Ireland: victory against repressive abortion laws

Women rally in Ireland for a repeal of the 8th Amendment

On 25 May Ireland went to the polls in a historic referendum on whether to repeal the 8th Amendment to the constitution, which effectively outlawed abortion. The result was a landslide 66.4% of the vote for the ‘Yes’ campaign. This is a massive victory for women, and in particular working class women, in Ireland. Rachel Francis reports.

The ‘Yes’ campaign was clear that women need free, accessible, safe abortion on demand. Denying access to abortion does not stop abortion – it punishes working class women. Before the referendum, 12 women left Ireland each day to access abortion – a cruel, painful journey. For many others, travel was not an option because of poverty, illness, work, childcare, imprisonment and more. Medical pills were bought online, risking imprisonment for up to 14 years and a lack of support to deal with complications. Abortion is not a question of choice for working class women but a basic necessity, alongside free, accessible childcare and reproductive health care. Its restriction has cost women dearly – they have paid with their health, their livelihoods, their lives. The 8th Amendment equated the life of the ‘unborn’ with that of the mother, effectively banning abortion except in a very few extreme circumstances.

Consigned to history

The 8th Amendment was passed by a significant majority of 66.3% in 1983. Prior to then abortion was already illegal, but conservative elements wanted to ensure the rights of the ‘unborn’ were embedded in the constitution itself. Now an immense, inspirational grassroots campaign has rightly consigned ‘the 8th’ to history.

The question of abortion has been the focus of repeat referendums, forcing women to use the legal system and their own experiences to push back. In 1992, ‘Case X’ – a 14-year-old girl, prevented from travelling to Britain for an abortion following pregnancy as a result of rape – became suicidal. The case caused huge public debate, with the Supreme Court ruling that the girl should have access to abortion given the risk to her life and to the foetus. Subsequently, three referendums were held on one day: two amendments passed, securing women the right to information and to travel abroad to access abortion; a third, removing suicide as grounds for abortion, was fortunately defeated. In 2002 further attempts to restrict abortion in cases of suicidal women were narrowly rejected.

In 2012, the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar sparked international outrage and new campaigning activity. Savita arrived at hospital miscarrying, but the hospital refused to administer medication to assist the process, infection set in and she died.

‘Yes’ campaigners have argued that Ireland’s historic treatment of women has been one of overt repression and punishment. The horrific homes for ‘unmarried mothers’, the last of which closed in 1996, saw babies taken from mothers, and other mothers and babies murdered, abused and neglected. Approximately 35,000 women and children were punished in these Catholic Church-run institutions.

The Yes and No campaigns

A coalition of over 70 women’s, health, left and trade union groups worked under the banner ‘Together for Yes’, building on the success of the 2016 ‘March for Choice’, which saw 30,000 people take to the streets to demand constitutional change. In the months running up to the referendum, groups held stalls, rallies, fundraising events and went door to door, all the while countering the misinformation and abusive tactics of the ‘No’ campaign. Many Irish citizens heeded the call of the #hometovote campaign and travelled back to the 26 Counties to make their voices heard.

Ireland’s two major political parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, did not take official positions and politicians campaigned on a personal basis. Fine Gael Taoiseach Leo Varadkar openly supported the Yes campaign, while health minister Simon Harris called for abortions up to 12 weeks’ gestation. Sinn Fein and the Labour Party both supported the ‘Yes’ campaign. Some campaigners pointed to the parties’ longer histories – both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail were involved in the 8th Amendment’s introduction, and the Labour Party supported the 2013 Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, which was a small step forward but reinforced criminalisation.

The main coalitions on the ‘No’ side were ‘Save Lives – Save the 8th’ and ‘Love Both’. Although many Catholic Church leaders publicly backed the 8th, there was limited overt involvement, and Irish media reported on the secular nature of both sides of the campaign, in what is seen as an attempt to move on from the church’s shameful history, particularly its treatment of women and children. ‘Save the 8th’ was happy to work instead with London-based ‘political consultancy’ Kanto Systems, linked to infamous Cambridge Analytica and the Trump and pro-Brexit campaigns.

In tactics similar to that of US anti-abortion campaigners, sections of the ‘No’ campaign focused heavily on the foetus, usually calling it a baby, an ‘unborn’ or a ‘preborn’. Huge banners featuring images of foetuses were positioned outside maternity hospitals by the Irish Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform.

A struggle for women’s rights

The fight for reproductive rights is part of the continuing struggle for women’s control over their lives. In the weeks before the referendum, it emerged that over 200 women diagnosed with cervical cancer had not received early enough treatment; 17 of them have since died. Radical sections of the Yes campaign have exposed the contradictions in calling for a ‘Yes’ vote whilst making cuts to health care and childcare, rightly arguing that abortion is never an isolated issue. 

Women have always been central to any resistance – as has been seen in the resurgence of campaigning activity in the run-up to the referendum, with many young women campaigning for the first time.

As comrades in socialist republican organisation Eirigi said in a campaign video: ‘The fight for access to abortion services in Ireland is decades long. Generations of activists have been working for Irish women to have proper access to this aspect of health care, only to be thwarted by politicians and other conservative elements of society'. After the vote, an Eirigi activist said: ‘This victory belongs to the women of Ireland, all of Ireland, as this juggernaut of a movement, I believe, will not ignore their sisters in the North East and women in the occupied Six Counties will also be taking huge heart and celebrating this victory. There’s still a long road ahead, but it doesn’t look so daunting right now.’

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! no. 264, June/July 2018


Ireland: the key to the British revolution by David Reed

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