Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Framing Wrongs and Performing Rights in Northern Ireland: Towards a Butlerian Approach to Life in Abortion Strategising

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Framing Wrongs and Performing Rights in Northern Ireland: Towards a Butlerian Approach to Life in Abortion Strategising

Article excerpt


Abortion is an issue that engages diverse feminist strategising in a myriad of contemporary global locations. Within this strategising, "pro-choice" approaches towards achieving enhanced and dignified access to abortion facilities have been dominant. Within feminist theorising, however, sustained attempts have been made from a variety of perspectives to voice alternatives to the liberal, individualistic commitments of pro-choice discourse. Judith Butler is one such voice. For Butler, a renewed approach to the concept of "life" carries significant implications for feminist strategising and envisages a reconceptualisation of debate on abortion. Butler seeks to foreground the precariousness of intersubjective life, open such conditions of precariousness to democratic public engagement, and so engender a reflexive approach to society's obligations to life and subjects' ability to live a socially viable life. In this essay, Butler's work will be employed to explore space which may exist within pro-choice strategising to potentially work towards such a renewed approach to life. This space may be used to rethink feminist strategising on abortion beyond pro-choice discourse, and presents an accessible starting point from which to do so.

In undergoing this exploration, insights will be gathered from engagement with contemporary pro-choice strategising in Northern Ireland where restrictive access to abortion stands as an anomaly in UK law. Pro-choice advocacy in this location constitutes an historically contingent example of sustained but also shifting strategising which contains much potential to move towards a rethinking of life. Analysis of this potential will be assisted via the use of Butler's concept of the "frame", the discursive shaping of what can and cannot be seen, heard and known. Two recent pro-choice approaches to the strategic framing of abortion in Northern Ireland will be engaged with; the health frame and the rights frame. The latter of these two frames in particular has been employed through a submission of evidence to the inquiry procedure of the Optional Protocol for the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), allowing for analysis of rights claiming as a performative practice under the auspices of the rights frame. In working towards the rethinking of life in more radical ways it will be asserted that recent invocation of the health frame holds the potential to illuminate the ethical obligations of intersubjective life through acts of public mourning, and that rights claiming offers possibility for interrupting the current hegemonies of gendered life through performatively intervening in the social processes by which gender identity is articulated.

This investigation will be undertaken by, firstly, situating the study through providing a brief genealogy of abortion provision in Northern Ireland which strategising has been directed towards. This will be followed by an introduction to Butler's theoretical framework on life, recognition and practices of framing. Thirdly, discussion will move to investigate two dominant strategies employed in pro-choice campaigning on abortion in Northern Ireland as frames, considering the space which exists in each for moving towards a new approach to life. Finally, some precarious conclusions will be drawn as to feminist strategising moving towards a radicalisation of the abortion debate.

Genealogy of Abortion Provision in Northern Ireland

In considering contemporary developments in abortion strategising in Northern Ireland, it is important to note that the geopolitical history of the UK and Ireland has endowed Northern Ireland with particular legal arrangements in this area. Prior to 1920 all of Ireland was governed directly from London as part of the UK. Following political contention seeking Irish independence, however, the 1920 Government of Ireland Act sought to establish a devolved government in Dublin to administer the majority of the island, and one in Belfast which would be responsible for six counties in the north east, to become known as Northern Ireland. …

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