How a pro-choice movement in Ireland is changing the way women campaign for their reproductive rights

Wear your heart on your chest.
Wear your heart on your chest.
Image: Repeal
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When Fia Kavanagh was 17, about to graduate from school in a suburb of Dublin, Ireland, she discovered that she was pregnant. Her college entrance exams were two weeks away, and she had just broken up with her boyfriend of several years. “I knew I couldn’t give a child the life I’d want it to have,” Kavanagh says. “Two parents, brothers and sisters, a home.”

But Kavanagh didn’t have the options available to many other teenagers with unplanned pregnancies. Ireland still has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world. It’s the only country in Europe besides Malta in which abortion is illegal, except when the procedure is necessary to save a woman’s life. Even in cases of pregnancy as a result of rape or incest, abortion can be punished by up to 14 years in prison.

“I debated adoption,” Kavanagh says, “but I was really sick during the pregnancy. I was too young.” After weeks of quiet turmoil, telling only her mother and a teacher about her condition, Kavanagh decided to travel abroad to get an abortion—a trip that an average of 12 Irish women make every day. Most travel to England, as Northern Ireland only permits medical abortions. En route to Manchester, she threw up on the bus, then again on the plane. After the procedure, she says, “Every cell in me echoed relief.” Still, she felt punished: “I’d effectively been deported for my choice.”

Despite her ordeal, Kavanagh was luckier than many. Ireland’s abortion laws have caused countless tragedies. High-profile cases include the suicidal teenage rape victim Miss Y, who was forced to carry her pregnancy to fetal viability and deliver by C-section; the death of Savita Halappanavar, an Irish-Indian dentist denied a life-saving abortion during her septic miscarriage; and a brain-dead pregnant woman kept on life support, essentially as an “incubator” for her fetus, against her suffering family’s wishes. Untold scores of Irish women who can’t afford to travel to the UK to terminate their pregnancies resort to buying illegal abortion pills online. Others attempt to end unwanted pregnancies by drinking bleach or using coat hangers.

Afraid of being perceived as criminal in the eyes of her society, Kavanagh stayed silent about her abortion for nine years. “I didn’t even tell my sister. I felt I didn’t deserve to seek support. In conversations about the topic, I’d say, I’m pro-choice, but never tell my story.”

That changed one day this August when Kavanagh arrived at her job to find her coworkers wearing black sweatshirts emblazoned with the word “REPEAL.” This word was a reference to the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment, a constitutional law passed in 1983 that made abortion illegal in Ireland. “In only one word, I read, You’re OK, You’re part of this society,” Kavanagh says. “Over drinks with coworkers that night I said outright, I had an abortion.”

The REPEAL sweatshirts—or “jumpers,” as the Irish call them—are the creation of 26-year-old Dublin-based activist Anna Cosgrave, founder of The Repeal Project. She calls the garments “outerwear to give a voice to a hidden problem.” The simple word stands for Ireland’s grassroots effort to lessen the stigma surrounding abortion, and to ultimately make abortion legal. It’s a sentiment that 67% of Irish people support, but the mostly-Catholic country often doesn’t feel comfortable talking about. “People don’t have the language, because abortion has been shrouded in so much shame,” she says.

The Repeal Project started to take shape after Cosgrave attended a vigil in 2012 for Savita Halappanavar. “I went home really upset, unable to articulate my frustration,” she says. Like many of her millennial peers, Cosgrave usually expressed her political views in social media posts. But as at least one study shows, posting your own views online doesn’t tend to sway other people’s opinions, and it doesn’t necessarily lead to real-life conversations.

Three years of campaigning later, Cosgrave saw an image of women’s movement leader Gloria Steinem wearing a T-shirt declaring “I had an abortion” and was inspired to wear her pro-choice politics on her chest. “I realized that if you’re passionate about abortion rights, it’s not enough just to partake in the liberal echo chamber online,” she says.

When the sweatshirts debuted in July at a pop-up boutique in Dublin, they sold out in one hour. Thousands have been purchased since, and they speckle Ireland’s streets, worn by people of all ages and genders. Sold for 25 euros each, proceeds will be donated to the Abortion Rights Campaign. Feminist activists like Gloria Steinem—the influence for the original garments—fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, and actor Aaron Hefferman have been photographed in REPEAL sweatshirts, and dozens of Irish women—including Kavanagh—have gone public with their abortion stories on the project’s Facebook page. For a country that has been historically silent on this topic, that’s a big deal.

The Repeal Project does much more than simply turn a political statement into a fashion statement: It forces IRL interactions outside of the online “liberal echo chamber.” “Now, when you walk down the street in Dublin and you see someone wearing a REPEAL jumper, you high-five them, or you’re like, ‘Repeal!’ People actually shout the word,” Cosgrave says.

Other allied campaigns in Ireland are also now using clothing and accessories to fight for reproductive rights: Various activist groups are manufacturing Repeal the 8th badges, T-shirts, and necklaces. The Repeal Project’s tactics—a strong, simple visual message and the sharing of personal political stories—are also “transferrable to any country,” Cosgrave says. Similar campaigns have garnered attention in the US, such as the Colorado lawmakers who wore IUD-shaped earrings to show support for contraception funding.

The end goal of the project is to produce enough of a public discussion to force the government to enact a referendum. This approach has worked in the past: In May of 2015, Ireland became the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage via a popular vote. It was hailed as a social revolution. The precedent of a successful people-powered revolution has buoyed the country’s pro-choice movement. “It’s going to be a long, dirty fight, but if enough public pressure is applied, the government will plan a referendum,” Cosgrave says.

The opposition is overwhelming, however. An undercover reporter recently caught staffers at a Dublin health clinic spreading misinformation, telling patients that abortion causes breast cancer. Anti-choice trolls have tried to sabotage the Repeal Project’s social media feeds, sending pictures of the Grim Reaper, disabled children saying Anna Cosgrave discriminates, and photos of Repeal sweatshirt-wearers edited to read I killed my only child.

Even if Ireland’s abortion policy remains unchanged for years, countless women have already found relief in the growing public support for their right to choose, and the pro-choice movement’s effects can be felt throughout the country. While visiting the small fishing village of Howth, Kavanagh was initially nervous to wear her REPEAL sweatshirt, but she soon found she had nothing to fear.

“There was this middle-aged fisherman, and I wanted to go into his shop,” Kavanagh says. “He looked at me at the door and said, Repeal? I thought, Crap. He’ll turn me away. But he told me to come in, and he showed me photos of his daughter wearing a REPEAL jumper.”