Stunning Victory for Abortion Rights in Ireland

What is the context of the abortion rights victory in Ireland?
  • Anne Conway | 
  • June 11, 2018

The following is a guest post. The ideas presented in this article may not completely reflect the political views of Left Voice.

The vote on May 25 to remove a constitutional ban on abortion from the Irish constitution was seen as a stunning victory not just by the thousands of activists who had worked tirelessly on the campaign but also by the 66.4% who voted Yes to repeal the amendment. This resounding two-thirds majority demonstrates the sea change that has occurred in Irish society. A majority in all areas of the country voted Repeal except in one constituency, Donegal, where there was a very narrow defeat. It is worth noting that this constituency has the highest youth migration in the country. In the capital city Dublin, more than three quarters voted Yes (75.46%), and other urban centres turned out Yes votes of over 72%. Several poor working-class Dublin areas registered a massive 80% + vote for Repeal. The most significant statistic is that 87% of those aged 18-24 voted for Repeal throughout the country. The urban-rural divide crumbled with 63% voting Yes in rural Ireland. In one rural constituency, 4 out of the 5 elected representatives opposed a Yes vote while 63% of the electorate voted Yes, showing starkly how out of touch the politicians are with the views of the people on abortion rights. This comment from an elderly neighbour sums up the feeling in the country: “People couldn’t wait to get out and Vote Yes.”

Every day, nine women travel to Britain for abortions, and three other women take abortion pills prescribed over the internet. They take these alone in their rooms, and if complications arise, they are frightened to go to a hospital for medical attention. If caught, they could face a 14-year jail sentence. Since the 1980’s, approximately 200,000 Irish women have had illegal abortions.

Now, the amendment will be removed and the legislation proposed by the government is expected pass by the end of the year. The legislation includes unrestricted access to abortion up to 12 weeks and for terminations in cases where the pregnancy is a risk to the health or life of the woman from the 12th to the 24th week. The government has been given a clear mandate with the people voting two to one in favour. Media reports say that the legislation will be introduced by the end of the year. However, the main government party deputies were given free reign to decide how to vote on the issue.

The eighth amendment – the ban on abortion

In 1983, an amendment was inserted into the Irish constitution banning abortion even though abortion was already illegal and gave the fetus equal rights with the woman. The wording was as follows: “The state acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.” This amendment has had catastrophic consequences for women, not just in terms of making abortion illegal but also because it posed serious issues for pregnant women who experienced complications during pregnancy and childbirth. The vote was 67% to 33% in favour of the ban, on a 53% turnout of the electorate. By contrast, in May 2018, the vote was 64.5% to 33.6% in favour of legalization, with a turnout of 64.1%. These figures show the dramatic scale of the change in Ireland.

The factors that triggered the calling of the referendum

There were several factors that contributed to the calling of the referendum, but the most significant was the death of a young Indian woman Savita Halappanavar in 2012 due to the complications of a septic miscarriage at 17 weeks’ gestation. She and her husband requested an abortion several times but were refused because of the 8th Amendment. She died of sepsis, and a report from an investigation into her death acknowledged that had her pregnancy been terminated she would be alive today. Savita’s death gave rise to large, angry mobilizations and the started the movement to repeal the 8th Amendment from the Constitution.

Her tragic death occurred against a background of several other women being denied an abortion and dragged through the courts over the past two decades. These cases lit a spark, and young women began to organize. In the past few years, a series of very large demonstrations took place. One of these happened on International Women’ Day 2017; called Strike4Repeal, this demonstration was large and militant, and it consisted of mostly young women, many of whom were of school age. Demonstrations took place in towns around the country, which brought a new energy and urgency to the call for a repeal of the 8th Amendment.

An important underlying factor in these mobilizations was the alienation of young people from the Catholic Church and from a state that had failed them. The #MeToo mobilizations in solidarity with a female rape victim after three well-known rugby players were acquitted, and the global anger over the violence against women helped fuel the repeal movement. Despite these impressive demonstrations, there isn’t as of now an organized women’s movement in Ireland.

Another influencing factor was the massive victory in the Marriage Equality referendum in 2015. This gave activists and pro-choice groups, such as the Abortion Rights Campaign and the Coalition to Repeal the 8th Amendment, the determination to push ahead for Repeal and abortion legislation. The theme of the demonstrations was Repeal the 8th and A Woman’s Right to Choose. There was a myriad of reasons for the landslide result, not least the litany of torture and abuse carried out by religious orders. Since the mid-1990’s there has been continuous media reporting of abuse of women and children in orphanages, in industrial schools, in Mother and Baby homes, in addition to clerical sex abuse where paedophile Catholic priests were moved around from parish to parish to continue abusing more vulnerable children with the Church refusing to pay compensation to their victims.

The Campaign for the Yes Vote

There was a unified national campaign called Together for Yes. It involved several organizations and political parties including the main government parties. The key workers at the campaign headquarters were professional strategists, some of whom had worked in NGO’s or with the discredited Labour Party. Their message was soft focussed on the theme of Care, Compassion, Trust. Consequently, its publicity was watered down and obscure with posters saying Sometimes a private matter needs public support. Vote Yes. This approach left many activists on the ground feeling ill at ease with the campaign. The Yes campaign headquarters focussed on the hard cases of fatal foetal anomaly, rape, and incest. Despite this, the activists who were out canvassing and meeting people at information stalls discussed the proposed abortion legislation from the government and the question of choice for women.

The posters and literature of the two main left organizations – Solidarity and People Before Profit – and Rosa, a socialist feminist women’s group aligned to Solidarity, emphasized the right to choose.

The results from across the country marked a decisive shift. The national broadcaster RTE Behaviour and Attitudes exit poll showed another spectacular shift: 84% of those who had voted Yes said they had done so on the basis of a woman’s right to choose. This mammoth shift had been confirmed on a daily basis by canvassers on doorsteps where the most common reason given for voting Yes was that of giving choice to a woman in a crisis pregnancy. There was emotional drama at the airports as young Irish people came home to vote, travelling from Britain, Europe, Australia, Japan, and Brazil just to vote. This demonstrated the passion for abortion rights and the fact that people were against the persecution of women who could face 14 years in prison for taking illegal abortion pills in their bedrooms or for travelling to Britain for an abortion. As the campaign developed, the energy and enthusiasm was palpable; young people new to politics were discussing the difficult issue of abortion with people of all ages. Their energy knew no bounds; they canvassed often in groups of 50 or more and set up impromptu visibility and information stalls. There were lots of initiatives such as the Walk in Her Shoes March from Dublin’s city centre to the airport with many women carrying suitcases to depict the journey that at least nine women make every day to Britain for abortions. This was a defiant and moving event. It was organized by Rosa. These activities were a move away from constituency work. The character of the campaign changed from getting the vote out to including more assertive demands for a woman’s right to choose.

The workers’ movement

While there have been large mobilizations against austerity, there was no obvious organizational link between the austerity campaign and the struggle for reproductive rights. The anti-austerity campaign regrettably left nothing behind in terms of a movement other than some trade union officials’ involvement in housing campaigns. Of course, links could have been made between the lack of housing, the low-wage economy, and women in crisis pregnancies who could not afford housing and had precarious, low-paid employment. The group, the Trade Union Campaign to Repeal the 8th Amendment, issued statements and distributed leaflets and a detailed brochure on abortion rights. It was supported by several unions in an official capacity. They operated within the umbrella of Together for Yes.

In the week before the vote, the recently retired former General Secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) David Begg called for a No vote, saying that social supports should be put in place for women and children. He is rumoured to be involved in the Catholic secret society Opus Dei. Given that the ICTU had negotiated unprecedented cuts in health, education, and other social supports while justifying draconian austerity measures to bail out the banking system, Bregg’s call had little or no effect on the referendum outcome. The current ICTU leadership denounced the attack by Begg on their position of support for Repeal but not his hypocrisy on the question of social supports for women and children as they all agree that the unions must confine their ambitions within the savage austerity offensive dictated by the institutions of the European Union. Their support for women’s rights is limited by their support for the capitalist offensive.

The changes in Irish society that have led to the landslide vote in favour of repealing the 8th amendment

The most significant change is the exposure in the media of the sexual, physical, and emotional abuse the Catholic Church has carried out against people – particularly women and children, the working class, and the poor. This brutality has given rise to a massive decline in attendance at Mass, and as disgust with the litany of abuses grew, people abandoned the Church in droves. The Catholic Church has been left reeling by the referendum results and is facing a doomsday scenario. In 1983, during the last referendum that inserted the amendment into the constitution, church attendance was around 80%. The radical change is highlighted in the exit poll from the state broadcaster RTE; it showed that just 12% said their religious views were an influence on how they voted. The decline arose due to the continuous revelations of brutality in industrial schools and Church-run Mother and Baby homes, as well as due to the revelation in 2014 that 796 babies and toddlers had died from disease and malnutrition while in the care of religious orders and had been buried in a septic tank. Moreover, it was revealed that 1,000 children had been sent for illegal adoptions in the United States without their mothers’ consent, and that children were used in drug trials and the money made in these transactions was used to fund exclusive private colleges. This brutal history of the Catholic Church and its dogmatic teachings on women’s sexuality and reproduction was firmly rejected by the electorate.

The Catholic Church’s comments in the aftermath of the referendum are an indication of how removed it is from the population. Just two days after the referendum, a Bishop discussing the implications of the referendum urged Yes-voting “sinners” to get themselves to a confession box to repent. This led to uproar. The Archbishop of Ireland asked whether Catholic-run schools were “delivering for the investment we make in faith development.” He went on to say that many would see the referendum result as proof that the Church was regarded with “indifference” and had no more than a marginal role to play in society. All this points to a crisis. As the Church is facing the dilemma of how it is going to shore up its base, 87% of youth rejected Church dictates on abortion and voted Yes. The relationship between the Catholic Church and the state is strained. The Catholic Church has been the reliable base for conservatism through its control of schools and major hospitals, including maternity hospitals. It still controls them, which is an issue for the campaign to address; wresting control from the Church is a priority now.

Just four days after the referendum, a new scandal broke. The Minister for Children announced that between 1946 and 1969, of the 150,000 children adopted by Catholic-run adoption agencies at least 15,000 were illegally adopted. Mothers were told that their babies had died. Fake birth certificates were used, and the nuns were paid for the adopted child, some of whom were sent to the U.S. The state was complicit then and has been covering up the issue for several years. Unmarried mothers in those years were forced by religious orders who ran Mother and Baby homes to give up their children, and now they can face criminal charges for contacting adoptive parents.

This scandal is occurring alongside an even bigger one relating to pap smear results. Women had not been informed of irregular results and had gone on to develop and die of cervical cancer. The story was only revealed when a terminally ill woman sued the U.S. corporation to which the smear tests had been outsourced. The country’s Health Service Executive colluded with the corporation. Several women have already died as a result of this, and terminally ill women were this week campaigning outside government buildings for support and compensation. These are the words of one woman who is also the mother of five children: “I’ve been told I’m dying … I’m dying and I don’t need to be. I’m only 37 … this isn’t fair.” Consultant doctors at the time of the outsourcing raised concerns about the substandard smear testing results from the corporation in question, but the then neo-liberal Minister for Health, Mary Harney, pushed ahead with her government’s privatization agenda, which led to the closure of the main national cytology service in Ireland. The consultants who objected were sneerily dismissed 10 years ago when the privatization occurred. I don’t remember the trade union movement at the time campaigning against the privatization. All of these scandals with the exception of cervical screening involve the Catholic Church, leading to increased alienation and disgust with its record of abuse, brutality, and hypocrisy.

The campaign to retain the 8th amendment ban on abortion

A very extreme minority in the No camp who campaigned to keep the 8th amendment in the constitution are now well organized but despised by a significant section of the population. The No campaign consisted of a number of well-funded organizations. Allied with it were various crackpot groups that did their own freelance operations, which damaged the No campaign. However, the overall leadership came from the Iona Institute, a very conservative Catholic group. Campaign activists accused the state broadcaster of having a very cosy relationship with the No side as they appeared on all main radio and TV programmes. There has been a pretence in the media that the Catholic Church was not involved in the campaign. This is patently untrue. In the early days, No campaigners were invited to speak to congregations during Mass, and while this practice stopped before polling day, priests continued to advocate a No vote in churches.

The result of the referendum and what it will mean for abortion rights in Northern Ireland

Already there have been mobilizations in Northern Ireland demanding abortion rights and the extension of the UK’s 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland. The landslide result will focus attention on the North of Ireland where abortion is illegal. The reactionary Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is opposed to abortion. The DUP, which is propping up the Theresa May government in Westminster, might be expected to threaten to bring down the Tories if there’s pressure on extending British abortion rights to Northern Ireland. The DUP didn’t preach fire and brimstone last year, as is their form on moral questions, when it was agreed to give women in the North free NHS abortions in Britain. However, it may be a different matter having abortion clinics operating in their own backyard.

The Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald played a prominent part in the campaign in the South; she has promised to tackle the abortion issue in the North. It won’t be easy. She could join with forces already fighting on the issue and build a vigorous campaign for abortion, but this is somewhat unlikely given the weak position Sinn Fein has on abortion and the dilemma that the collapsed Northern Assembly has for the party. Failure to get it back up and running has posed serious questions for Sinn Féin as its whole legitimacy is based around the success of the Peace Process and the power-sharing arrangements in the Good Friday Agreement. Right-wing unionists wouldn’t allow limited laws on the official status of the Irish language, so it’s likely that they would put up a concerted opposition to having abortion clinics operating in the North, especially given their pious, obscurantist anti-women policies. They are similar in ideology to the bigoted No campaign in the South. The Sinn Féin leader McDonald said abortion should be more widely available in the North, “but that change should not be imposed by Westminster.” “I want Irish law for Irish women in Ireland,” she said. This is indeed hypocritical. Her concern may be that the Sinn Féin base is weak in its support for a woman’s right to choose. A surprising analysis from 2016 was published this week about attitudes on abortion in the North. According to ARK, Northern Ireland’s social policy information platform, the public is in favour of reforming abortion law. A survey in that year showed 63% – which, as ARK notes, is exactly the same proportion as in the Republic – think that “it is a woman’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion”. The real surprise, according to the Irish Times, was that DUP supporters “believe abortion should definitely or probably be legal in six out of seven possible scenarios, which actually shows a higher level of support for reform of abortion law than Sinn Féin or SDLP voters”. The DUP leader is emphatically pro-life and against abortion law reform.

In any event, the landslide vote in the South will have a major impact. The stunning vote is particularly welcome given the international context, where right-wing populism is on the rise in Europe, and the Trump administration is imposing curbs on abortion rights in the United States. It will encourage women and pro-choice groups and will be a blow to the anti-abortion forces in these countries that so called Catholic Ireland could reject with such a decisive popular vote its stringent anti-abortion law.

The demands of pro-choice campaigners and the focus of the campaign

The result has opened up a space where women can pursue their demands for proper health care and abortion services. At present, the level of health care and social services is dependent on what’s left over after paying the bank debt. Young people won’t accept this argument that there is no money to fund health services and high-quality care for women having pregnancy terminations.

The recent handing over of a new National Maternity Hospital to a religious order, the Sisters of Charity, who were involved in one of the gravest scandals, is a huge contradiction for the government. The latter has not taken any steps to take over ownership. The repeal vote was to get the Church out of women’s reproductive lives, yet this is clear evidence of Church-state control.

The young campaign activists may be quickly jolted into confronting the reality of Church-state integration and of Troika-imposed austerity. A majority of campaign activists were under 30; they went door to door talking to people of all ages about repeal and the proposed abortion legislation. They showed great courage, and the abuse they received from the No side was a shock and an awakening. The misogynist material and posters of the No side gave them a view of the hard Catholic right. They responded by mobilizing, making the campaign visible on the streets at traffic lights and busy areas. The positive response from passing motorists was astounding – a continuous hooting of car horns and raised fists. It was clear during the last week to 10 days of the campaign that we were witnessing an upsurge of rejection of the old, cruel, pious hypocrisy that’s haunted Ireland since the founding of the state.

The national body overseeing Together for Yes was timid and apologetic in its approach to the aggressiveness and outright lies of the No campaign in contrast to the vitality and courage of the youth and also a group called Radical Queers Resist. The latter challenged head-on the huge propaganda posters of the No campaign and had flying pickets to obscure the massive grotesque posters of bloody foetuses at entrances to maternity hospitals and some public buildings erected by the No campaign supporters from the U.S.

There were many lines of attack the Yes side never responded to; for example, a leading spokesperson of the No side advocated all-out war on Iran and Iraq some years ago, which was covered in the media at the time, but he was never challenged on his “pro-life” credentials. Another leading advocate for the No side was a spokesperson for one of the bishops, and while he was working in that capacity, the bishop was covering up child sex abuse.

Thousands of youth have been radicalized in the course of the campaign; the Catholic Church has received a body blow, and its influence further diminished. Unfortunately, as a result of the referendum, the discredited Irish Labour Party has regained some respectability despite the fact that it played a key role two years ago in the administration of Troika-imposed austerity. The main right-wing governing party, Fine Gael, has been strengthened. The campaign did not produce unity of the “far left” socialist groups, and there was no overall central steering/organization in the Dublin campaign or national conference leading up to the referendum. The campaign focussed on getting the vote out through canvassing, leafleting, town centre stalls and public meetings, and registering young people to vote. However, the referendum was more than a typical election; it presented an opportunity to build a new strong women’s movement committed to fighting for the implementation of the legislation. The 12 weeks proposal involves obtaining permission from a GP doctor. Access to abortion services after 12 weeks is very restrictive, and due to the high degree of clerical control in the hospitals, it will be a battle to guarantee implementation and access after the 12-week limit. There will also be a freedom of conscience clause for the medical profession.

At present, 17% of the population in Ireland are immigrants, some of them without the right to travel, such as asylum seekers in Direct Provision. This makes speedy implementation of the abortion legislation an imperative.

There’s a strong appetite to continue to meet and organize. The task now is the necessity of organizing a conference to discuss the proposed legislation and ensure its implementation. The campaign has a lot of work to do and needs to carry on, but it will not be successful if the new generation of young activists are left on the side-lines as cheerleaders listening to seasoned activists.

An immediate task is to break the link between Church and state and institute public, democratically controlled health care, which is not subject to the dogmas of the religious orders. Separation of Church and state is a longstanding demand of the socialist and women’s movement. Women will not be able to gain control over their lives without control over their reproduction. We cannot rely on capitalist governments to implement the changes for us; we must rely on our own strengths, fighting together in a mass women’s movement, which includes immigrant and working-class women, and which looks for revolutionary socialist answers to the issues that face us as women.

Finally, the RTÉ exit poll confirmed that women’s personal stories had the biggest impact of all on those who voted Yes. Speaking out about our abortions meant we no longer existed merely as abstract statistics. We had names and faces. I decided to tell my story as I was tired of the intimidation and shaming of women who had abortions. You can find my story and video Here

Anne Conway is an anti imperialist socialist feminist who was active in the Repeal movement and was previously a trade union activist and worker in a women’s health centre.

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