Thursday 29 June 2017 saw a significant step forward for women in Northern Ireland (NI). Funding to cover the financial costs for them to access abortions in England was pledged by the Tory minority government.
The Tories’ ‘supply and confidence’ deal with the ten DUP MPs turned a spotlight on Northern Irish politics. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Abortion Act that introduced free, legal abortion for women in England, Wales and Scotland within certain limitations. It was understood by those who fought for this legislation that women should have the right to choose when and whether to have children and that the right to an abortion is a life or death issue. But no major party in NI supports extending it there.
Women in NI are denied access to abortions in almost all circumstances. When they come to England to access NHS services they are forced to pay for the service. Including travel, time off work, accommodation, etc, it can cost the two women who travel every week on average up to £2,000.
Anyone who performs an illegal abortion in NI could be jailed for life. Cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormalities are not circumstances where abortions can be performed legally. Health workers face criminal charges if they do not report women who present with complications caused by an abortion. These conditions remain, so the fight for abortion rights in Northern Ireland is not over.
Yet nearly 80% of people in NI believe abortion should be legal when a woman has become pregnant as a result of rape or incest, according to the 2016 Life and Times Survey. When the same survey asked if abortion should be a matter for medical regulation and not criminal law, over two-thirds of both Catholics and Protestants agreed or strongly agreed.
However, it was initially predicted that the ten DUP MPs could influence the weak and wobbly Tories towards cutting women’s rights. This government is incredibly weak and that fragility is the key to understanding what happened – and to drawing lessons for the fight for women’s rights. Theresa May won the vote on the Queen’s Speech with a majority of just 14 votes.
When an amendment to the Speech calling on the government to fund NHS abortions for NI women from Labour backbencher Stella Creasy looked to be gaining support among some Tory MPs, there was enormous pressure to make a concession just to keep the show on the road.
Creasy withdrew the amendment when Tory Chancellor Philip Hammond announced that Justine Greening, the women and equalities minister, would write to MPs “explaining that she intends to intervene to fund abortions in England for women arriving here from NI”. This is estimated to cost around £1 million.
While it was Creasy who moved the amendment it is the weakened state of the Tories that forced them to concede. That weakness was created by the surge behind Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-austerity manifesto – which was absent from the material and campaigns of the anti-Corbyn wing of Labour to which Creasy subscribes.
Creasy has since been touring media studios. In less than five minutes on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show she made eight references to MPs working together ‘across the house’. This appears to be part of the moves towards a new alignment of the pro-capitalist wing of the Labour Party and the pro-EU Tories. But there is no future for women’s rights in this. In fact in 2008 an attempt to extend abortion law to NI was scuppered by the then Blair government.
Undermining Corbyn is undermining the potential for an anti-austerity government that could start to transform the lives of women. Blairites like Umunna and Creasy have been part of the campaign to remove Jeremy Corbyn and keep Labour as a party that can be relied on to defend capitalist interests. That includes cuts and privatisations of public services that deny women access to health, childcare, housing, etc, and enormously undermine women’s choice about when and whether to have children, and condemn women, children and men to poverty.
Across the world women’s rights are threatened by unpopular or unstable regimes who use social issues to try to maintain power. However women are fighting back. Last October women in Poland won a crucial victory as proposed legislation to impose a near-total ban on already restricted access to abortion was overwhelmingly defeated by a women’s strike.
In the Republic of Ireland the energetic and largely youthful campaign for the introduction of abortion rights is understood as a fight against establishment austerity politicians who still kowtow to a Catholic church that has lost its influence over the masses. Members of the Irish Socialist Party who are elected to the parliament and the Rosa campaign there are playing a leading role there.
In the US rights that have been won by previous generations and that were seen as secure are under threat in this era of capitalist crisis. This understanding, at different levels throughout the movements, contributes to the sense that the fight for women’s rights is ‘our task’.
A movement is rising. In January 2017, an estimated five million women, children and men participated in 673 Women’s Marches around the world against Trump’s inauguration, with an unprecedented 550 of them in the US.
The huge demo in London is a warning against any attempt to curtail women’s rights. The latest social attitudes survey confirms that mood with a record 70% saying an abortion should be allowed if a woman decides on her own she does not want a child. Opposing the Creasy amendment could have provoked an enormous movement, which if it was properly built for and linked to the other struggles in society could bring the weak Tory government down.
Last week the BMA doctors’ union, following the tremendous strike by junior doctors, voted by two-thirds for decriminalisation of abortion, in effect an extension of the 1967 Act. This points to how the trade unions can be central to a new mass movement that uses the collective strength of workers to fight for women’s rights and against austerity.
The Abortion Act 1967 established access to free safe legal abortions for people in England, Wales and Scotland. This Act was not extended to include Northern Ireland which is governed by laws dating back to 1861 which criminalise seeking or assisting in an abortion and outlines the penalty as ‘to be kept in penal servitude for life’.
Although unlikely that someone would face the full penalty today, people, including health workers, are being convicted in the courts under this law. In April 2016, a woman in Belfast was given a suspended sentence of one year for taking an abortion pill at home. While, more recently a woman was prosecuted for obtaining abortion pills for her underage daughter after she was reported to the police by their family GP. On the 14th of June 2017, the Supreme Court ruled against the case of A and B who challenged the NHS in the courts to allow women from Northern Ireland to access free abortions in Britain on the NHS. This case was brought after a mother had to travel to Manchester with her underage daughter to avail of an abortion five years ago and could only do so with the support of an abortion charity. It is estimated that around 2,000 women a year from Northern Ireland are forced to travel to Britain to avail of abortion services.
Repeal the 8th Amendment
Abortion is against the law in the Republic of Ireland unless the pregnancy endangers the life of the woman. There is no exception in the case of fatal foetal abnormalities when the baby will not survive outside the womb.
Nevertheless, as we have seen in some cases women have been denied abortions even though there is a severe risk to their health. The death of Savita Halappanavar in November 2012 was a tragedy which provoked thousands onto the streets in sadness at her death and anger at the legislation.
Free, safe, legal abortion cannot be provided in the Republic of Ireland until the 8th Amendment to the constitution is repealed. The 8th Amendment equates the life of the foetus to that of the mother which causes a grey area for medical professionals when treating pregnant individuals. There are many examples of how this Amendment has caused undue stress for those affected.
Forcing people to travel to Britain to avail of abortion services causes undue stress and financial pressure. This means that individuals who are able to avail of an abortion usually can’t afford to have it until later in term and are unlikely to seek post termination care due to the stigma and legal threat that is attached to using these services, thus putting lives and people’s health at risk.
Mood to fight!
There is a major shift in public opinion towards repealing the 8th Amendment in the Republic of Ireland and for a change in legislation in Northern Ireland. However, the church and the political establishments maintain the status quo.
In the Republic of Ireland, Socialist Party members who are MPs in Solidarity (formerly called the Anti-Austerity Alliance) put forward a motion in the parliament to repeal the 8th Amendment to the Constitution in October 2016. However, the government brought in its own counter motion to block any discussion on this issue until at least 2018. The parliament approved the counter-motion by 96 votes to 47 which shows how out of touch the elected representatives are with public opinion. Their justification for this move was that they said they couldn’t decide on this issue until after the Citizens’ Assembly had concluded in April 2017 and their findings were reviewed by an Oireachtas committee starting in July 2017. The Citizens’ Assembly was used as a delay tactic to ignore dealing with a debate on repealing the 8th Amendment and the government as well as the mainstream media anticipated the Assembly members to be more conservative in their recommendations. However, to their surprise the Assembly voted for a more liberal ruling on access to abortion services. Although the terms of the referendum are unclear at this stage the government has promised a referendum on this issue for 2018. The huge rallies for change to the abortion laws in the Republic of Ireland along with the reaction to the announcement that the Sisters of Charity would be running the new National Maternity Hospital in Dublin illustrate the mood amongst ordinary people who want change in how our health services are run and a clear separation of church and state in all aspects of Irish society.
Trump’s threats to abortion rights in the US show that the rights won by previous generations are not safe. Under capitalism, no right that is won in struggle is permanent. We stand for a democratically run socialist society, planned to meet the social needs of all rather than the profits of a few.
Socialists fight for an end to women’s oppression. We fight for universal access to free contraception, abortion and childcare services with access to adequate housing. The decision to have or not have a child should be up to the individual and not influenced by how much money they earn.
Sarah Sachs-Eldridge, Socialist Party national organiser and Helena Byrne, North London Socialist Party