The PhD Diaries: Identities in Transformation
On Friday June 24, 2022, the US Supreme Court issued their decision in Dobbs v. Jackson which overturned Roe v. Wade and ended the constitutional right to abortion care. This is something I, and all my friends still working on reproductive justice issues in the United States, knew was coming—certainly since the oral arguments for this case in December, but realistically for much longer. Anti-abortion restrictions exploded in state legislatures in 2010, and slowly, law by law and state by state, the right to abortion was whittled away. Abortion is now an issue left to the states, and as long as that holds, some coastal or mountain states will retain access. But as a Texan woman who lived in the Midwest for college, the states I’ve always called home, and the places where most of my friends still live are losing access—along with about half the country.
I moved to Dublin in 2019 for a Masters in Equality Studies at UCD, researching issues of gender, nationalism, and abortion access. My plan was to stay in Ireland for two semesters and return to the US in summer 2020 to begin working in abortion policy or organising, hopefully for one of the organisations I had interned for while an undergraduate. I never thought I would live in Ireland long-term, but then the COVID pandemic upended everything, I made amazing friends here, and I decided to stay as permanently as I could manage. I was incredibly lucky after a year of working to be offered a Provost's PhD Award to work on what I called “the perfect project” to anyone who would listen. I am archiving and analysing three decades of interviews with abortion-seeking women, from 1994-6, 2004-5, and 2019-20—with the first two data sets being Irish women who travelled to English clinics to access abortion.
One of the reasons I shifted my geographical research focus in 2019 to Ireland, was the similarities in narrative between Americans facing long, expensive, and emotionally draining journeys to access abortion care, and the Irish experience of travel to England to access abortion. In both Ireland and now in the US, abortion bans assert two very dangerous things: 1) that there is no abortion in that jurisdiction and 2) that you can end abortions by removing legal access to them. These assertions obscure something very important: abortion has always been part of the range of pregnancy outcomes, and always will be, regardless of the legal framework that governs it. Banning abortion, as we are seeing now in the US, and saw in Ireland, does not stop people from accessing abortion completely—though forced birth and all the negative life course events associated with this will of course become more common. Abortion bans do not solve the problem of an unwanted pregnancy. They just add trauma—either the trauma of a forced birth or the trauma of a forced journey. US abortion travel has been happening for years, and now in a post-Roe world, the journeys will only get longer, more expensive, and more dangerous.
So why is this happening?
There is not a quick answer, and there’s plenty of pieces already written that try to define one. Regardless, I am always drawn back to the work of Nira Yuval-Davis (1996), who looked at the field of nationalism studies and all the other researchers philosophising on the mechanisms by which a nation is created and propagated—language, imagined communities, bureaucracy, etc, and answered “women.” While that is a little simplistic, Yuval-Davis’s work on women as the biological and cultural reproducers of the nation is incredibly compelling. Therefore, policies limiting or promoting abortion, contraception, or even maternity leave, can be seen as policies that get to the very heart of what a nation is or what it wants to be.
I was trained as a historian at undergraduate level first, before I shifted to women’s studies and policy, and I am still enthralled by the power of witnessing, of record-keeping, and of elevating testimony and personal experience as history-from-below. Abortion story-telling is an important part of activism—that whatever happens with rights and access in the US or Ireland 10 or 30 years from now, that these stories exist, these testimonies exist. Women have always had abortions, and always will, and even in times of repression and criminalisation, these stories stand to let others experiencing similar traumas know that they are not alone, and that what has happened to them is not predestined, not morally right, and can be resisted.
Kathryn Ammon is a PhD candidate in the School of Social Work and Social Policy supervised by Dr. Catherine Conlon. She researchers abortion access in Ireland, with particular interest in understanding the tensions and relationships between abortion access and traditional understandings of citizenship, nation, and gender. Her research interests are informed by past experiences working for abortion access and reprodctive healthcare providers in restrictive areas of the United States. She completed a MSc in Equality Studies at University College Dublin in 2020, and a BA in History, Political Science, and Women's Studies from the University of Kansas in 2019.