By Ruth Coppinger, Socialist Party member and Solidarity TD (member of parliament)
In a landmark decision in Ireland, a special parliamentary committee has recommended unrestricted access to abortion up to 12 weeks – a measure that would cater for 92% of all abortions. A referendum to lift the 8th Amendment abortion ban and for abortion to be legalised for risk to health was also recommended.
Ireland and Malta are the only EU countries where abortion is illegal. This reflects the extremely reactionary attitude of the Irish state to the rights of women to control their own bodies, including deciding when and whether to have children. At the same time, just like in other EU countries, successive governments have made it harder for working class women to choose to have children – by presiding over massive house costs, low pay and precarious work.
The very same parties who this week effectively backed a pro choice position voted only four years ago to provide abortion only where a woman’s life was at risk, requiring a panel of doctors, and with 14-year jail sentences for anyone assisting or having an abortion!
What brought about this change in establishment parties so integrally bound with the Catholic Church since independence?
While a simplistic media narrative dwells on the ‘journey’ travelled by MPs and senators on the three-month Committee as they heard expert evidence, the reality is clear. Change was forced by the movement outside parliament, particularly over recent years, leaving the parties with nowhere left to hide and with no choice but to deal in some way with the reality of abortion.
In particular, numerous TDs (MPs) cited the widespread use of medical abortion pills being accessed online as making the status quo untenable. Socialist Party members and ROSA, the socialist feminist group, have played the lead role in publicising the pills and were the only group doing so in reality, working in a partnership with Women on Web, the largest international doctor-led online service which provides the pills in countries where abortion is illegal.
In October 2014, ROSA organised what would prove to be a seminal action. Re-enacting the famous ‘contraception train’ by women in 1971, the abortion pill train received national media publicity when activists flagrantly imported banned abortion pills. Many women were directly assisted in accessing safe abortions but the act was primarily political, a direct challenge to the 8th Amendment itself.
A ROSA abortion pill bus travelled to all the key cities in 2015 and again in March 2017, with rallies and meetings held and with women directly assisted to access safe but illegal abortions. These actions drew not just national but international media attention. Socialist Party members also engaged in a drone action in 2016.
A Times article (14/12/17) stated: “For the politicians who changed their mind, one of the most compelling pieces of evidence was the number of Irish women who are taking illegal abortion pills bought online. The committee heard that the use of pills bought online had tripled since 2010, when 548 women in Ireland contacted one website. Last year the figure was 1,748.
James Browne, a Fianna Fáil TD, said the pill issue convinced him that abortion should be decriminalised. “A law that is unenforceable needs to be very seriously considered,” he added. ‘It is effectively freely available.’“
Numerous conservative TDs and senators said ‘the horse has bolted’ and they linked the time limit of 12 weeks to the efficacy of the abortion pills. Obstetricians and GPs said ‘the genie is out of the bottle.’ Vital research was also presented to the Committee, due to efforts by the Socialist Party, of pregnant people from Ireland who used the pills.
Of note, Sinn Fein abstained on the key vote for abortion on request to up 12 weeks, making them the only Dail party with no members supporting this vital social change and leaving them embarrassed and badly exposed on the issue.
Following the death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012, having been refused an abortion, a groundswell demanded change. Instead of then repealing the 8th Amendment, the establishment introduced very limited legislation within the perameters of the constitutional amendment. This was intended as their last word on the matter.
The traditional parties, including Labour who were in government with FG, were deaf to further calls for change. Two Repeal Bills in 2015 and again in October 2016 were put through parliament by Socialist Party MPs and voted down, with the mantra that there was ‘no appetite’ for change among the public.
However, a growing demand for repeal developed in society, particularly among young people. Abortion became the biggest youth political issue. A deep radicalisation has been fomenting among young people and women. Jumpers with the REPEAL slogan are routinely worn by thousands every day.
The shift in society was exemplified by the 2015 referendum on same sex marriage which was carried by a massive mobilisation of young people, women and some of the hardest-pressed working class communities. It gave a confidence about taking on the Catholic Church, it’s connection to the state and in particular its vice-like grip over health and education.
The intended handover of the national maternity hospital to a Catholic order has sparked outrage and the government had to row back. Demands have grown for inclusive, not religious-run schools. Objective sex education is non existent.
The momentum on abortion rights is evident in referendums taking place in college campuses for student unions to adopt repeal/pro-choice positions. Not one of those votes ever went anti-Choice. Recently, a student union president in the country’s largest university was impeached in a massive vote after only a few months in power for taking an anti-choice action.
The demand for separation of church and state, for personal agency and for bodily autonomy ties in with an international movement for gender equality and an unwillingness by women and young people to tolerate second class status, violence and sexism. In a country where the church has historically so brutally controlled women’s sexuality and been given so much power by the establishment, the anger has been bubbling over. In Ireland, this galvanises around the demand for abortion rights.
On international women’s day 2017, the international call for a women’s strike was reflected in a Strike4Repeal which blocked the main bridge in the capital and by an explosive demonstration which took place in the evening.
In April, a Citizens Assembly of 99 ordinary people – set up by the government to kick the can down the road – backfired badly for the establishment and recommended radical change, including abortion up to 12 weeks and up to 22 weeks for socio-economic factors.
The widespread impact of the campaign for abortion rights was reflected in positive comments by transport workers when Socialist Party members called to picket lines. A national poll in November showed 6 out of 10 favoured abortion on request.
The recommendations of the Dail committee are an important milestone but will now have to get through parliament. The two traditional parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, have a free vote. The Catholic right will fight back and pressure TDs to water down the proposals. It will be vital for the pro choice movement to keep the pressure on to maintain the recommendations, and even to go further. For example, abortion beyond 12 weeks is also necessary to fight for. Mobilisations should be called by the movement as the debate takes place in the Dail.
A referendum is necessary to remove the constitutional ban and is expected in May or June. That is likely to have massive participation in society, going way beyond even the ‘same sex marriage’ referendum and will be a major political issue.
There is huge potential for a socialist feminist pole in that referendum struggle and for ROSA and the Socialist Party to be an attractive force for the best, most questioning and most political young people and women who are angry about abortion rights, but who are also questioning the growing sexism and violence being dished up by capitalism. Combined with economic pressures particularly hitting women – record homelessness, loss of income due to austerity, precarious employment – 2018 promises to be a key year for women’s rights in Ireland. The struggle for a real right to choose also means fighting for a socialist society where – alongside full reproductive rights – decent housing, a living income, and free childcare facilities are guaranteed for all.