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How the taxpayer is subsidising a biased version of recent abortion history

The old saying has it that “history is written by the victors” and that certainly appears to be the case when it comes to the recent history of abortion in Ireland. A look at some of the major archival efforts around the repeal of the eighth amendment reveals a serious lack of pro-life representation, and so risks presenting a one-sided view of the past.

On the digital preservation front, the Digital Repository of Ireland (DRI) carried out the ‘Archiving Reproductive Health’ project, bearing the subtitle: ‘Digital Preservation of Reproductive Health Resources: Archiving the Eighth’. The project was funded by a grant of €383,481 from the Wellcome Trust, a British charity focused on health research, and led by Trinity College Dublin, Maynooth University and the Royal Irish Academy in collaboration with a number of other partners.

The project, which ran over 36 months from January 2021, aimed to provide “long-term preservation and access to the many at-risk archives generated by grassroots women’s reproductive health movements” during the 2018 referendum campaign. It set about achieving this with the help of project partners, including Together for Yes, The Abortion Rights Campaign, The Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment, Terminations for Medical Reasons and In Her Shoes: Women of the Eighth.

When asked by Gript whether the DRI had involved any pro-life groups in its archival work, the DRI responded that there were no pro-life groups involved in this project.

“The project was funded externally by Wellcome for a limited time. In writing the proposal we explored gaining access to opposition groups within the time frame of the project. We did not feel this would be possible and limited our proposal to one side of the campaign,” their response read.

Of the project’s contents, two collections contain pro-life materials. One is a visual collection containing 432 images of posters, both pro-life and pro-choice, which were taken during the Eighth Amendment referendum campaign. The images were taken in a variety of locations around Ireland, but mostly in Dublin. The other collection is a social media dataset containing the tweet IDs of 2,108,782 tweets related to the 2018 referendum. A check of a sample of the tweet IDs revealed a roughly even distribution of pro-life/pro-choice tweets, with many tweets no longer visible due to accounts having been deactivated or suspended.

That is the extent of the DRI’s pro-life entries. They exist alongside a number of entries for each of the above-mentioned partners, which contain hundreds of digital records of pro-choice photos, posters, flyers, testimonies and more.

Gript asked whether the DRI had any materials related to the 1983 insertion of the Eighth Amendment or pro-life activity around that time, to which the DRI responded that it did not.

A further question as to whether the DRI has any plans to collaborate with pro-life organisations in the future did not receive a response by the time of writing.

The National Museum of Ireland meanwhile had difficulties in building a pro-life collection due to what the curator of the relevant section described in an article as a poor response to public calls for materials.

“Attempts to collect other No Campaign material such as ‘No’ t-shirts and badges (which were few and difficult to source) fell short as public calls on social media platforms failed to persuade No voters to offer their objects. Similarly, private requests to No voters came to nothing,” National Museum curator Brenda Malone wrote in a 2020 issue of the Science Museum Group Journal.

A request submitted to Ms Malone for an inventory of the National Museum’s items relevant to the 2018 referendum yielded no result by the time of writing, despite assurances from Ms Malone that the Museum collected many different referendum campaign posters and that this includes many examples from the No campaign.

However, images seen by Gript of a previous 2018 referendum exhibit at Collins Barracks showed a severe imbalance in representation, with a sole pro-life flyer representing the pro-life position while multiple flyers, posters, badges and other pieces of paraphernalia represented the pro-choice campaign.

The DRI is funded by the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science (DFHERIS) via the Higher Education Authority (HEA) and the Irish Research Council (IRC), while the National Museum is majority funded by an annual grant received from the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.

The receipt of state funds would imply that both organisations have an obligation to be even-handed in their archival efforts. Why the National Museum didn’t contact a pro-life organisation as it was struggling to accrue pro-life materials is unclear, when it could have resulted in a more balanced collection.

Considering one-third of the Irish public voted ‘No’ in the 2018 referendum, it would be strange if this significant social movement in Ireland’s recent history were considered deserving of nothing more than an afterthought in Ireland’s museums and archives. If there is difficulty in sourcing pro-life materials, resulting in imbalanced representation, perhaps contacting pro-life institutions should be the next port of call for those tasked with preserving Ireland’s past.


 Jason Osborne



This article first appeared on Gript and is re published with permission


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