IRELAND Women on Web visual Empowerment and privacy? Home use of abortion pills in the Republic of Ireland

by Sally Sheldon

Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Summer 2018;43(4)


Early reports heralded the development of abortion pills as promising a reproductive revolution. Some twenty-five years on, this article considers the extent to which this promise has been fulfilled in the context of the Republic of Ireland. It focuses in particular on the work of two online collectives, Women on Web and Women Help Women. Drawing on a small number of interviews with activists, support groups, service providers, doctors, and government officials, the article assesses, first, the extent to which abortion pills have empowered women and, second, their offer of privacy. It argues that while home use of pills has had enormous importance in furthering each of these goals and, more generally, women’s health, it does not offer a panacea for current deficiencies in reproductive health care. The empowerment offered by abortion pills is necessarily precarious and partial, with the privacy offered by the pills operating not just as part of that empowerment but also as a significant limitation on it. The article also suggests that privacy readily collapses into secrecy, feeding a carefully choreographed silence regarding abortion, which allows the state to ignore its existence and thus to avoid responsibility for women’s reproductive health.