Workers Hammer No. 242
Ireland North and South: fight for abortion rights continues
Eighth Amendment repealed!
After 35 years, the anti-abortion Eighth Amendment of the Irish constitution has finally been repealed. Over 66 per cent voted for repeal in a referendum on 25 May — a stunningly decisive result. The vote was a stark reversal from 1983, when 66 per cent voted in favour of the Eighth Amendment. Its repeal is a victory for all supporters of women’s rights in Southern Ireland, and has inspired abortion rights activists internationally, from Poland to the US. In Northern Ireland, where abortion is banned in nearly all circumstances, people have taken to the streets to demand its legalisation.
The battle for abortion rights in the South is not over. With abortion still outlawed by the 2013 Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, the Dublin government has announced plans to legislate for abortion on request in the first twelve weeks of pregnancy. But the forces of clerical reaction will not quietly accept abortion in Ireland. Three legal challenges have been filed against the referendum result and TDs (members of the Irish parliament) are facing heavy lobbying to water down the proposed laws. Once abortion is legalised, anti-woman bigots will surely seek to intimidate women seeking abortions and their healthcare providers, especially in rural areas.
In our leaflet calling to vote for repeal, we warned: “Fighters for women’s rights cannot place any trust in the promises of the Irish government — the executive committee of the ruling class” (reprinted in Workers Hammer no 241, Spring 2018). Rather than simply decriminalising abortion, which is a safe and simple medical procedure, the government’s proposed legislation imposes restrictions which will endanger women and embolden the reactionaries.
The government proposes to allow abortion after twelve weeks pregnancy only if there is a risk of serious harm to the health of the pregnant woman or if the foetus is likely to die before or shortly after birth. No abortions will be allowed after the point of foetal “viability”, and medical professionals will be able to refuse to perform abortions on grounds of conscience. Any doctor unwilling to provide abortion services should not be a doctor. Abortion should be available to any woman who wants it, without restriction. For free abortion on demand!
For nearly a century, Irish bourgeois governments have overseen the brutal oppression of women, from the Magdalene laundries and forced adoptions to prohibitions on contraception and abortion. Now, in the face of a sweeping social demand, the Irish rulers have agreed to limited abortion rights. Women’s oppression is fundamental to capitalist class society. Women’s liberation cannot be achieved in collaboration with bourgeois political forces; it is tied to the struggle of the working class to liberate itself from capitalist exploitation.
For a class-struggle fight for women’s rights!
The reformists of the Socialist Party (in particular its “socialist feminist” affiliate ROSA) and the Socialist Workers Network/People Before Profit worked overtime to help the bourgeois feminist Together for Yes coalition be the dominant political force in the repeal campaign.
The Phoenix magazine (1 June) described how the leaders of Together for Yes deliberately restructured the leading bodies to exclude leftists and radical activists. This did not dissuade the reformists from doing the grunt work for Together for Yes. In order to avoid alienating “middle Ireland”, Together for Yes instructed canvassers to avoid references to “choice” and “free”, much less “abortion”! As it turned out “middle Ireland” was more open to abortion than the bourgeois Together for Yes: in an exit poll 62 per cent of referendum voters cited “women’s right to choose” as a factor in their decision.
After the referendum, the reformists began wringing their hands over the conservative Together for Yes campaign strategy while burying their complicity in it. In a 28 May article on the Socialist Workers Network’s rebelnews.ie website, Marnie Holborow admitted: “The political message promoted by Together for Yes campaign was wide of the mark. Their telling activists not to speak to voters about choice, abortion on request or ‘bodily autonomy’ turned out to be the very things that voters cared about.” Behind the timid referendum strategy of Together for Yes there was a political programme: subordinating women’s needs to what is acceptable to the bourgeois rulers.
With Together for Yes and its constituent parts studiously avoiding the word “abortion”, the government’s proposal for abortion up to twelve weeks on request looked positively radical in comparison. The upshot was that the main political winner from the repeal vote was the Fine Gael-led capitalist government. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (a last-minute convert to even limited abortion rights) and Minister for Health Simon Harris are being celebrated as champions of women’s liberation. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The felt needs of women include equal pay for equal work; government-provided 24-hour childcare and school meals for all children; as well as quality healthcare for all, free at the point of delivery, including abortion and contraception. Such demands would require confronting the clericalist capitalist state head-on and would also challenge the institution of the family, in which women are burdened with domestic drudgery and child rearing.
As Friedrich Engels explained in The origin of the family, private property and the state (1884), the family arose alongside private property as the central institution of women’s oppression and a key prop of class society. Enforced monogamy for women was instituted so that a property-owning husband could be sure of passing his property to his offspring. For the working class, the family inculcates bourgeois ideology, especially obedience to authority. The overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of working-class rule will open the road to the replacement of the family by setting up collective means of caring for and socialising children. Only under a global socialist order will there finally be an end to women’s oppression. For women’s liberation through socialist revolution!
Separate church and state!
Coming three years after the referendum to allow gay marriage, the vote to repeal the Eighth is yet another clear demonstration that broad swathes of Irish society reject the diktats of the Catholic church. A crucial turning point in the fight for abortion rights was the death in 2012 of 31-year-old Savita Halappanavar, who died of septicaemia after being refused an abortion. A victim of the Eighth Amendment, her plea for a termination was rejected with the words, “This is a Catholic country.” At the end of the referendum campaign, a mural of Savita in Dublin was bedecked with notes from repeal voters dedicating their votes to her.
The widely hated church still wields tremendous power in Irish society. After the vote Varadkar crowed: “Today we have at long last a modern constitution for a modern country.” Well, not quite. The constitution begins: “In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred”. That clericalist rhetoric is concretely expressed in the constitutional ban on “blasphemy” and the requirement for a couple seeking a divorce to have lived apart for four years. Moreover the church still controls over 90 per cent of primary schools, as well as many hospitals. The schools and hospitals should be ripped out of the hands of the church!
The Irish bourgeoisie has long relied on the church to maintain its control over the working class. Today, with the church not being such an effective tool, the government is adopting a less clericalist posture. There is talk about another possible referendum this year to delete the constitutional provision on blasphemy as well as the one upholding mothers’ “duties in the home”. The education minister has announced a new scheme to look at transferring state schools out of church control. However, his proposal would still give bishops the final say on which schools they will give up. For the separation of church and state in Ireland, and in Britain!
Northern Ireland: hell for women
Repeal of the Eighth Amendment has given a fresh impetus to the fight for abortion rights in Northern Ireland. Britain’s 1967 Abortion Act, which decriminalised abortion in limited circumstances, has never been applied to Northern Ireland; abortion there is banned by the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. There are now moves in Westminster by both Labour and Tory MPs to extend abortion rights to Northern Ireland by repealing the relevant sections of the 1861 Act. Such a repeal would also benefit women in Britain.
The fact that women in Northern Ireland lack any abortion rights is a product of British imperialist divide and rule. Since it was partitioned from the rest of Ireland in 1921, the North has been a sectarian Orange statelet based upon the oppression of the Catholic minority. In the absence of a Leninist party that could unite Protestant and Catholic workers in a revolutionary struggle against capitalist exploitation as well as against the British imperialist presence and in defence of the oppressed Catholics, the political leadership of both communities has long been dominated by religious backwardness. For decades, one of the few things that the main Unionist and Irish nationalist parties could agree on was opposition to abortion.
This situation was copper-fastened by the Good Friday Agreement “peace” fraud, which was predicated on the continued presence of British troops — thousands of whom are still based there — and has served to reinforce the oppression of Irish Catholics. Under the Good Friday Agreement, parties in the devolved Assembly (currently in abeyance) must self-designate as Nationalist, Unionist or other. A mechanism is in place whereby Unionists or Nationalists can veto any legislation. Between 2011 and 2016, this mechanism was used more than 100 times (mostly by the DUP) to block legislation, including on gay marriage and abortion rights.
With Sinn Féin having recently cast off its historical anti-abortion line, its leader Mary Lou McDonald was prominent in the repeal campaign in the South and has declared: “The North is next.” Its occasional social-democratic rhetoric notwithstanding, Sinn Féin is a bourgeois party based on Irish nationalism. In contrast to the Green nationalism of Sinn Féin, what is needed is a proletarian internationalist perspective of mobilising Protestant and Catholic workers to fight for free abortion on demand.
Northern Ireland is a situation of interpenetrated peoples, both of whom claim the same territory. The Catholics are part of the Irish nation while the Protestants, though not yet a nation, are certainly not a part of the Irish nation and are distinct from the Scottish and English nations. The conflicting national aspirations of the population of Northern Ireland can only be equitably resolved under the rule of the working class. We fight for an Irish workers republic, part of a voluntary federation of workers republics in the British Isles, leaving open where the Protestants will fall. Achieving this will require the construction of Leninist vanguard parties to combat every manifestation of oppression, including of women, Travellers and Northern Catholics. Such parties, sections of a reforged Fourth International, will lead the working class to power through socialist revolution on both sides of the Irish border and both sides of the Irish Sea.