Workers Hammer No. 237

Winter 2016-2017


Ireland: For free abortion on demand!

On 25 November, supporters of the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment protested in Dublin and solidarity demonstrations were held in cities around the world. Passed in 1983, the Eighth Amendment of the Irish Constitution guarantees the “right to life of the unborn” and grotesquely equates the life of a pregnant woman with an embryo or foetus. While abortion had already been illegal under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, the Eighth Amendment has ensured that it remains illegal in all cases bar when the very life of the woman is under threat. Three years ago, following tremendous popular outrage over the death of Savita Halappanavar, who had been denied what could have been a life-saving abortion, the government passed legislation establishing a torturous process which a woman must go through to obtain a termination of her life-threatening pregnancy. That law, the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, repealed the offence of “procuring a miscarriage” as stipulated in the 1861 law, but replaced it with a more far-reaching offence, “to intentionally destroy unborn human life”, for which the penalty was set at up to 14 years imprisonment.

To get abortions, Irish women are forced to travel to Britain (as did more than 3400 in 2015) or illegally import abortion pills (Misoprostol and Mifepristone) ordered online. The numbers who use such pills are unknown, but the demand for them is shown by the number of customs seizures: over 1000 pills in 2014. Abortion is a simple and safe medical procedure which should be available to all as part of the health service. Bans on it heap more expense and stress onto women and are particularly onerous for poor, young and immigrant women who cannot afford to travel or are not allowed to do so. They may also endanger women by deterring them from seeking medical assistance in the event of complications from taking abortion pills.

Repeal of the Eighth Amendment is necessary, but by itself repeal will not bring any actual abortion rights in Ireland. Comrades from the Spartacist League/Britain participated in a 26 November solidarity protest in London, and raised demands reflecting what Irish women actually need, not only in the South but also in Northern Ireland where abortion is outlawed: For free abortion on demand, North and South!

Abortion is politically explosive because it provides women with some control over whether or not to have children. This raises the spectre of equality for women and threatens to undermine the family, the main source of women’s oppression. The liberation of women requires the overthrow of the capitalist system and the establishment of a workers state. The working class in power will lay the ground for the disappearance of religious obscurantism and the replacement of the institution of the family by collective means of caring for and socialising children and by the fullest freedom of sexual relations.

In Ireland, the Catholic church has long been one of the central pillars of capitalist rule. The bishops were among the driving forces behind the passage of the Eighth Amendment and have been the staunchest opponents of even the slightest loosening of the ban on abortion. Ireland today is a vastly different society to what it was in 1983, as shown by the resounding yes vote in the 2015 referendum allowing gay marriage. Of course the church called for a no vote in that referendum and the Vatican’s secretary of state called its passage “a defeat for humanity”. Today the church is rightly despised by wide swathes of the population and its “moral” teachings about sexuality are widely disregarded. Recent opinion polls have consistently shown a clear majority in favour of repealing the Eighth Amendment and decreasing the restrictions on abortion.

Yet the church continues to wield tremendous power in Irish society. It still runs the vast majority of schools, and many hospitals operate under a Catholic “ethos”. Shadowy Catholic lay organisations like Opus Dei and the Iona Institute work to ensure they exert great influence in health, education and the media. And a great number of politicians, not least Taoiseach Enda Kenny, persist in showing obeisance to the Vatican.

The 25 November protests were held on the day before the first full meeting of a “Citizens’ Assembly” established by the Irish government that is to put forward proposals on the question of the Eighth Amendment. As Irish governments have done for the last 33 years, the real purpose of the Citizens’ Assembly is to kick the issue of abortion down the road. Its eight days of meetings are being spread over four months; its proposals are expected around June 2017 and they will then be examined by a parliamentary committee which will make recommendations to the government. Any changes to the Constitution would then need to be approved by the Irish parliament and then be put to the public in a referendum, which the government has said will not be held until 2018 at the earliest.

Enda Kenny recently travelled to Rome in preparation for Pope Francis’ visit to Ireland in August 2018 for the Vatican’s World Meeting of the Family which will come with a security price tag of ¤20 million. While there, Kenny ran his plans for the Citizens’ Assembly by the pontiff, who presumably gave it his blessing. The government was quick to make it clear that Francis’ visit would not coincide with any abortion referendum, but the visit will surely be used to whip up clericalist fervour.

On 27 October, the government used the prospect of the Citizens’ Assembly to block a bill proposed by TDs [MPs] from the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party (under their current parliamentary guise, the Anti-Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit [AAA-PBP]) to hold a referendum on repealing the Eighth Amendment. Independent TDs on whom the government relies also voted to block the bill, including those like Katherine Zappone who are on record as being in favour of repealing the Eighth. The Labour Party voted to hold the referendum, but when it was part of the last government it opposed holding such a referendum.

Labour’s social-democratic tails in the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party have long counselled an incremental approach to the fight for abortion rights. First they called to “legislate for the X case”, for which in 1992 the Supreme Court ruled that abortion was permitted to save the life of the pregnant woman including if she was threatening suicide. That two-decade campaign resulted in the 2013 Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, which in fact copperfastened the ban on abortion. Now their energies are devoted to the campaign to repeal the Eighth. Both the SP and SWP (as well as several of their front groups) are members of the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment, a class-collaborationist lash-up which includes a range of bourgeois feminist and gay rights groups, several trade unions and Amnesty International. The latter recently displayed its anti-communist credentials by joining Catholic reactionaries in condemning Irish president Michael D Higgins for praising the deceased Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

The only way to win any meaningful abortion rights (as well as decent health and childcare) is through mass struggle against the capitalist state and the reactionary anti-woman forces behind it, not least the Catholic church. It is only the working class which has both the social power to successfully wage such a struggle and the interest in achieving free access to this safe medical procedure for all women in Ireland. To lead this struggle it is necessary to forge a workers party committed to the destruction of the capitalist system through workers revolution — the only way to open the road to emancipation for women.