar, the debate has shifted up a gear.  With accusations of cowardice on the part of Fine Gael and particularly the Labour Party, mysterious automated anti abortion phone calls, Praveem Hallapanavar sticking it to a HSE led enquiry (and at time of writing, preparing to bring his case to the European court of human rights) a spasming media old and new following the story day by day there is a wick of change that has been ignited.  In the midst of all of this, a few speakers keep re-appearing – Breda O’Brien of the Iona Institute, William Binchy, David Quinn and Íde Nic Mhathúna (who was chastised on Indian Television) on the pro life side and Clare Daly, Ruth Coppinger, Sínead Redmond and Sínead Kennedy on the pro choice side.  Sínead Kennedy is a lecturer in Maynooth’s English Department and agreed to an interview with me.

I suppose I should begin by asking what you made of last night’s verdict [Clare Daly’s second attempt at passing legislation for the X case on Wednesday the 28th of November]?

“It was very disappointing – that was the first thing about it. It wasn’t maybe entirely unexpected as it became clear during the course of the day that Labour were not prepared to vote for it. But the fact is that this is the second time that it has gone before the Dail and it’s the second time it’s been voted down and literally 30 days earlier a woman had died. It seemed it should have been treated as a matter of some urgency and the fact that it wasn’t just shows what these politicians are.  Because being realistic, we are talking about another six months before we see legislation. And given the fact that a woman has died because of the lack of legal clarity, it just seemed disgraceful.”

I’ve been keeping up with the Labour Party and what they’ve had to say.  From what I’ve read, they’re saying that without the support of Fine Gael, the bill was going to be defeated anyway and if they had voted yes, the government would have collapsed and the wait would be even longer.  What would you say to that? Labour have also claimed that they are the only party to have included legislation for X in their manifestos in 2011.

“This is always the excuse for not doing anything: we can’t make it too radical or push too hard. I’m putting the emphasis on the Labour Party but there is an onus on Fine Gael too to vote for this. This government has a responsibility to act. But my fear would be that in the attempt to pacify the pro-choice elements of Labour and the anti-choice elements of Fine Gael you’d end up with some sort of compromise that means you have a very weak piece of legislation that would not provide an effective legal protection for women.”

We then moved to discussing Sínead’s involvement with choice advocacy through the years, starting with her memories of the original X Case in 1992.

“Well, I remember the X case. I was about 12 or so and I remember it really had an impact on me.  The fact that she was 14 seemed so close to my age and my sisters.  It was one of those things that had an impact on everyone our age. It was a huge story at the time, I suppose now many people don’t remember it. So when I was in college, the C case came about and I didn’t want to see this again and got involved in the campaign. Ever since then I’ve been campaigning on the issue. We campaigned for action on the C case and nothing happened and there was a referendum in 2002 to reverse the X decision which we campaigned against.  This year, the twentieth anniversary of X, we decided this couldn’t be allowed to continue, so we started up a campaign called Action on X.  Clare Daly in the United Left Alliance (and I am also a member of the United Left Alliance) brought forward a bill in April so we began to work on that.  And then there were those horrific Youth Defence posters over the summer to shame women and I was so inspired by the response of mainly young women who spontaneously organised.  Sínead Redmond organised a Facebook page entitled ‘Unlike Youth Defence I trust women to decide”, this amazing thing; and they had this protest outside the dail, it was all these young angry women saying who said we will not be shamed, we are proud and we are feminist, we believe in choice and our rights and we won’t be shamed by conservative elements like youth defence. That led to the March for Choice and we had begun to set up a campaign when sadly, Savita Halappanavar died.

The posters over the summer, showing torn pictures of both a sonogram picture and of a woman’s face came with the slogan ‘There is always a better option.’ Youth Defence, formed in 1992, are a controversial pro-life organisation operating in Ireland.  The posters over the summer were for many younger people their first encounter with Youth Defence.  I asked Sínead if she thought the story of Savita Halappanavar has become a game changer in this debate, like the X case was in 1992.

“That’s exactly how I’d put it. I think it has connected with people.  Too long and too often the debates on abortion get caught up in these legal arguments and medical arguments; abstract theoretical arguments.  I’m always struck that in these discussions women themselves are virtually absent; it’s like they’re just these disembodied wombs. So it’s like the women just become completely invisible. I think with the X case and Savita you’re presented with a case in all it’s complexity and all it’s human pain and tragedy and people respond in  a human way. Because then they realise that these things are not abstract moral decisions; they’re made by real people. Obviously these are extreme cases; in terms of rape or in terms of risk to a woman’s life. But I also think it just shines a light on the struggle that ordinary women go through every day in making these decisions. Sometimes they are difficult decisions and sometimes they’re not but they are always a valid decision.”

The question of validity recurred in the course of our interview, when I asked for Sínead’s thoughts on the comments of Breda O’Brien, who was featured on the main evening news on the 18th of November stating that many pro-life activists felt ‘excluded’ from the marches and vigils held in the wake of Savita’s death.  I asked Sínead to comment on the implicit statement here, and one that has been circulating around since the story broke; that the pro-choice lobby are exploiting the death of Savita Halappanavar for their campaign.

“Should the anti-abortionists be excluded? Absolutely they should be excluded. I mean it’s their campaigns that have put women’s lives like Savita at risk and I certainly reject any claim that we’ve exploited this. I think we need to look at the facts here.  Praveem, Savita’s husband, contacted the pro choice group in Galway.  He told her story- He decided to tell her story, and the first people he told her story to was not to newspapers, but to Galway Pro choice- why?  Because he wanted to make sure that what happened to his wife would never happen again.  I think that we have to salute his courage and determination- it’s a very brave thing to do to not only have the Irish media but in many ways the entire world media spotlight shone on you at a time of grief- I mean the man has lost his wife, and he’s been this incredibly powerful and articulate advocate for her, determined that she will receive justice.  So I completely reject that. It’s just not true.”

I was curious to know what were some of the crazier things that Sínead has heard in nearly 20 years of involvement in pro-choice advocacy, and some of the stranger arguments against abortion.  We ended up discussing the philosophical nightmare of contemplating non-existence.  Sínead goes on to comment on the language used in debates about abortion.  The question of ‘valid decisions’ returns here.

“Sometimes I get quite nasty misogynistic comments. But the best one is ‘what if your mother had aborted you?’ I always think that that is the most stupid.  They always ask you this question and I find it slightly bizarre that the non-existent go around contemplating their own non-existence.  I find this bizarre.

I think you have to not expect everybody starts from ‘I believe and support free safe legal abortion’ but most people if you ask them ‘well if a woman’s life is at risk, then can she have an abortion?  Okay well what about her health?  What about if she’s been raped or in the case of fetal abnormalities?’ Once you break down these absolutes you start asking the question ‘what is a valid decision?’ One thing that really irritates me is the language that is used. This idea of women demanding abortions and abortion on demand – this word, ‘on demand’.  We never use this word for other medical procedures.  We never talk abou people demanding to have their tonsils out, but somehow it’s appropriate to use here.  The other thing I’ve heard about is the idea of the floodgates.  This is the other term I keep hearing. It’s interesting that this is the same term you often hear used in Racist discourse when they’re talking about immigrants and talking about floods of immigrants- There’s a correlation between sexist and racist discourses as well.  It’s important to pay attention to these kinds of questions as well.

When asked about the recent statements made by the council of Bishops and Archbishop of Dublin Diamuird Martin on the ethics of abortion, Sínead was critical of the church’s continued patronage of health and education.  We compared our experiences of catholic education- Separated by approximately 10 years, but both coloured by the church.

“Well, the idea that the Catholic church in Ireland can pontificate on any aspect of morality or can lecture anybody when we know the sort of horrific crimes they have been guilty of… If the church wants to make comments nobody can stop them, but what I object to is when the church begins to interfere in medical decisions and in the state.  I think that’s a problem.  I have no problem with what people choose to believe privately; I respect people who don’t agree with abortion – that’s their view and they’re entitled to it.  Where I have a problem is when they try to impose their view on me and on other people.  That’s the difficulty I have.  I mean, if the church wants to, within it’s own religion say these things that’s fine, but when it begins to impact on other people who don’t share these beliefs then there’s a problem. I think there’s also a failure within Ireland to separate church and state.  The fact that the church continue to play significant roles within health and education is a huge problem.  I think until we get the church out of our hospitals and out of our schools we are going to continue to be contaminated by their influence.

In reponse to comments I made about being taught a very pro-life favouring religious syllabus at school:

“We got the ones on contraception; all the things that were wrong with condoms and the pill.  And then you’d get the rythmn method- which was suitable only in marriage but it was apparently very very safe and [we were told] all these awful things that were going to happen if you used a condom or the pill.”

Finally, I asked Sínead two questions: did she think this government would legislate for the X case, and will there be access to free, safe, legal abortion in Ireland within the next ten years.

“I’d answer yes to both questions.  I think this government will legislate because we’re going to make them, and if we don’t, we’re going to bring them down.  If they do not act.  There’s a huge campaign building and I think they’re going to come under enormous pressure to act. bI would also answer yes to the second question because I do think things are changing.I think the anti abortionists realise that.  We need a twofold strategy; one is legislation for the X case.  Not that I think [legislation for the X case alone] is enough, but because once you have legislation for X, for the first time in the history of the irish state, the terms under which abortion is legal in this country will be laid out in law and that is highly significant.  I think that anti-abortionists realise that.  I don’t think that they’re wrong in saying that it will bring abortion to Ireland, but obviously it only brings abortion for highly restricted circumstances and obviously there’s a lot of things it won’t address.

I think that there is momentum building to have a referendum to repeal the eighth amendment and I think that it is going to become a major political issue within the next year.”

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Niamh ‘Serious journalist face’ Keoghan

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