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New Attack on Abortion Rights
22nd February 2002
The twenty-fifth amendment to the Southern state’s constitution, contained in the Protection of Human Life in Pregnancy Bill, represents the latest attempt to shackle women, and by extension the whole of society, to the reactionary moral teachings of the Catholic Church. The referendum restricting abortion rights introduced by the Fianna Fail/Progressive Democrat government has been widely portrayed as a cynical exercise by the Fianna Fail (FF) party in order to bolster its chances in the upcoming general election. By securing the support of a reactionary section of the electorate and forestalling participation of ‘pro-life’ candidates that might be expected to harm its performance it hopes to increase its chances of leading the next government.
This is undoubtedly true but at a deeper level it once again shows the reactionary, Catholic character of the southern state that many liberals had been hoping was being erased by the forces of modernisation, strengthened most recently by the economic growth of the Celtic Tiger. Undoubtedly a real contradiction exists here. The needs of a fast growing economy for female labour conflicts with social measures designed to discipline women in a repressive domestic regime. The recent economic slowdown does not remove this contradiction. What we are seeing is an example of what Marxists might call uneven and combined development. The needs of capitalist accumulation collide with the political means of disciplining society, the working class and working class women in particular.
What we can also note is that advances in women’s rights, and therefore of everyone, are not a semi-automatic result of modernisation but the result of political struggle by the oppressed. That we currently face this amendment once again indicates that we face a political offensive that requires a political response. A duty that falls on the left. On this issue various reformist forces have sought to avoid this task through the formula of calling for the abortion question to be dealt with through legislation. In fact of course the problem is to build a movement that can put a women’s right to choose as the decision that society needs to take.
To its credit the left has mobilised to vigorously oppose the amendment albeit with the limitations that usually afflicts its interventions – lack of political debate and a certain opportunism. We need only recall their attitude to abortion rights in the programme of the late socialist alliances to register these problems. More particularly a debate is required beyond the referendum campaign on an approach that presents a supposed unity with reformists on a single issue which fails to recognise the overarching reactionary role that these people play. The now pat formula of single issue unity without political criticism in combination with activism supposed to demonstrate left organisations as the best builders of campaigns has not served well. This is a not just a political problem but one reflecting the lefts overall material weakness.
The latest referendum is an attempt to reverse the steps forward that occurred following the mass protests, notably by young women, around the ‘X’ case in 1992. A 14 year old who had suffered abuse from a man in his forties who was a father of one of the young woman’s friends became pregnant as a result of this abuse. The suicidal young woman and her parents sought an abortion in England and had travelled to Britain to procure it when the government in the shape of the Attorney General sought a court injunction to prevent the termination going ahead. The young woman and her parents returned to Ireland while the legal proceedings took place.
The thought of a young woman in such clear distress being coerced by the state to continue with a pregnancy that was the result of rape unleashed mass protest. It was this protest that forced the state to back down and allow the termination to take place in Britain. A lasting image of the event was a cartoon in the Irish Times showing a young girl clutching a teddy bear standing in the middle of Ireland with the borders of the state surrounded by barbed wire, the caption noting the introduction of internment in Ireland for 14 year old girls.
The FF/PD coalition government of the time made an immediate attempt to reverse the decision of the supreme court to approve abortion in cases of threatened suicide. The subsequent referendum proposals while confirming the right to abortion information and the right to travel proposed that abortion was legal when the life of the mother was threatened but not in cases of threatened suicide. The first two proposals were passed but the final one was rejected, strongly implying that the majority felt that possible suicide was legitimate grounds for abortion. Medical guidance however continued to threaten doctors with being struck off if they performed an abortion on these grounds and subsequent governments refused to give legislative effect to the supreme court’s decision.
The legal verdict in the X case was seen as an unexpected interpretation of the 1983 amendment to the constitution that had been passed (two to one on a 54% turnout) at the behest of a ‘pro-life’ lobby fearful that abortion would be introduced to Ireland through European Community law. This amendment was believed to rule out abortion albeit with ‘due regard to the equal right to life of the mother.’ A special protocol was negotiated by the Irish government for insertion into the 1991 Maastricht Treaty protecting this position. (So much for ‘Europe’ bringing equality and rights to Irish women.)
Since these events the reactionary right has sought a new referendum to obtain the objective they thought had been achieved with the 1983 amendment. As we have said liberals and reformists have countered that really the issue is too complicated to be settled by changes to the constitution and legislation is the only way to deal with the issue. Their concern is as much about the restrictions to women’s rights and the conditions under which abortion takes place as concern over women’s lives.
The political elite have been wary of another abortion referendum, aware of the deep divisions in society the issue has unearthed and the difficulty of enforcing further restrictions on women’s rights. It was therefore something of a gamble when Bertie Ahern decided to go ahead. True to form he tried to increase his chances by framing the proposed amendment in such a way to gain the support of the Catholic bishops and main ‘pro-life’ movement. Unfortunately for him the rabidness of the right has meant a substantial section of the ‘pro-life’ movement has rejected the amendment, most prominently Rosemary Scallon (Dana). This is motivated by the fact that the amendment recognises abortion only from implantation in the womb and not from conception. They therefore also fear the opening of doors to medical and scientific embryo research.
The amendment removes as grounds for abortion the threat of suicide of the woman. Government politicians have stated that threatened suicide will open the floodgates and an academic debate has ensued about the predictive powers of the psychiatric profession. What the amendment signifies however is that a woman’s life is expendable on an altar of reactionary morality. Abortion will become a criminal act under the constitution not only for those performing it but also the woman, punishable by up to twelve years in prison. The only other crime recognised by the constitution is treason.
This leaves open the possibility of another X case. It also has implications for young women under the care of the state as in the C case in 1997 when a 13 year old rape victim, again suicidal, who was under the care of the Eastern Health Board was taken to Britain for an abortion. The prospect is therefore opened up of the state holding a young woman in order to force her to go through with a pregnancy that was the result of rape or incest. The government and right blithely dismiss these very real possibilities. Yet its position is that it will still facilitate and pay for such an abortion in Britain while women in Ireland will be put in jail for 12 years for doing the same thing in their own country.
Abortion that is the indirect result of attempts to save the life of the mother can only take place in designated centres. This gives rise to the possibility that such life saving interventions will not take place, or not take place on time, if the woman is not at or near such a centre. A so-called ‘conscience clause’ will allow any doctor to refuse medical treatment resulting in the termination of a pregnancy. The amendment also fails to allow termination where the foetus is diagnosed from a condition such as anencephaly, where life after birth would be impossible.
The government has said that the position of the morning after pill and Intra Uterine Devices will be protected by the amendment although even the referendum commission charged with giving out impartial information on referenda has rejected this claim. Some ‘pro-lifers’ have indicated these could well be future targets for their attack.
The amendment will do nothing to stop many Irish women travelling to Britain to have an abortion except to criminalise their action and dissuade them from seeking the after care in Ireland that they may be in dire need of. The numbers travelling to Britain increases every year and is now estimated to be around 7,000 per year. It was recently reported that Irish women have travelled as far as Russia to have an abortion! It obviously discriminates against working class women who find it harder to make this journey, not least for financial reasons, delaying their abortion and increasing the dangers to them.
Opinion polls at this point indicate that the amendment is heading for defeat. This would be a real setback to the right and open up the possibility of moving the argument in a more progressive direction, especially given the divisions within the right. Unfortunately as we have witnessed after the X case the major parties are unwilling to sort out the legal mess that their opportunist policy has led them to unless it is to attempt such a solution from the right. This combined with the militant agenda of the ‘pro-life’ campaigners and anaemic liberal perspective of much of the opposition could allow the agenda to once again become the property of the right.
The alternative to such a scenario does not just lie within the realms of forces primarily concerned with women’s rights. Defeat for the government on yet another referendum, following that of Nice, would be a blow to its plans for a re-run of the latter. But as Nice demonstrates, without a coherent agenda of its own, and a movement to force it forward, the working class will be able to do no more than stymie attacks. Rolling them back and making advances of its own requires organisation and mobilisation at a new level.