On this episode we discuss how S.P.U.C weaponised the 8th Amendment to go much farther than Pro-Choice activists had anticipated, bringing legal action against anyone who was giving information out about how to access abortion in the UK and other countries. The only way forward for activists at the time was to set up an anonymous phone line to help those in crisis get the information they so desperately needed. We spoke with Mary Gordon and Mary Ryder about their struggles both spreading the number, and answering the calls.
We also spoke to Senator Ivana Bacik about how she and other Students Union members were taken to court over their publishing of this phone number in student guidebooks.
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Written and edited by Deirdre Kelly and Aisling Dolan. Narrated by Aisling Dolan. Produced by Deirdre Kelly, Aisling Dolan, Emma Callaghan, Tara Lonij, Davy Quinlivan
Music: A Dream
Written By Jessie Marie Villa, Matthew Wigton
Performed By Jessie Villa
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Ivana: Very good, "How the Yes Was Won". I love the title by the way, I think It's great.
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Narrator Aisling [00:00:05] Welcome back to How The Yes Was Won, a podcast about the Eighth Amendment.
In the previous episode, we covered the 1983 referendum to introduce the Eighth Amendment. We spoke with those involved in the Anti-Amendment Campaign who were fighting to keep it out.
But what happened after the referendum? People in Ireland still needed abortions that didn't stop.
The amendment was sold as something to protect women, protect mothers and protect babies. This was never going to be the case. The Eighth Amendment was bad for women. It didn't mark a sign of progress or improvement for women's lives within the structures of the State. It only highlighted the hypocrisy within society.
It was only acceptable for women to be pregnant within marriage. Women who became pregnant outside of marriage were still routinely sent to the now infamous Mother and Baby homes run by the State and the Catholic Church. We recommend the BBC Radio four podcast, The Home Babies, to learn more about these.
The shame surrounding single motherhood was so pervasive that within a couple of years of the introduction of the 8th, we had the story of Anne Lovett, a 15 year old girl who concealed her pregnancy and who died shortly after giving birth alone in a grotto along with her infant son. We had the story of the Kerry babies, where a woman was wrongly accused of murdering a baby washed up on a beach simply because people in the town had seen her pregnant. The inquest into the baby's death became a public humiliation for the woman by the Gardai, scrutinising her sexual behaviour and her menstrual cycle.
Activists like Mary Gordon assumed that nothing would change after the 8th was introduced, that they could still go on providing the information and referrals to the UK for people who could afford it. But unfortunately, they discovered that the situation was much worse than they expected.
Mary Gordon: The most draconian interpretation of what the amendment might mean was the one that was taken in terms of legislation. So it actually was the case that women were not entitled to any information as a result of the abortion referendum because in a way, nobody thought, certainly not the right to choose group that that was going to be any change in the practical situation for women in Ireland any time soon or even in our lifetimes, that women would be able to have abortions here. But there hadn't been any problem with providing information, or at least the Well Woman had been providing that information. If women knew where to go, they could get it. And after the referendum, I think organisations like the Family Planning Clinic and so on had to stop giving out that referral information.
So for that reason, Women's Information Network set up a service, a telephone service with information. And this this leaflet is actually all about exactly what to expect and where to go with addresses and, you know, amounts of money that it would cost and all that kind of practical, very practical information. And that was what we produced in order to give women access, you know. I mean, it was it was like a reduction back to something even more primitive than what we might have been thinking about in the in the early 80s where we thought we were fighting for women's rights. Now we're talking about we're just trying to help women who are in this terrible position.
And we got a group called the Dublin Resource Centre in Temple Bar, when Temple bar was just full of old warehouses and things before it all got changed, it was going to be turned into a bus station. And we got a small little room that was like the width of a person almost with a window and a door. And we had a table and we had a cupboard. And in the cupboard we had a phone and we had a book with all the information and a book for writing down details. And twice a week we would go in there and we were given the room for nothing by the DRC. And we would go in there and we would answer, answer it. We left, we had a message, an answering machine attached to the phone. So if anybody rang at any other time, they would be told to ring back on Wednesday evening or Saturday afternoon. And we did that for the best part of ten years until we weren't needed any longer, until the changes with further referenda meant that information was now available. And in some ways, that's the thing I'm proudest of because it's really you know, it was really simple, but very effective.
Getting the number out was the main problem. And anarchists, people with spray paint, you know, cans and things would go around women's toilets and spray the number. Or if there was a march about something else, people would carry banners with our number on it. And in that way, people did in the know get to know who to ring. And then we were able to give them really practical information and support them in whatever decision they wanted to make.
And somebody has the book with the records. I think some of the records got lost, though, because we did plan to actually publish the stats. Obviously not...We didn't ask for women's names anyway. We didn't have that information. But ages and how many weeks pregnant and all that kind of stuff, we certainly had that compiled and certainly women came from all over Ireland. But what the, you know, the representation from different parts of the country was, I don't know.
Interviewer Deirdre: and ye were busy? did ye get lots of phone calls?
Mary Gordon: No, to be honest, we didn't. I mean, you might get three or four a night. So not not a huge number over over like a two hour period or a three hour period you might get and you might only get one [call]
Interviewer Tara: How many hours a day was the phone line open?
Mary Gordon: So the phone was staffed twice a week for maybe two hours on a Wednesday evening and maybe three hours on a Saturday afternoon.
Interviewer Tara: And that was made public as well?
Mary Gordon: Well, the number if you if you rang the number, you got the answer machine, which said when to ring back.
Narrator Aisling [00:05:26]: Three or four calls a night it doesn't sound like much, but six calls a week for 52 weeks a year, over the ten years they ran the phone line, was 3,120 women who called an anonymous phone line to get basic medical advice.
The Women's Information Network was just one of the ways people could find out information on how to travel abroad for abortion services. There was also other services available, like the Open Door, which became Open Line Counselling. And an activist, Ruth Riddick, operated another counselling line from her home landline. All of these activities were illegal. It was crucial that the phone number got out there as much as possible. Mary Ryder was one of the activists involved in getting the phone number to the public
Mary Ryder: Every single week we went down to the GPO. Every single week and stood at the GPO handing out leaflets, totally illegally. And we had a slogan. The number was 6794700, and the thing was, you said “6794700! Women have the right to know!
And this went we would shout this out, etc., and people would come and take, you know, take the and, you know, just take the leaflet and move on very quickly. And we would see it being folded carefully and put in their pockets, you know, and so people knew we were there. Dublin people would have known. I remember there was a woman from Wexford and she said “could I have two leaflets? That's all I'm asking”. And she said, "I will photocopy them and give them to everybody I know and asked them to photocopy them". So each person had to go along and go off and pay their 10p to photocopy the next leaflet again, like a telephone tree doing that kind of stuff. So that was something. And then the numbers went out. That's how we got the numbers out.
So that was the..I can’t remember though. I was trying to figure it out before I.. as I was driving here. Dublin Abortion Information Campaign. yeah that’s who it is!
Interviewer Deirdre: I’ve done all my research !
Mary Ryder: Very good! that was it, and the public meetings.. we would hold public meetings and we'd have outside you would have SPUC , you’d have Youth Defence - they were a bit later, they came out of it afterwards. And then you would have the Special Branch, because we were an active political group, and we were acting illegally and so on.
So if you postering - because in those days you postered with paste and a bucket, you went around and put them on every traffic box and anywhere you could put them - lampposts, anything , but you'd to walk around with the big bucket. I mean, how many people walk around with big bucket and a paintbrush? So you'd be putting the posters up for various marches or just with the number and things like that.
But we, you could be arrested for handing out that information because it was illegal. But what was interesting, I can’t remember which TD it was, he was I think it was one of the Workers Party. I'm not so sure they hadn't gone into the Labour Party at that stage.. was one of the workers parties and he read out the number in the Dáil under Dáil privilege. And therefore, what we did then was we got a copy of the Dáil record and we turned it into a poster and put the poster up all over Dublin and sent copies of it all around the country. Because it was Dáil privileged, nobody could stop you putting that number out because it was just a report. You know, we had a heading something like "Report from the Dáil of the 23rd of April", let's say, or whatever date it was.
So you were able to get.. there were ways in which you got the information out that weren't quite the usual like. You know, it's quite.. when you think of it now, it's so easy on a phone to send stuff to people.. it was much more difficult to get it out. So..
Interviewer Deirdre: Was it Proinsias De Rossa?
Mary Ryder: It was Proinsias De Rossa! You're right! You're right. It was Proinsias De Rossa.
Narrator Aisling [00:09:06]: So IF you saw the number and IF you could make the call, you could get information on how to travel to the U.K. for an abortion. As much as a barrier as even getting the phone number was, we also have to remember how difficult it would have been for many pregnant people to make the journey. The cost of air or sea travel was much higher then than it is now. Even if you had the money, public transport outside of Dublin was and remains basically non-existent. And if you got to the airport, SPUC could be there waiting for you.
Mary Ryder: SPUC used to go to Dublin Airport on a Friday evening and they used to come along the queue for the London flights and the Liverpool flights and they come along the queue and say “Hello, could we do a little survey, are you going to England for some reason or whatever it may be”. And when you were, I was in a queue and this is how I knew about it was when they were asking. I say to to my partner I said, they're going down...They're asking all these women of our age, you know, in our 30s, they're asking them this question and they’re skipping so many people. So when they came to us anyway and they asked and I said, why are you asking these questions? And they said, “Are you going for an abortion?” That straight up. “Are you going for an abortion?” So I just, I just grabbed your woman's arm and I held it up in the air and I said, "Security! Security!" And I started screaming, "This woman is abusing me, this woman is attacking me", etc.. And I really let go, really shouting and shouting. And people turned around and she said, "Excuse me, excuse me, let me go". And I said, "I'm not letting you go because you have no right to come up to people in a public venue and ask that", “You are going for an abortion”. And then she turned into that harridan of “you're a murderer, you're a baby killer,” you're this you're that the other. Can you imagine if I was?.. and I wasn't going for an abortion, but imagine if you were going for an abortion
Narrator Aisling [00:10:53]: As well as facing an established anti choice group in SPUC, pro-choice activists also faced a new militant anti-abortion group called Youth Defence. Youth Defence were mostly people in their teens and 20s, and they took it one step further and started physically assaulting and intimidating activists.
Mary Ryder: Youth Defence were vicious. You couldn't hold meetings, they'd come in and break them up, physically break them up. When we had a run in with them down on Thomas Street, they had headquarters on Thomas Street and we put a picket on it. It was about 40 or 50 of us. We'd been on a march and we were high as kites. You know, you think - "change the world today instead of someday in the future". And they came out with huge, big, long batons and sticks and tried to beat the living daylights out of us. They hit a lot of us, but police came and for the first time, the police intervened on the right side. We were very happy that they did. I could tell you, extremely happy that they did. I don't know where Mary... but Mary Gordon was living. But Ailbhe Smyth had them in her garden with little white coffins and people, they they did all those pickets on people's houses.
Narrator Aisling [00:11:55]: But even the threat of physical violence couldn't stop the young activists from spreading the phone number. Providing information to facilitate travel to the UK was an illegal action. Pro-choice activists were breaking the law, and SPUC wasn't going to let that slide. Of all the organisations who were spreading the phone numbers, only one had members who are identifiable - the Students Union. We spoke to Ivana Bacik, who was the president of Trinity Students Union in 1989 and who found herself at the centre of SPUC’s legal action.
Ivana: You then have SPUC, which then started to take this very proactive legal action against counsellors who are simply giving women counselling, where they came in crisis pregnancy and where they looked for a phone number of a clinic.
So SPUC used the Amendment in a way that the, its advocates hadn't predicted would be used, in other words, to close down counselling services. So in '85-86 counselling services, the big, two big counselling services, the Open Door counselling run by Ruth Riddick and the Well Woman Clinic clinics were all all injuncted before the courts and an infamous judgement called the Hamilton Judgement.
Judge Hamilton of the High Court ruled that it was in breach of the constitutional right of life of the unborn, to give information to a pregnant woman that she might use to term in another country, to terminate the pregnancy. So it was a leap, conceptually and interpretively, to make this judgement. But the Hamilton judgement was upheld by the Supreme Court and and from 1988, when the Supreme Court ruled there was no service, no entity openly providing information except the Students Unions. Those students unions like Trinity and UCD, which were mandated to give information, continue to do so in defiance of the law and knowing that we were going to be targeted next. So when people say why were students unions targeted? That's why ,we were the last line of open of, of any organisation that you could look up in an Irish phone book that was open to offering information. Every other doctor, counselling service, women's information had, obviously either been already been injuncted the book or were threatened.
And you know it was going to.. it would have destroyed anyone financially to do so. There was an underground helpline, which was the Women's Information Network, but no, they weren't publicly, nobody knew who officially who was behind them, and their number was only available on the backs of toilet doors, or through the students union networks.
Because Trinity was city centre location and much more accessible than anywhere else in House 6 or Mandela House, as it was called then. And we used to also get a lot more calls from outside of the student community. So one of my most vivid memories, you know, from my election in June of that year of 1989 was getting, you know, phone calls every day and women calling into our offices in House 6 every day, desperate for information from all over Ireland, young and old. I mean, it was it was absolutely shocking for me as a 21-year old to suddenly be that the person on the end of the line or at the other side of the desk.
There were two women in my year, myself and Grainne Murphy, who was the deputy president and welfare officer. So we saw most of the women who came in, our other two officers, though, who were obviously also in the litigation - Jim Davis and Owen Lonigan- also used to get calls, but we took most of the calls and saw most of the women. And it was really eye opening for us. And certainly if we hadn't been pro-choice before, I think we'd have realised then the extent of the need for legal abortion in Ireland once we had that experience
Interviewer Tara: What exactly was distributed?
Ivana: OK, so you have the actual guidebook that was the subject of the injunction, and you see it’s obviously of its time, pre-internet, pre-personal computers - and we laid it out, or did we have personal computers?... I think it was it was very, very low tech in those days. The guidebook, I should say, is a general guidebook for first years, produced by Trinity Students Union and is a very ancient picture of me in it, wearing a dress that my mother had made, actually. And it was the guide book for 89-90. But I should say that every year the Students Union produced these Fresher's guidebooks, in other words, guidebooks for first years. And it contains enough information to add all sorts of things, you know, students and the law students and sexual harassment, student finances, tenants rights, all the things that are of interest to students. But the section on pregnancy counselling was obviously the section at issue.
Anyway but you'll see in page 36 of the guidebook and we provide the numbers for the Well Woman Centre, even though they weren't then providing information. But crucially, that 6794700 number, which was providing the phone numbers of clinics in Britain. And we then also went on to give the numbers of the clinics themselves in Britain, the BPAS clinic and the Raleigh Nursing Home and so on. And also the number of the Irish Women's Abortion Support Group in London. Which was a group of women, Irish, Irish origin, and first and second generation Irish women living in London who used to put up women and girls who were travelling from Ireland for abortion and would bring them to clinics and so on. And later, when I lived in London, I actually was a member of IWAS and used to help women travelling over for abortion. So we had a very, very informal but very effective organisation in London, which we were referring women to as well.
The backs of toilet doors. That was the only other place that you'd find the WIN phone number, was on the backs of toilet doors. And we had there was a campaign across Dublin particularly, but also to Cork and other urban centres to write phone number wherever we could. But, you know, but in terms of actually being able to ring an organisation listed in a phone book and get a number - student unions and only the student unions with a pro information policy, which wasn't all students unions, we were the only port of call.
So our students union and Trinity was obviously the most prominent because we had distributed the handbook. We had distributed the handbook earlier than the others because our Freshers Week was earlier. So we were the only four student offices threatened with prison. The other offices from UCD and the National Union hadn't yet distributed when the court case was heard. Hence, there was a difference. There were 14 of us in the case, including Stephen Grogan. The case is SPUC v Grogan. He was the president of USI and the four Trinity officers were amongst the 14 defendants in the case. And because Trinity was earlier in time, we had the penal notice attached to the court order - that is the threat of jail. It wasn't a surprise because we'd had solicitors letters, but certainly it was the final notice of the court proceedings were served in person.
It's all very vivid. All the memories are very vivid of that time. I mean, you know, we mobilised the student body. We had big marches to the courts every day. We were up in court. We had a big presence outside on the Quays. I have photos.. of the time. A lot of photos printed in the papers, of course, of all of us and of us outside the Courts and of the students.. you see them surface from time to time in exhibitions at the time. I have a very vivid memory of being in the back of the courtroom and listening to Mary Robinson making the legal argument. We just come in from outside.
Narrator Aisling [00:18:33]: Mary Robinson acted as legal counsel for the students who were brought to court, and she went on to become the first female president of Ireland the very next year.
Ivana: And Catherine McGuinness spoke about being in another courtroom and hearing the chanting from outside as our case was going on inside, because we had this great chant “S.P., S.P.U., S.P.U.C.,- SPUC off” and this chant, was we had the students outside the chant going the whole time we were inside the courtroom. And Mary Robinson in her very low key, very gravelly voice, was making this very, very, at the time, technical and unusual legal argument based on European Community law to the judges, to the judge, to Judge Carroll in the first place. So that's a very vivid memory. I can even remember what I was wearing.
Interviewer Tara: What were you wearing?
Ivana: I was wearing long flowing black culottes cos.. and a black T-shirt because that was the only smart clothes I had at the time. And a pair of Docs of course, it was the 1980s!
But SPUC V Grogan it's an interesting case. It's sort of a footnote happily now, because of the, you know, subsequent developments and particularly the referendum. But the case concerned, well, there were a number of procedural issues in the case, and there was also the substantive legal issue of whether or not what we were doing was in breach of the Constitution. The procedural issues were around, whether in the particular case of the Trinity students, whether we had breached an interim injunction. And Judge Carroll ruled that there was no evidence that we had or that there was no evidence she was prepared to accept. SPUC had offered evidence that they had seen us giving it out the handbook. And indeed, I think they had sent in people to take the handbook from the named union officers -myself, Grainne, Jim, Owen. And but that wasn't evidence that Judge Carroll accepted. So so that was how we didn't go to prison.
In terms of the more substantive legal argument, about the merits of the permanent injunction, the interlocutory injunction. Mary Robinson had argued that there was a right under European Community law to give information on a service in one member state about a service legally available in another member state. And that was the point of law that Judge Carroll felt was arguable and that should be referred to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. So the procedure that Mary Robinson was using was a procedure of referral to a senior court, but to a Luxembourg court, of an issue that.. of an issue of European Community law that had arisen in a in a domestic court , in the High Court. So the referral went to the ECJ, which subsequently, as I said, ruled in our favour on the technical point that, yes, you have that right. But against us in practise because we didn't have the commercial link, so we didn't have, as you say, Locus standi to rely upon. And so, you know, that's the costs were awarded against us and we were declared bankrupt and so on.
But in the meantime, while the ECJ referral was ongoing, SPUC had appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled in here in Ireland, which ruled in their favour. And again, that's how the costs ratcheted up to a great extent because costs follow the event in Ireland. So the costs were awarded against us as the losers.
It was then a side legal issue about whether the costs should be awarded against us as individuals or as SPUC would have preferred, of course, against the Students Union as an entity which actually had assets. We were all students, we had no assets and the courts ruled and that the Students Union had no legal status, wasn't a body incorporated and therefore couldn't be sued, had no legal personality. But it meant that we were personally liable for the costs. So that was held over us for a long time. And of course, our own legal team clearly didn't, you know, didn't get anything from this. This was all SPUC’s own legal costs that I'm talking about. So.. so there were a lot of different legal issues in the case.
Narrator Aisling [22:05]: How did you get Mary Robinson as your..?
Ivana: an intermediary approached.. approached us. We were prepared to represent ourselves, not purge our contempt and go to jail. Mary Robinson was representing us and told us we would be, and to pack our toothbrushes.
I'm really proud of the stand students took because in other countries it's been women's movements or medical professionals who led the fight for abortion rights. But in Ireland, it's actually been very much men and women together, through the student movement and the student movement, the graduates of the student movement, if you like, over the years.
But that's not been a feature in other countries where, as I say, it's much more associated with medical professionals or with, or with women's groups.
But women's groups have been targeted so effectively by SPUC and had been closed down, that really it fell to the student movement to do it. And so it's been a real feature of the Irish campaign, over decades since the late 80s, but with its origin in those cases of the late 80s and those student demonstrations, the really brilliant student demonstrations and the student chanting and so on. So it's great to see new generations of students have always kept that up over the years. You know, that hasn't changed. And that was a big impetus behind the 2018 referendum.
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Narrator Aisling [00:23:13]: The ruling from the European Court didn't have anything to do with human rights, and was based solely on the right of the state to advertise services available in another state. Thank you, capitalism.
While this case didn't have much of an effect on the day to day lives of people who could get pregnant, it did start the conversation again.
Would it really be so bad to refer someone to the UK? Little did they know at the time, but one of the most infamous court proceedings in the history of Ireland was about to hit the front pages in just two short years, and centred around this very point. The X case - we’ll tell you all about it next episode.
Emma [00:23:49]: Many thanks to Mary Gordon, Mary Ryder and Senator Ivana Bacik about speaking to us for this episode.
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If you enjoyed listening, please consider donating to the Abortion Support Network.
Abortion Support Network provides advice on travelling for abortion, financial assistance towards the costs, and, where needed and where possible, accommodation in volunteer homes. They do this for people resident in Ireland, Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man, Malta, Gibraltar and Poland.
Covid has added extra complications and costs to an already complicated process. Calls from Poland have doubled from 2020. There’s a link in the show notes where you can donate to support their clients who need abortions, or go to ASN.org.uk.
How The Yes Was Won was researched, produced and edited by Aisling Dolan, Emma Callaghan that’s me, Davy Quinlivan, Tara Lonji, and Deirdre Kelly. Additional recording support from Fin Dwyer. See you next time!