Women in Ireland are live tweeting their periods to Prime Minister Enda Kenny, in protest of the state’s long-held legislative control over their bodies. One woman detailed the length of time she’d been menstruating and the level of flow. Another identified what type of feminine hygiene product she was using (a moon cup, in case you wondered). One woman, Claire, announced that it was her first period since delivering a stillborn baby – from a pregnancy she was forced to continue for six weeks after receiving the dreadful diagnosis that the fetus was not viable. She described herself during those six weeks as “losing my mind with grief” and that “losing a baby slowly and painfully over weeks, knowing there's an alternative that you're being denied is pure torture.”
It’s this kind of scenario that period tweeters wish to highlight. Ireland’s highly restrictive abortion laws criminalize difficult reproductive health decisions best left to women and their healthcare providers. Irish law prohibits a woman like Claire who is carrying an unviable fetus from ending her pregnancy. It does the same for women and girls pregnant from rape. Any woman whose life is not in danger, but who seeks access to abortion for whatever reason, must travel out of Ireland to do so.
Their campaign, #repealthe8th, aims at overturning the eighth amendment to the Irish constitution, which equates a fetus’s right to life with that of the mother, criminalizing abortion except when a woman’s life is at risk. Until 2013, there were few guidelines about when such a termination might be legal. Human Rights Watch found in 2010 that such lack of clarity made it hard for some women even to get prenatal screening for serious fetal abnormalities, and caused problems for the many who traveled abroad for an abortion to get access to full and accurate information and post-abortion healthcare on return. The same year the European Court of Human Rights found that Ireland’s failure to regulate access to abortion had led to a violation of its human rights obligations. In 2013, a year after the high-profile and tragic death of Savita Halappanavar due to a septic miscarriage, Ireland adopted a law to clarify how a pregnant woman whose life is at risk can exercise her constitutional right to an abortion. The law put in place onerous administrative procedures to be followed when a life threatening pregnancy occurs but did not otherwise liberalize the abortion law in Ireland in light of the eighth amendment. This new #repealthe8th campaign calls for precisely the action needed to achieve proper reform that would respect women’s rights.
The women engaged in this unorthodox protest are highlighting the inherent inconsistency with which many societies and laws treat women’s reproductive health. On the one hand, menstruation and menstrual cycles cannot be discussed in polite company, especially with people of the male persuasion. Menstrual taboos often lead women to manage their menstruation quietly, secretly, often with a dash of shame. Yet, the moment a menstrual cycle ends in a pregnancy rather than a period, restrictive abortion laws dictate what a woman can do.
Kenny’s government should commit to ensuring access to safe, legal abortion in Ireland according to international standards. There is room even with the eighth amendment to reform the law for women in Claire’s position, with unviable pregnancies, if the government showed leadership. But until that happens all women who want and need access to abortion should be provided with complete, appropriate, and accurate information and support on how they can do so before, during, and after their forced exile in pursuit of such basic medical services.