This past summer, I sat down with Dr Ruth Fletcher, who was visiting Osgoode from the School of Law at Queen Mary University of London, to find out more about her work and interests as a feminist legal scholar. Our conversation flowed from access to abortion in Ireland, to law’s “reproductivity”, to feminist knowledge production. Take a look at the edited transcript below.
DP: What projects have you been working on this summer?
RF: I’m just starting a year-long research leave, and so it’s been brilliant to be able to change my space and come to Osgoode for a couple of months. This research leave is focusing on a book project, which joins together work I’ve been doing in the field of abortion rights and abortion activism. It’s very much a local story that’s focused on access to abortion from the Republic of Ireland. But it’s one of those local stories that is very transnational because it tracks the ways in which women try to access abortion when it’s restricted at home, and how people have done practical care work in helping women access abortion.
So I’m trying to review that work and bring it together in the shape of a monograph, which has the working title of Making Life Difficult: Reproductive Legalities on the Abortion Trail. And what I’m trying to do with the bigger framework of the book is look at the regulation of abortion seekers and reclaim the politics of life on behalf of abortion seekers, and feminist activists supporting abortion seekers.
What’s happening in reproductive regulation is less about restrictions and prohibitions in a way, and more about the generating of hurdles. So women are still accessing abortion, but they’re exhausted and depleted by never ending hurdles that are put in their way. I’m interested in theorizing and conceptualizing the “abortion trail” then, as the space that is generated by women as they try to access abortion somewhere and as they enlist the help of feminist activists along the way.
At the moment, I’m conceptualizing the abortion trail in four different ways. One is the trail as a dead end. In Ireland that’s most obviously just the non-provision of abortion in the domestic health care system, except for life-saving circumstances. But it also covers situations where women travel abroad, to Britain say, or maybe to the Netherlands, to get an abortion, but might not be able to access it there. Sometimes that’s because they might be asylum seekers or refugees or undocumented women, and sometimes they get returned before they can access it—regulation of migration is the barrier there. Other times it’s not being able to access the abortion pill, which might be due to more economic or practical kinds of hurdles.
The second sort of abortion trail is more of a historical abortion trail in the 1980s and into the 1990s for women resident in Ireland. This is where feminist activists work under the law and around the criminal law and constitutional law, and engage in illegal activities in order to help women access abortion. There’s a lovely book by a well-known Irish feminist who lives in London, who has worked in this area as a volunteer for ages, called Ireland’s Hidden Diaspora [by Ann Rossiter]. It’s on the London-Irish underground in the 1990s, and it’s a very activist, grassroots kind of nomination of the space as an underground space.
That was the 1980s and 1990s. Now, the underground space is much more about helping women to access the abortion pill. Some activists travel to Northern Ireland, or they travel to Britain, to get the pill for women and bring it back down so the women don’t have to travel. But importing the pill counts as helping someone access an abortion, so they’re criminally liable. Or if the woman herself takes the pill—unless it’s in life-saving circumstances—she is liable to a 14-year prison sentence. There haven’t been any prosecutions, so they’re not willing to martyr those women or the activists. But that’s definitely another form of access, another way that women are accessing abortion, helped by care providers, political activists of all kinds, and it’s a definite underground kind of space.
The third way that I’m conceptualizing the abortion trail is as a maze. So this is not illegal—there are ways to get access to abortion but it’s by traveling elsewhere. Information about services is very restricted in the Republic of Ireland; you can only provide information about services in another jurisdiction if you’re doing that in the context of providing adoption information as well or information about carrying the pregnancy to term. There is publicly subsidized counseling and information about abortion services available, but it’s very much about accessing it in another jurisdiction. It’s kind of a weird development of what I call a peripheral service, focusing on information and after care, and legalizing that, and subsidizing travel, but not dealing with the actual provision of the service itself.
And so what that means is, it’s very difficult for women to find out what the legal pathways are. It’s not making it impossible, it is quasi-legalizing it, but at the expense of traveling, and without much help, and it’s demanding a kind of independence and resourceful from ordinary women but also from women who might be particularly vulnerable. There are good volunteer groups, and clinics that provide access, and once women get on the phone to the right people it’s fine, but the steps are difficult. There’s a whole network of volunteer based activism but it’s very roundabout.
DP: It’s interesting for me to hear you talking about the underground, and feminist activists working around the law, because one of the things I’m trying to argue in my own work is that grassroots strategies can ultimately impact law and change the law as those discourses become prominent. So I’m curious about your thoughts on that.
RF: Yes, that’s one of the things I’m really interested in bringing out of the book. I think there’s often imaginative legal thinking that comes from that practical, “just get on with it,” kind of grassroots work that can help us change how we formulate the problem itself. It’s just so interesting, for instance, how the whole generation of grassroots access in Britain has meant that there has been formal constitutionalisation in Ireland of rights to abortion information and rights to travel. Even in the constitution, there is protection of travel and information. But obviously, it’s crazy, in the sense that that lets them off the hook because the law has followed the kind of activist, ad hoc response. But then it’s really hard for us to try to anticipate how we can make sure that you keep the access enabled, but at the same time keep up the demand for change at home. So that’s been a chief challenge really.
It is the Irish state failing its citizens and residents in the delivery of health care, but at the same time, you can just about get access somewhere else, if you can get the money together and get yourself on a boat or a plane. So you know, 12 women a day do that, and that sort of normalizes it. It’s a bit like, if there’s no abortion clinics in certain parts of Canada you can still travel and get it somewhere else, right. It’s a good example, I think, of how in this very local story, you see the transnational: you see mobilization of international human rights discourse—we use the right to be free of degrading treatment, etc. to critique lack of domestic provision—but there’s also the transplanting of mechanisms of access to medical abortion. Irish women end up relying on British law, actually. So whenever reform of British law comes up there’s often a lot of campaigning and intervention from Irish feminists. It breaks down all those sorts of border jurisdiction issues in interesting ways.
Oh, and then the fourth abortion trail space is kind of a utopian one where you see people try to figure the abortion journey as a journey of self-fulfillment. That’s obviously not really present in the law, but it’s present in activist discourse. So that’s a different way of thinking about it—that it’s an exploration, that it could be an adventure.
DP: Speaking of journeys, you’ve come across the pond to visit us at Osgoode, where you did your graduate work. What brought you back?
RF: Well the main thing, I guess, is that it is such an important home of feminist legal studies. That’s why I came as a graduate student all those years ago, and still, I regularly follow what the IFLS is doing. Those of us who are working internationally in the field of feminist legal studies, it’s important for us to connect with each other, and see what each other is doing, but also just as part of the maintenance of our community. So partly it’s just the art of the generation of community.
And then also because there’s interesting things going on in health regulation at Osgoode. I was talking to Roxanne Mykitiuk about work she’s doing at the disability law clinic. My job is mainly research and writing in the field of health, and now I’m moving a little bit more into thinking about disability rights, and we’re organizing a seminar on rethinking deprivation of liberty in a health and social context when I go back. It’s a newer area for me but I wanted to think about connections in that regard.
Also Osgoode has such a commitment to transnational legal studies, and that’s a key dimension of my work.
DP: What’s a recent academic book or article that you found interesting?
RF: I guess the one that’s in my head at the moment because I’m just writing a review of it is Abortion Law in Transnational Perspective [Edited by Rebecca J. Cook, Joanna N. Erdman, and Bernard M. Dickens]. Partly it’s because it’s an edited collection, and because what they’re trying to do, is really encourage that shift to thinking about things in transnational terms—about how we borrow between jurisdictions, and how things change through advocacy networks across borders. Rebecca, Joanna and Bernard are actively encouraging new research in the field from a transnational perspective, and I was really delighted to see that. I find it energizing to read, because they are so explicit about calling for new research to be done, so it’s very open in that way, and I like that kind of perspective.
The comparative constitutional chapters in particular were really useful for me to contextualize some of the work I’m doing around transnational advocacy and creative engagements with human rights arguments or domestic constitutional rights. Because with the feminist judgments project, and trying to rewrite abortion cases…one of the things in the Irish jurisprudence is that we have domestic protection of a right to bodily integrity, a right to privacy, a right to equality—it’s just that the judges don’t operationalize those rights in the abortion context. The woman’s life gets reduced to bare life, physical life, and not a life that is a rights-bearing full constitutional subject.
The other thing I suppose is that it’s lovely to have an edited collection. I’ve read these people before but it’s just lovely to have it all together, and to be able to work across different approaches. And I think sometimes, like in Britain at the moment, research culture is not valuing edited collections as much as it used to. It’s definitely true that research monographs will be prioritized over edited collections. So it’s kind of refreshing to see an edited collection that is so well crafted, in terms of the people that were selected but also the way it lays out the field, such that it really makes a difference that it is an edited collection. It is a range of people staking out the debate and wanting to contribute to changing it, and there’s a way that edited collections can do that that other types of work can’t.
DP: A lot of your work centres around this concept of “law’s reproductivity.” Can you elaborate on what you mean by that?
RF: Sure. Well that’s something I want to pick up on in the book. At a very basic level what I mean by law’s reproductivity is the way that we often see different legal forms synthesized into new legal forms. It seems to me that there is a basic thing about the method of law that is reproductive, and that there hasn’t been sufficient theorizing of that.
I’m trying to think about tracking different ways in which you have this coming together of older legal forms generating new forms and the way they bear the traces of their parents—there’s the continuities, but they are distinctive things. So it is just a very basic kind of catch-all term—“legal reproduction” or “reproductive legalities”—to try to capture that to-and-fro-ness.
DP: When you say “forms,” what do you mean?
RF: Well, this is something I’m struggling with a bit, because sometimes I mean very specific legal forms, like coercive forms or disciplining forms. In the book when I’m looking at the space of the dead end, they tend to be more coercive forms. But in a way they’re not necessarily criminal forms, they’re sometimes quite brutalizing administrative forms. So I’m interested in ways in which the kind of brutalizing punitive effect of the old coercive form gets recuperated and put to a work through a different mechanism, something that’s more administrative, more public-law like. That’s been a feature of the Irish system in particular, where the constitutional law doesn’t have an explicit police force, but it definitely can be used in quite a punitive way. So law’s reproductivity enables me to think about continuities of those kinds of effects into newer, more disciplinary forms.
But also I’m interested in thinking about how grassroots organizations working outside the law still end up needing to come up with their own criteria of organization. Part of the work I’ve been doing is interviews with support groups who help women access abortion in Britain. And their criteria for support are very like public-law criteria. So I’m interested in how everyday life, or grassroots life generates law-like mechanisms as well.
So I think it’s a kind of shorthand I’ve been using and I want to use the book to map it out a bit more. Those are the kinds of things I want to capture…but I haven’t done it yet [laughter].
DP: Can you tell us about the conference being planned in London next summer?
RF: I’m the general editor of Feminist Legal Studies, the law journal, and we have a new editorial board for about two years now. We have academic feminists from all over Britain and Ireland on that board, and we also have a wide international advisory board with people from South Africa, Canada, Australia, Central and South America as well. We’re coming up to our 25th anniversary in 2017. Basically we wanted to use the space of the journal to generate a symposium for us all to get together. So it was first of all, just wanting to mark a couple of days in the calendar where we get a bunch of feminist legal studies scholars together. And secondly we wanted to think about what new work we might like to generate.
We’re going to be collaborating with the IFLS—so the Institute and Osgoode will be involved in the symposium and we hope maybe we can have a matching event in a while. So we’re at the stage where we’re programming and planning this symposium. Because it is a collaboration between feminist legal scholars, we want to develop the program collaboratively. But the idea is basically to get a lot of us together and try to think of new angles on the relationship between feminism, legality and knowledge. Partly that’s trying to think about law in a broad sense. Obviously institutionalized forms are important, but we wanted to try to promote and provoke work that engages with legality, whether that’s the law of everyday life, or legal activism, or thinking about law in a more pluralist way.
At the moment we’re thinking about three different themes. One is to do with protest, and the generation of legal knowledge through protest. I’m really interested in how the naming of a problem by protest groups can often be really useful to legal argumentation. There’s often a to-and-fro between the two, and it helps us break entrenched ways of seeing things.
The second theme is on publishing. Because this is being generated by the Feminist Legal Studies journal, we want to think about some of the challenges for dissemination of feminist knowledge at the moment. We have a volunteer academic board and advisory board, our publishers are Springer—a big corporate publisher—and the work is made available through a subscription basis and through libraries. And so one of our big challenges is the open access revolution, and how do we try to negotiate that with our publishers while at the same time maintaining our collection, and maintaining critical spaces within corporate publishing. We’ll be collaborating with Feminists at Law, an open access journal, in programming some of the sessions for that. So we’re trying to think about a politics of publishing in the current environment—what would that look like.
The third theme is thinking about—well, I’m calling it “feminist legal know-how” for the moment. The idea is, knowledge that is generated by feminist advice centres, feminist activists working around the law—how can we document that in the moment, and generate new ways of thinking about it. As we discussed, interesting legal arguments, and interesting ways of framing, often come from volunteers advising people how to get what they need. A lot of our focus on poverty law and on legal advice has got embedded in a certain form of scholarship, and we’re just trying to think about ways that we might open up the conversation to work across different sites of legal knowledge, and think about grassroots legal know-how, and how can we conceptualize that.
One of the challenges we hope to address in that regard is ways in which law students are getting pressurized sometimes in a clinic situation into sort of professional training models. And sometimes that might involve prosecutorial training or pathways into working in the criminal law and that might raise challenges, particularly for marginalized communities that don’t want to use the police to address their problems. So there’s a whole range of conversations going on about avoiding over-governance of clinics as pathways to professionalism, and also about generating alternatives to policing or criminalized sort of strategies.
DP: Is the conference open to graduate students?
RF: Oh yeah, yeah. At the moment it’s just at the planning stage. So probably it won’t be an open call for papers but it will be open for attendance. It’s an open space, really, to kick start a few conversations, and so we’re hoping that the minimal version is a seminar on June 30-July 1 of 2016 in London, but then we hope they’ll be follow-ons as well in different places.
DP: If you could tell your graduate self one thing (or a few things), what would it be?
RF: I suppose I always feel like I’m only learning how to do this. So being an academic, or being a scholar or student in any guise, is always about being open to the fact that you never have complete control of your research agenda or whatever other agenda you might have in life. Sometimes I feel like “Ok, I think this is starting to make sense now”…but that’s 20 years later. I suppose my piece of advice would be, keep heart, really, and don’t get thrown off by the fact that you will come up against hurdles or feel disillusioned, or like “how am I going to get myself out of this particular hole.” We all feel like that at different stages, and partly it’s just getting experienced in different strategies to help you over that hurdle. So usually the strategies are things like making sure you give yourself rewards, and just plan doing nice things with each other. Because, you know, our community is a big part of what sustains us.