Make it free, safe and legal

The struggle for abortion rights is an essential part of the fight to end women’s oppression, writes Alan Gibson of Rebels4Choice (personal capacity)

Record numbers take to the streets

As most readers will know, abortion is illegal in Ireland, except in very restricted circumstances. The current legal framework of the 2013 Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act allows for abortion only in cases of a risk of loss of life from physical illness or from suicide.

In the three years following the passing of the legislation there were only 77 abortions carried out under its provisions. This contrasts with the approximately 10,000 women who gave Irish addresses at abortion clinics in Britain during those same three years - not to mention the hundreds more who did not give Irish addresses or who travelled to other countries like Spain and the Netherlands; nor indeed the many undocumented others who are increasingly turning to the online purchase of ‘abortion pills’.

Under section 40.3.3 of the constitution (eighth amendment):

The state acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.

But the movement to change all this had clearly been gaining momentum and September 2016 saw the largest ‘March for Choice’ so far, with between 20,000 and 25,000 participants - clearly demonstrating the increasing support for a referendum to repeal the eighth amendment.

In response the government set up a ‘Citizens Assembly’ in November 2016 to consider a number of matters, including constitutional reform. Under the assembly’s terms of reference, it was directed to first consider the eighth amendment - its conclusions on the matter were to be submitted to the Houses of the Oireachtas (parliament) for further debate and a final decision.

The Citizens Assembly was made up of 99 members of the public chosen at random by a private polling company - the aim being an assembly that was ‘representative’ of society as regards age, gender, social class, regional spread, etc. Any potential participants who were activists, on either side of the debate on the issue, were to be excluded - this did happen with at least one person I know of who had been active in the Cork pro-choice movement a couple of years previously.

Although this had obviously not been openly stated, it is safe to assume that the government’s primary reason for creating the Citizen’s Assembly was to postpone having to make a decision so early in its tenure about holding a referendum on such a contentious issue. Undoubtedly it also hoped that the recommendations issued by this sample of the ‘middle ground’ would be limited in scope and could then be watered down even further in the Oireachtas.

The assembly’s report on the eighth amendment and what, if anything, should replace it was finally published on June 29 2017. The key recommendations were to be a surprise - not only to the government and the anti-choice lobby, but also to most pro-choice activists, in that they were far more radical than expected.

A majority of assembly members favoured access to abortion with no time limit at all when there was:

  •  real and substantial physical risk to the life of the mother (including by threat of suicide);
  •  serious risk to her physical health (including mental health);
  •  foetal abnormality likely to result in death of the baby before or shortly after birth.

The situations where a majority favoured access for up to the first 22 weeks of pregnancy were:

  •  risk to the mother’s health (including her mental health);
  •  significant foetal abnormality not likely to result in death before or shortly after birth;
  •  socio-economic reasons.

On pregnancy resulting from rape, the majority were in favour of allowing termination, but split fairly equally between up to 12 weeks, up to 22 weeks and no time limit.

The most surprising recommendation was on completely unrestricted access. A majority was in favour, but only for a limited period - they were split between 12 and 22 weeks (on each of the questions assembly members were given the options of ‘never’, ‘12 weeks’, ‘22 weeks’ and ‘no limit’).

Referendum

On September 26 the taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, announced that a referendum on the constitutional framework for Ireland’s abortion laws will be held in May or June 2018. The exact wording of the referendum will be the result of a parliamentary vote on the recommendations of a special Oireachtas committee, which was established in April to consider the Citizens Assembly recommendations.

On September 30 the latest March for Choice filled the streets of Dublin with double the previous year’s figures - somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000 took part. As a pro-choice activist in Cork, these numbers came as no surprise to me. Rebels4Choice activists in the city organised three buses, while another two were filled by the supporters of the Feminist Society at the university. In previous years there had been a maximum of two buses booked in total.

It is clear that momentum for a referendum to repeal the eighth amendment is growing and the key questions now facing us concern the wording and the nature of the alternative legislation when, as expected, the constitutional restriction is removed.

The forces in favour of repeal are now organised in the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment, which comprises over 100 organisations. This coalition is still focused on the short-term goal of fighting for a referendum rather than the alternative wording to replace section 40.3.3 of the constitution.

The most consistently pro-choice position on a future legal framework is taken by those in the coalition who argue for the decriminalisation of abortion, so that it is treated like any other medical procedure. Whether to have an abortion would be up to the individual woman in consultation with her healthcare professional, the woman’s decision being taken in the context of free and widely available abortion services with appropriate health-focused regulations guaranteeing the highest possible quality of care.

While, as I say, the coalition has no agreed position on an alternative legislative framework, the majority of member organisations seem to be arguing that the recommendations of the Citizens Assembly are the minimum that would be acceptable.

One noticeable exception to this is the position of the Socialist Party of Ireland and its sister/front organisations, Solidarity and ROSA (whose initials stand for ‘For Reproductive rights, against Repression, Sexism and Austerity’!). The SP proposes calling for a plebiscite, or public consultative vote, to be held at the same time as the referendum on four options for extending availability of abortions that are broadly in accordance with the Citizens Assembly recommendations: in the case of fatal foetal abnormality, risk to health, socio-economic problems, and without restriction for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

By arguing for the pro-choice movement as a whole to call for all four options to be passed in the plebiscite, the SP is in effect arguing for those options to be presented to the Oireachtas as the maximum possible basis for legislation. This is quite strange, given that the Socialist Party is trying to project itself as the most militant pro-choice voice of the movement, when in fact its position is actually the most limited amongst all pro-choice organisations.

Reactionary role

A major obstacle to greater access to any kind of abortion services is, of course, the Catholic church, which actively campaigns against any change in Ireland’s restrictive laws. And, in fact, even if there were to be a significant liberalisation of the current legislation there would still be a problem in accessing the necessary facilities, as the church plays a central role in the provision of hospital services. It will take whatever steps are necessary to prevent abortion services being provided in hospitals which remain under its control.

Ireland has an appalling record on all aspects of women’s rights, not just access to abortion. The barbaric horror of symphysiotomy procedures imposed on many women during childbirth without their knowledge or consent. The abuse that occurred in the Magdalene Laundries and “mother and baby homes”. Until 1973 women in the civil service faced mandatory retirement on getting married, and divorce was only permitted from 1996. It was only six years previously, in 1990, that rape within marriage was criminalised and not until as recently as 2005 was there a successful conviction for this crime that affects so many women.

The Catholic-influenced constitution provides the framework for this misogynist culture by not only restricting access to abortion, but, in article 41.2, actually stipulating that a woman’s primary social role is motherhood:

1. In particular, the state recognises that by her life within the home woman gives to the state a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.

2. The state shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.

The constitution further promotes the family “as the natural primary and fundamental unit group of society” (article 41.1.1) and “the necessary basis of social order” (article 41.1.2).

The oppression of women under capitalism is based around their role in the family as unpaid providers of the domestic services necessary for the maintenance of society and reproduction of the working class. The more ugly manifestations of women’s oppression are reflected in the reality that most sexual violence is committed in the family home - in Ireland nearly 10,000 women a year receive support for domestic violence, while many thousands of other incidents are believed to go unreported.

The Catholic church runs 90% of the country’s primary schools and despite its weakened influence it is still able to exert considerable social control under the guise of promotion of the “Catholic ethos”. Ending women’s oppression will require total separation of church and state and the creation of a secular education system that includes comprehensive sex education. As well as free and universal access to contraceptives, alongside free, safe and legal access to abortion, there should also be, at the very least:

  •  the right to immediate divorce at the request of either partner
  •  full funding for women’s refuges
  •  extended parental leave for both parents on full pay
  •  full employment on good wages, index-linked to the cost of living
  •  free, quality healthcare (including care for the disabled)
  •  24-hour childcare
  •  decent affordable housing for all.

Despite the vast productive capacity available to humanity in the 21st century, the capitalist system has shown itself to be incapable of providing even these simple needs for all people. It is only the working masses - by overthrowing capitalism and constructing a new, non-exploitative socio-economic order, including fully socialising domestic labour - who can provide the material foundation to finally end women’s oppression: part of the creation of new human relations based on true equality and respect.

In Ireland today the fight for free, safe and legal access to abortion is an important step towards that goal.