Workers Vanguard No. 1032
18 October 2013
Irelands New Law: Still No Abortion Rights
The following article is reprinted from Workers Hammer No. 224 (Autumn 2013), newspaper of the Spartacist League/Britain, section of the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist).
DUBLIN—Last autumn, Ireland and the world were outraged by the tragic death due to septic shock of Savita Halappanavar at University Hospital Galway after she had been refused a termination [abortion]. Thousands protested on the streets of Dublin, other cities and towns across Ireland as well as internationally, calling for abortion rights. The mobilisations in Ireland were the largest abortion-rights protests in years and many had real expectations that finally, 20 years after the massive struggles around the “X case,” women in Ireland would obtain some modicum of abortion rights.
During last year’s protests we produced a leaflet (dated 16 November 2012) [reprinted in WV No. 1013, 23 November 2012] calling forthrightly for what women need: “For free abortion on demand!” and pointing out that “any effective fight for abortion rights necessarily means a hard-fought struggle against the full force of clerical reaction and against the capitalist state.” In contrast, reformist left groups like the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party (SWP) focused their demands on “Legislate for the ‘X case’” as a supposed first step in liberalising Ireland’s abortion laws. What actually came about, the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, doesn’t increase the availability of abortion one bit, while prescribing up to 14 years in prison for carrying out an abortion.
The new law, passed in July, codifies the ruling in the 1992 “X case,” in which the Supreme Court overturned a lower court injunction banning a pregnant 14-year-old—who had been raped and was threatening suicide—from travelling to Britain for an abortion. Under the Eighth Amendment to the Irish constitution, passed in 1983, the value of the life of a pregnant woman was grotesquely equated with the life of “the unborn,” and abortion, which was already criminalised by the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, was made illegal except when the woman’s life was directly threatened. In the face of massive outrage over the refusal to allow the young woman to travel to Britain, the Supreme Court ruled that the threat of suicide is in fact a threat to the life of a woman. It also ordered the government to produce legislation allowing for abortion in Ireland—in accordance with the extremely limited provisions of the Eighth Amendment—including when a pregnant woman is suicidal. The right to information about abortion and the right to travel abroad to obtain one were subsequently written into the constitution through referenda, while two attempts to remove the risk of suicide as a valid reason for abortion were rejected. For 20 years, successive governments (twice including Labour) have bowed to the diktat of the Catholic hierarchy, refusing to make allowance in Irish law for even the most restricted availability of abortion in Ireland.
As a result, thousands of women are compelled to travel to Britain every year for a routine medical procedure. Because of having to arrange (and raise money for) travel and accommodation, Irish women tend to have abortions later in their pregnancies. In 2012, 3,982 women from Ireland had abortions in England or Wales (plus another 900 from Northern Ireland where abortion is also practically banned). Of the women from Ireland, 31 per cent had abortions at later than nine weeks pregnancy, compared to 24 per cent of women from England and Wales. Such delays present a greater risk of complications. It was recently revealed that a 32-year-old woman of African origin from Ireland died in January 2012 after having had an abortion in London. She had been diagnosed with extensive fibroids and her requests for an abortion in Ireland were denied. Moreover the health authorities in Ireland wouldn’t assist her in getting a termination abroad. She eventually managed to get to a clinic in London but died of extensive internal bleeding hours after the procedure.
Clerical Reaction Mobilises
The scandal-ridden Catholic church is today hated by wide swathes of Irish society. Few young people pay much heed to the church’s “moral” teachings in relation to their personal lives. However, the church still wields tremendous power in Irish society, not least through its control of most schools and hospitals. As soon as the government started making noises about legislating for the “X case,” the anti-abortion bigots (who had kept a low profile in the immediate aftermath of Savita Halappanavar’s death) came out in force. They organised large protests in Dublin at which busloads were brought in from around the country; priests and bishops fulminated from the pulpits, with Catholic primate of All Ireland, Cardinal Seán Brady, hysterically describing the Bill as a “‘Trojan horse’ which heralds a much more liberal and aggressive abortion regime in Ireland” (irishtimes.com, 2 July). Independent TD [member of parliament] for Waterford John Halligan received a death threat after he criticised the Catholic church for “attempting to interfere in the running of the State.” He explained, “I am now being branded by personnel around the country as being a murderer. I’m going to have on my soul the death of 20 million babies. I’m getting medals, scapulars, plastic foetuses, letters written in blood, telephone calls all over the system and it’s not confined to me” (irishtimes.com, 14 June). However, when the chairman of a Catholic primary school board in Dublin distributed leaflets for an anti-abortion protest to the students, outraged parents forced him to resign.
Despite the at times surreal right-wing uproar along the lines that the new law would “open the floodgates” and lead to “abortion tourism” into Ireland, the law in fact does not make abortion one bit more accessible. And Labour communications minister Pat Rabbitte ruled out any extension of abortion rights in the lifetime of this government. While the law now specifies that an abortion may be carried out when there is a “real and substantial risk of loss of the woman’s life,” this must be certified by two medical practitioners (except in an emergency when a second opinion is not required). If the risk to her life is due to suicide, the woman must submit to an inquisition consisting of an obstetrician and two psychiatrists to “prove” that she is suicidal! Almost any woman in that situation would rather get a flight to Britain than go through such a demeaning ordeal. Already some abortions are carried out in Irish hospitals to save women’s lives, but they are at the discretion of the obstetrician (and the management board of the hospital, many of which are run by the church), a situation which will remain the same under the new law.
The most egregious part of the new law repeals the sections of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, which outlaws “procuring a miscarriage,” but replaces them with a more far-reaching offence: “to intentionally destroy unborn human life.” The penalty may be as much as an unlimited fine and imprisonment for up to 14 years! This sentence could be applied to a pregnant woman who carries out an abortion on herself, for instance by ordering Misoprostol and Mifepristone pills over the internet. While there are not good statistics for how many women obtain an abortion in this way, Irish Customs seized 487 tablets in 25 detentions in 2012 and 194 tablets in the first five months of 2013. While taking these pills is generally safe and effective, there is a risk of complications, which requires prompt medical attention. The criminalisation of abortion may deter women from seeking the necessary assistance, a danger which is increased now that they could face 14 years in prison.
For Women’s Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!
The new abortion law is so regressive that even the SWP and Socialist Party, who have been campaigning to “Legislate for X” for years, felt compelled to vote against it. The Socialist Party’s Joe Higgins complained that the new law is “more restrictive than what the Supreme Court Ruling of 1992 and subsequent referenda would have permitted” (joehiggins.ie, 10 July). The SWP calls the law a “pathetic attempt to deal with the X case ruling” and notes that: “Unfortunately the worst fears of the movement for choice are now being realised” (swp.ie, 28 May). These groups have spent the past 20 years building illusions that abortion rights in Ireland would follow automatically if the government was forced to legislate. They restricted their demands to what was “possible” within the existing framework, and least likely to invoke the wrath of the clergy.
Even to obtain minimal abortion rights in Ireland requires a major confrontation with the Catholic church, which none of the major parties—including Labour and Sinn Fein—would contemplate, for fear it would be political suicide. The left has a shameful record of conciliating Catholic reaction. During the protests in 1992, the Militant (forerunner of the Socialist Party) explicitly tried to restrict the demands, arguing: “To campaign now for a referendum to repeal the 8th Amendment would be a mistake.” They added: “Even more important, the campaign should demand that the government produces draft legislation to provide for abortion in Ireland under the circumstances permitted by the Supreme Court ruling” in the “X case” (Militant Socialist, May 1992). As for the SWP, in the aftermath of the 2002 referendum to overturn the “X case” ruling (which was defeated), they said: “We need to keep the pressure on parties such as Labour and Fine Gael to make sure that they make good on their commitment to bring in legislation—legislation that gives a liberal interpretation of the X case judgement and introduces real access to abortion rights for the women who need it” (Socialist Worker [Ireland], 15-28 March 2002). And this is not just ancient history—in the protests after Savita Halappanavar’s death the Socialist Party wrote, “X is a start but it’s not enough” while the SWP demanded of the government, “Legislate now!” They both appended calls for more abortion rights...some time in the future.
The Catholic church has very deep roots in Irish society and is intertwined with the whole edifice of capitalist rule. Abortion is a simple and safe medical procedure, yet it 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, a central institution for raising the new generation and in helping to maintain and legitimise the system of capitalist class rule. The liberation of women from oppression requires socialist revolution which, among other things, will replace the social functions of the family, like housework and child rearing, with social institutions.
In the immediate aftermath of the “X case,” the Dublin Spartacist Youth Group stated: “This Gordian knot of bourgeois ‘constitutional’ and legal wrangling can only be cut in a progressive sense by a tough, principled, iron-hard fight: not for this reform or that wording but for what is needed by women and the working class. Armed with a programme for working-class social revolution, the fight for free abortion on demand must be taken up with the same sense of unbending determination that marks the SPUC [Society for the Protection of Unborn Children] reactionaries on the other side of the barricades” (Workers Hammer No. 129, May/June 1992). Twenty-one years on, the utter bankruptcy of reformism is starkly apparent. The way to win any meaningful abortion rights (and decent health and child-care provision) is through mass struggle against the capitalist state, the church and reactionary anti-woman forces behind it.