Right to choose now

Irish women must emulate the militancy of their sisters in Poland, writes Anne McShane

The struggle in Ireland around abortion rights has many parallels with that in Poland. The symbiotic relationship of the Catholic church and state is one example, as is the determination of pro-life forces to make women the slaves of their own biology. The perversity of insisting that women carry on with pregnancies even when the foetus will not survive is already Irish law. Like their Polish counterparts, Irish women are forced to travel abroad for help with their guilty secret - or turn to illegal methods like abortion pills.

There are serious dangers to health, as doctors do not want to treat women for complications arising out of illegal abortions. But neither the state nor the church gives a damn, as long as the problem stays hidden. We have had many women die because of the unavailability of abortion; some women have been left unattended in hospital wards because doctors are afraid or unwilling to give them the treatment they need. There are insufficient facilities and trained medics, leaving aside those fearful of breaking the law.

I have written many times before in this paper about the ongoing struggle here in Ireland. I have been very critical of the strategy of the left, which has been to fight for change in an incremental fashion, allowing the government to successfully undermine every single one of its campaigns. The struggle in 2012-13 illustrates the problem. Independent TD Clare Daly introduced a bill in the Dáil which would have allowed limited abortion rights. The government countered with its own proposals and the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Act 2013 was passed - a law which is so restrictive that neither comrade Daly nor any of the other leftwing TDs could vote for it.1

A suicidal woman has to be certified as such by two psychiatrists and an obstetrician before she can have a termination. The anti-abortion lobby is hugely influential among the psychiatric profession in Ireland - little wonder then that there were only three abortions allowed on those grounds in 2015.2 Pregnant women with serious mental health problems are treated as potential fraudsters.

Now the government is employing very underhand tactics to defeat the widespread demand for the abolition of the eighth amendment. This notorious clause of the Irish constitution was inserted after a referendum in 1983, which saw a narrow victory for the church. Article 40.3.3 was amended to read: “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.” In the same year Sheila Hodges died because of a refusal to terminate her pregnancy to allow her to have cancer treatment. She was two months pregnant at the time.

On September 24 this year the fifth annual March for Choice took place in Dublin, with more than 20,000 taking to the streets. Poll after poll shows support for abortion among a majority of the population. An Irish Times survey on October 7 showed 75% in favour of a referendum to remove the “right to life of the unborn” from the constitution, while another reveals that more than 1,000 women every year request the abortion pill through the Women on Web provider, based in Holland. The vast majority said they simply could not cope with a baby, either because of financial problems, relationship issues or needing to complete a college course. This study shows that Irish women actively want safe abortion for all manner of reasons and are prepared to break the law so they can get on with doing what they want with their own lives. There has been at least one prosecution of a woman who obtained the abortion pill.3

But the government does not care about the lives of women. Despite being condemned repeatedly by the United Nations for ‘human rights abuses’ against women, it is determined not to change the status quo. In opposition to the call for repeal of the eighth amendment, it has set up what it describes as a ‘Citizens Assembly’ to circumvent the problem. This body is to issue recommendations to a special government committee, which will then respond within a further six months, after which the government will have to reflect on this report - and so it goes on and on: delay and manoeuvre to frustrate the movement.

Demonstrations of tens of thousands, the mass support for abortion rights in the polls, and the thousands of women taking risks to obtain terminations are arrogantly disdained in favour of the farcical Citizens Assembly. Its 99 participants - whose identities cannot be disclosed - have been chosen to speak for the country as a whole.

It seems bizarre that this can really be happening - but it is. The most recent attempt, on October 25, by the Anti-Austerity Alliance/People Before Profit to force through a change was seen off by the Citizens Assembly ploy. Ruth Coppinger TD presented a motion calling for a referendum to repeal the eighth amendment. There were rumours of a split within one of the minority government partners, the five-member Independent Alliance. Three had previously voted in favour of liberalising the law and one of them, Katherine Zappone, had said she wants the eighth amendment repealed. But she and her two colleagues instead supported a government amendment to Coppinger’s motion, which insisted that the Citizens Assembly be allowed to “get on with its work”.

Can the government get away with this? Well, yes, if we allow it to. The problem with trying to use the Dáil to win change step by step is that it does not work. The Irish government cannot be reasoned with on this issue. It has to be forced to retreat. If there were to be a referendum, what is the question that would be put? The Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment has a number of groups involved, some of whom are in favour of the full right to choose, while others merely campaign for limited abortion rights. The campaign is based on the idea that first we abolish the eighth amendment and then we consider the alternative. However, that is not how things work. We need to campaign now for the right to choose. There should be no compromise on this question.

Nobody can decide for another what is a legitimate reason to end a pregnancy. It can only be a woman’s right to choose, in consultation with her doctor. We need to campaign for the medical facilities to be put in place and for the necessary training of doctors and other health professionals; for the immediate legalisation of the abortion pill and services, along with back-up healthcare.

The left needs to stop trying to tinker about with the status quo and instead voice our demands clearly and militantly. Women in Ireland need the right to choose now. We have seen how militancy in Poland led to a dramatic climbdown. Here in Ireland we can do the same l



1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protection_of_Life_During_Pregnancy_Act_2013

2. www.abortioninireland.org; and www.ifpa.ie.

3. www.irishtimes.com/news/health/over-5-600-irish-women-sought-abortion-pills-online-1.2831914.

Black Monday strike

On October 3, ‘Black Monday’, thousands of women took strike action and more than 100,000 women dressed in black marched through Warsaw, Łódź, Gdańsk and dozens of other towns and cities. Men helped out, cooking soup and serving sandwiches.On the streets, trams and buses of Polish cities huge numbers of women wore black in solidarity with the strike. The message was loud and defiant.

Such a militant challenge to the enormous control exercised by the ‘pro-life’ lobby was long overdue. More than two generations of Polish women have been treated like second-class citizens. Before 1993 their mothers and grandmothers had relatively unrestricted access to abortion - it was available if a woman could show she was facing ‘difficult living conditions’. This right was lost with the rise to prominence of the Catholic church in the years following the collapse of ‘official communism’.

Abortion was dramatically restricted in 1993, making it lawful only where (a) the woman’s life and health is in serious danger, (b) the pregnancy was a result of rape or incest, or (c) the foetus is seriously malformed. The result has been that less than 2,000 abortions officially take place every year - in reality women undergo risky illegal abortions or travel abroad. It is reported that between 100,000 and 150,000 Polish women travel to Germany, Slovakia and Austria for terminations every year.

But even this was not enough for the Catholic church and its supporters in government. They have waged a relentless campaign in the media, in churches and through politicians. Petitions for a ban on abortion have been a highly effective tactic of the pro-life establishment and in 2013 one campaign gathered 1.5 million signatures. A survey in the same year reported that more than half of those questioned wanted more restrictions on the current law. Polls in February 2014 suggested a hardening in attitudes, with 65% stating that they believed abortion to be “morally inappropriate”.

In such an atmosphere the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) under Jarosław Kaczyński was feeling confident. In September of this year a majority of MPs in the lower house of the Sejm (parliament) voted by a decisive majority in favour of a bill to restrict abortion to when a woman’s life is at risk - similar to the current law in Ireland. It looked very likely that the bill would become law - politicians ignored or dismissed the mass movement which had emerged in opposition to their plans. They disregarded the demonstrations and the thousands of angry women who walked out of church sermons in defiance of the clergy’s campaign of support for the ban. Polls throughout the year reflected a change in mood, with 74% of those polled in September in favour of retaining the status quo, and very significant numbers for more liberalisation.

Black Monday took the government by surprise with its intensity and militancy. Almost immediately politicians staged a massive U-turn and there were chaotic scenes in the Sejm, as some of the most rabid ‘pro-life’ PiS MPs voted against their own proposals. Some believed that the legislation had been completely scrapped, but this was an over-optimistic conclusion - the government is determined to press on. On October 12 Kaczyński vowed that he would not give up the fight to make sure that a pregnancy would be forced to continue even in cases of fatal foetal abnormality. He insisted that there must be a delivery, “so that the child can be christened and buried, and has a name”. A more misogynist position is hard to conceive. A woman must endure prolonged mental and physical pain so she can deliver a corpse for the Catholic church to bury. This sickening proposal is actually the ‘compromise solution’ that Kaczyński plans to campaign on. According to one observer, there has been a rise in the use of the term ‘eugenic abortion’, which foreshadows a new attack along the lines set out by the PiS leader