May 23, 2018, by lzzeb
When Politics and Conferences Align
A blog by Dr Cordelia Freeman
In May 2018 I was lucky to travel over to the Republic of Ireland for the Conference of Irish Geographers being held at Maynooth University. This was the first time I had attended the conference and I was drawn to attend due to a call for papers on geography and reproductivity by Professor Kath Browne and Dr Sydney Calkin.
Arriving late at night in the small town of Maynooth I was immediately struck by the plethora of posters strapped to every available lamppost. On May 25th Ireland will be holding a referendum to decide whether or not to repeal an article of the Irish Constitution commonly known as the 8th amendment. The 8th amendment was added to the constitution in 1983 and essentially equates the life of a foetus with the life of the pregnant woman. This has made abortion illegal in Ireland unless the woman’s life is in grave danger. If voters decide to repeal the 8th amendment on May 25th it will result in proposed legislation whereby pregnant people can access abortions in a similar way as to what we see in the majority of Europe.
This meant that the sessions on reproductivity I was attending and speaking in were closely related to the events unfolding in Ireland. Speakers were presenting their research in areas such as asexuality, techno-contraception, pro-life pilgrimages, pride events as well as on abortion. Those of us speaking on abortion were discussing ideas around activism through poster campaigns and murals or the ways in which pregnant people are forced into travel in search of reproductive healthcare. My own paper, for example, forms part of a project where I am exploring how we can think about a legal geography of abortion. I am interested in whether existing literature within legal geography is helpful for assisting our understanding of abortion in a geographical sense.
The conference itself was the friendliest I have ever been to. It was the ideal size for getting to know other attendees with around 220 participants (compared to over 8,500 for the mammoth American Association of Geographers conference) and the receptions were eased along by sponsorship from a local brewery- the first time I have ever seen this at a conference! My accommodation was also unlike any I have ever stayed in at a conference being a Catholic seminary. The seminary itself is beautiful (think Hogwarts) and having breakfast with priests in training is certainly a change from the usual hotels.
On the final day of my trip I made the short trip into Dublin to see the referendum landscape there. As you can see in the photo below, the streets are lined with posters. Just in that picture there are over twenty. As someone who works on abortion it was really exciting for me to see this abundance of political activity and discussion but the anxiety and discord surrounding the referendum is palpable. From protestors with megaphones, vans with slogans driving around the city centre, leafleters on every corner, and badges and slogans adorning people’s clothes and bags on both side of the debate, this is a visibly emotional and divisive issue. Critical questions about bodily autonomy, the role of the Catholic Church, and the paternalism of the Irish nation-state are being fought over. In Ireland, posters can only be displayed from the day when the polling date for a referendum is announced. I was last in Ireland in March, shortly before the 25th May was declared as the day of the referendum and the difference between then and now is astonishing.
I have never before attended a conference where the sessions I am attending, the work I am presenting, and the political situation have been so well aligned. It was a highly invigorating experience and has given me a renewed energy to continue with my own research and a new network of colleagues working in my area. My thanks go to the School of Geography for generously supporting my attendance at the conference.