In this week’s edition of the Academic Armchair we talked with Ben Kasstan, Research Fellow in Social Anthropology at Sussex, about a recent article written for Huffington Post, as well as a follow-up blog post for Sussex’s Centre for Cultures of Reproduction, Technologies & Health. Presenting his opinions on the importance of the upcoming 2018 vote over women’s reproductive rights and the protesters on both sides of the issue, Ben explores the context and potential outcomes of the referendum in his article. We talked with him to see why Sussex students should care as much about the issue as he does…

Ben mentions in his article that young voters made up the majority of pro-life and pro-choice demonstrators he saw while in Ireland.

We kicked off our interview by asking him why he feels young people are so active regarding this issue on both sides, and what this might mean.

Firstly, it is important not to overlook the role and massive contribution of ‘older’ generations (loosely defined) in abortion activism in Ireland.

I remember the 2016 demonstration was pretty wet and miserable, and I huddled under an umbrella with a woman in her fifties or sixties.

She told me how she had had an ‘illegal’ abortion but had never told her family about it, and she was demonstrating in the hope that her own daughter wouldn’t have to go through a similar experience.

Women like this came from the generations who survived the ‘Magdalene laundries’ and had their babies forcibly taken away from them, typically because the babies were born out of ‘wedlock.’

Whilst ‘older’ generations appeared to be fewer in number at recent demonstrations, it doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t involved in the movement and won’t vote for change.

The majority of people attending the demonstrations on either side were, however, mostly students and younger adults.

We asked Ben why exactly he believes this is the case.

It is common for university and college student unions in Ireland to take a position on abortion, and many have a presence at the demonstrations.

Just recently there were calls to impeach a Student Union President at University College Dublin (who was anti-abortion) after she removed detailed information about pregnancy help and abortion care information from a student handbook.

So abortion (on all fronts) is a point of student activism and politics.

I think students and “younger” people are less likely to see talking about abortion as ‘controversial’ or taboo. So maybe there is a difference in how abortion is viewed as a public issue, which, in turn, reflects the dynamics of demonstrators.

This does lend an opportunity for “younger” people to have conversations about abortion with parents and grandparents, however difficult this might be, because every vote for change will count.

The debate around reproductive rights is seen by many as being for only women to decide on, as it does not in any way affect men and their bodies.

We asked Ben, as a male academic navigating discussion around a topic so controversial and sensitive, how he feels men should try to approach conversation around abortion without causing offense or opining where it isn’t wanted.

We need to involve more men in debates about reproductive rights and wrongs.

Our universities are ideal platforms to further this aim, but in the last three lectures I have given on reproductive politics (at UCL) there hasn’t been a single male student in the room.

I think there is a misconception among many men that these debates are seen as being outside their domain and you might even call that a symptom of male privilege.

Instead we have a reality where Donald Trump and his frat are literally writing off the lives of women by reinstating the ‘Global Gag Rule/ Mexico City Policy.’

We have a reality where people like Jacob Rees-Mogg (who could be the next Conservative leader, if not Prime Minister) declare on mainstream media that abortion is ‘morally reprehensible.’

There is a mutually-reinforcing issue here: Not only are these moral expectations of women and their bodies rooted in sexism, patriarchy and injustice, but we see those very structures of gender inequality reproduced and asserted to the detriment of women and women’s health. 

Reproductive rights are human rights, and when political systems withhold or abuse those rights then that affects us all.

The UK does have some male politicians such as Sadiq Khan publically supporting efforts in London to enforce buffer zones around abortion care providers.

The point is we need more men supporting positions like this and at all levels of society and across all professions that intersect on abortion care and gender equities: law, medicine, politics, journalism, research, teaching. Everything.

We asked whether Ben finds the idea that a general referendum on this issue is in itself insulting, for the reasons relating to women’s rights to decide on their own bodily autonomy explored earlier- and we asked further, if he believes it to be  more complex than this argument would suggest, to  tell us how.

Abortion restriction as it currently stands is enshrined in Article 40.3.3. inserted into the Irish Constitution by its Eighth Amendment.

To change the status quo (a constitutional amendment) you need a public consultation by way of referendum.

Is it right or acceptable that abortion restrictions are enshrined in the Irish Constitution? Absolutely not, but it’s the current reality and hopefully a public vote will change that.

Abortion restriction is also an issue in the UK and many people might be surprised to read that abortion remains a criminal act under current UK law.

2017 is the fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 Abortion Act, which made legal abortions available to women under certain conditions.

The 1967 Act does not grant access to legal abortion care on the basis of choice alone. You also need the permission of two doctors to have a legal abortion in the UK.

The situation is worse in Northern Ireland because the 1967 Act doesn’t apply there.

Women in Northern Ireland can only access abortion care legally if their life is in danger or on grounds of permanent mental or physical health, for any other reason they are forced to travel to England or Scotland to access legal abortion care.

This is despite the fact that women in Northern Ireland are UK taxpayers. The punishment for “illegally” inducing a miscarriage (e.g. by taking abortion pills at home via womenonweb.org) can be up to life imprisonment, even if a pregnancy occurs as a result of rape or if the pregnancy is not viable (Under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act). The 1861 Act also applies to England, but to a large extent is offset by the 1967 Abortion Act.

It’s beyond shameful how unjust the situation is.

Through criminalisation and restrictive legislation, abortion is not treated in the same way as other medical procedures and the framework for providing abortion care is not woman-centred, meaning it is not constructed with the actual needs of women in mind.

We asked how Ben’s experiences with protesters on both or either side of the issue have affected his views regarding the referendum- potentially both in how he thinks about the topic, and in what he thinks the referendum’s outcome will be.

In terms of the issue itself, it hasn’t affected my views.

I don’t buy the so-called ‘Pro-Life’ arguments because if you are opposed to abortion, then don’t have one, but don’t take away the choice and right to access safe abortion care from all women.

If you are against safe abortion, then you are for unsafe abortion. Countries with restrictive abortion laws push women to either travel elsewhere or have unsafe abortions and these are a major cause of serious maternal morbidity and mortality.

The World Health claim that each year 21.6 million women around the world will have an unsafe abortion, and almost 50,000 of them will die from complications.

So yes, if you are against safe abortion then you are for unsafe abortion.

Restriction does not stop women from needing abortion care, it only puts women at risk.

I think the ‘Repeal’ movement could do more to sway voters in favour of change. Beyond the mantra of ‘free, safe and legal’ I haven’t seen enough in terms of a concrete vision of what abortion care in the Republic of Ireland would / could look like. Even if abortion care restrictions are removed in part or fully, how are all nursing/medical students and medical professionals in Ireland going to get the training they need to provide woman-centred abortion care? What gestational limit should be in place? What provisions would/could be in place of healthcare professionals consciously object?

To be honest I’m not sure about the outcome of Ireland’s 2018 Referendum.

I am an Irish citizen but as I am not resident in Ireland I can’t vote in the 2018 Referendum, which sucks.

I have attended the last few demonstrations in Dublin and whilst I’ve seen the turnout grow in recent years, this doesn’t mean all people eligible to vote will a) actually vote or b) vote in favour of change.

We asked Ben if, as someone who engages daily with students about issues such as these, he has any suggestions for how students and young people can work to ensure women’s bodily autonomy is respected and promoted.

I should start by saying I am constantly trying to re-evaluate my own role in ensuring women’s autonomy is upheld; how SRH services can be made more woman-centred; and how our societies can be made safer, healthier and more equitable places for women.

The recent #MeToo campaign was shocking.

My Facebook and Twitter feeds were literally flooded with statuses by female colleagues, family members, and friends saying how they had experienced sexual harassment.

This question is something I am constantly asking myself.

I count myself extremely privileged to have a university education and I definitely see my privilege as having a responsibility to extend anthropological critiques of gender and reproduction into public spaces – both online and offline.

I’d say its important for students and young people to also think about the ways they can carry the dynamics of a Sussex education with them and in the careers they envisage.

Never underestimate the potential of writing articles, attending demonstrations, leading counter-demonstrations, and having difficult conversations with people.

You can read Ben’s article Vulva La Resistence: Dublin’s Sixth March for Choice on Huffington Post at web address http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/ben-kasstan/vulva-la-resistance-dubli_b_18358752.html. As well as this, Ben has published a blog post on the subject that you can access at http://www.sussex.ac.uk/corth/publications/blog/2017-10-31.

If you’ve noticed, read or written a piece of research you think deserves to be highlighted in a future Academic Armchair, please get in touch via the email BadgerFeaturesEditor@Gmail.com or by coming along to one of our regular writers’ meetings- Fridays at 11am in Falmer Common Room.

New articles by Sussex academics become available daily at web address sro.sussex.ac.uk.

About the author

Devin Thomas

Features Editor & Third-Year English Student

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