Ireland and abortion: ULA chickens out

It is a disgrace that the left refuses to campaign openly for abortion on demand, says Anne Mc Shane

Intense controversy has been sparked by the Irish government’s announcement on December 18 that it will legislate for limited abortion in the new year. It has actually been hugely out of proportion to the decision itself.

The Catholic church reacted quickly and furiously, absurdly stating that this would be the first step on the way to a “culture of death” in Ireland.1 In fact the legislation would mean little change compared to the current position, where abortion is permitted in very limited circumstances: when there is a ‘real and substantial’ threat to the life of the mother. The only real difference will be that ‘threat to the life of the mother’ will now include suicide. It is this that has set the church and its allies into convulsions of rage. We are told that Irish women will abuse this legislation. They are implicitly deviant and manipulative by nature, and able to pull the wool over the eyes of psychiatrists. Irish women are so eager to bring about the “intentional killing of unborn children” that they will successfully feign suicidal ideation.2

A leading spokesperson for the church, bishop Leo O’Reilly, claimed that this would mean the beginning of the end for Irish society - it “would be a radical change in the culture of life we have had in this country ... it would be an irrevocable change: there would not be any going back”.3

It is to be hoped that these scare tactics, aimed at frightening the waverers back into the arms of the church, will backfire. Over the last few months there has been an intense campaign, with leaflets, posters, pastoral letters and fiery speeches from the pulpit. People leaving Sunday mass have reported being harangued by campaigners from the wondrously misnamed Youth Defence. Facebook advertising and billboards show pictures of bouncing babies and falsification about the reality of abortion.

People in Ireland will also remember the systematic abuse of children by the clergy for decades. Working class and disabled children were treated with contempt. They were starved and abused, physically and sexually, in industrial schools and residential homes. Now the bishops who protected the abusers and threatened families who complained pretend to really care about children. But when they cry crocodile tears about the ‘killing of the unborn’, what they are in reality bemoaning is loss of their own control over the lives of women.

The government is beset by crisis over the legislation, with up to 20 Fine Gael TDs threatening to vote against. They and their allies in the church have called for a free vote over this “matter of conscience”. Fine Gael has been targeted by the Life Institute, Youth Defence and a whole plethora of well-funded and sophisticated pro-life organisations. These organisations peddle myths and scare stories presented as independent medical facts. Their key manoeuvre is to allege that the legislation is the first step on the road to abortion on demand. Pretending to be suicidal will soon give way to actually demanding control over your own fertility.

The focus on medical opinion is confusing and contradictory. It is also a diversion from addressing the needs of real women. The death of Savita Halappanavar in Galway Hospital in October revealed the human face of the victims of Ireland’s repressive laws. It showed a woman who asked repeatedly for a termination being denied because there was still a foetal heartbeat. By the time her life was deemed to be at risk, it was too late.

It is said that the problem for Savita was that the leading doctors in Galway are anti-abortion. However, this is a problem that is replicated in many hospitals. The church continues to run the majority of institutions and exerts huge influence over psychiatrists, obstetricians and gynaecologists. Doctors for Choice is one honourable exception, which campaigns for free and safe abortion at the request of the woman. One of their leading members, Mary Favier, has been at the forefront of demanding this right.

If, or when, this legislation is passed it will change nothing for most women in need of an abortion. The vast majority will continue to look abroad. This means an expensive and stressful journey to Britain, Holland or Denmark. A first-trimester abortion in Britain or Holland can cost between €1,000 and €2,000, including travelling expenses. A lot of money for any woman, but particularly students and part-time workers. Banks and credit unions have closed their doors to people on low incomes. The situation is very serious.4

However, women continue to travel anyway. Between 12 and 20 go abroad every day for abortion - up to 7,000 a year. They range from teenagers to the middle-aged. All women who for whatever reason need to end their pregnancy. Some, possibly younger, women are turning to illegally imported abortion pills as a way to avoid the expense of travelling. However, this has major safety risks - they are used without any medical supervision or back-up.

ULA response

The mealy-mouthed response of the United Left Alliance to the government announcement is a disgrace. Instead of adopting a clear pro-choice position, the ULA has fudged the question. In its press release it welcomed the government decision and urged immediate legislation, but deliberately obscured the demand for abortion on demand. According to the statement, the “vast majority of the population agree that a risk to the health of a woman should be grounds for the right to an abortion. The majority also think a woman should be able to terminate a pregnancy arising from rape or incest, or where the foetus has a fatal abnormality. Many think that it should be up to a woman, in consultation with her doctor, to decide if she should continue with a pregnancy. We support all of these arguments - which give women the choice.”5

But a woman’s right to choose is not the same thing as being allowed an abortion on the say-so of doctors and psychiatrists. Why should a woman have to be a victim of rape or incest or prove she is suicidal, as the press release seems to imply? Is the ULA setting itself up as a moral guardian, believing that women should have to prove their desperation in accordance with a few ‘legitimate’ categories? Presumably women who want an abortion because they cannot afford another baby, because they are a teenager in school, in the middle of a marriage break-up or for any of the many other personal reasons will still have to go abroad. If the ULA really supports abortion on demand, why did it sneak it in at the end of a list of other, hopelessly restricted, options?

In practice it is in contradiction with the ULA’s official position. Before the branch delegate meeting in November there had been no policy on the question. But the Savita case had put the ULA under pressure to take a stand. A motion from the Galway branch stated that the ULA stands for full freedom of reproductive choice. Another from North Kildare branch declared: “The United Left Alliance affirms a woman’s right to choose whatever happens to her own body. We believe that society - through the state - should provide free assistance and support to anyone seeking it, in a confidential and supportive environment. This must include providing free and completely unfettered access to state-funded pregnancy-termination procedures and post-procedure support.” Both were passed with no opposition from the leadership. However, almost immediately the backtracking began.

In arguments on the question on the ULA non-aligned email forum, I have been accused of wanting to impose a ‘maximalist’ position on the pro-abortion campaign. It has also been argued that I am being formalistic by insisting that because the ULA has a pro-choice position it should actually build a campaign on that basis. I am told that it is better to ride with the tide of public opinion and go for the middle ground. We should tack onto what is most popular among the general population.

The ULA is putting a lot of store by a recent poll, conducted by Red C on behalf of the Sunday Business Post. This reported that 85% supported abortion in the terms of the government legislation (although, rather contradictorily, 63% also said they were against any extension of abortion rights, even on grounds of suicide), while 82% supported abortion also in cases of rape. It is this 82% that the ULA is depending on to make its arguments for extending the legitimate grounds for abortion. But what about the 36% who favoured abortion on demand? Surely that is a good starting point for a principled campaign.6

To me this poll shows that, despite the obvious contradictions, there has been a change in attitude and that there is now a significant part of the population which is pro-choice. This can only mean that the situation is very fluid and that the argument is still there to be won. The ULA seems to think that the shift in public opinion will guarantee increasingly progressive legislation. But it has not counted on the determination of the church and its supporters.

The only way to take on this question is through a clear call for a woman’s right to choose. I have heard a number of pro-choice activists flinch at the accusation that we are for abortion on demand. But why? Abortion on demand simply means that a woman is entitled to choose for herself. The decision should not be up to psychiatrists or doctors or politicians. Men never face such issues about their own health or decisions. Pro-choice activists should be ready to fight back with clear calls for choice. They need to reassert what abortion on demand means, and clearly expose the scare stories of the pro-lifers for what they are. Avoiding this question is opportunism and ignores the plight of the thousands of women who travel abroad every year because they feel they have no other option.

Meanwhile, the Socialist Party has been making great play of the fact that it is apparently on the left of the ULA when it comes to this issue. It is also upset at the continuing connection between Clare Daly TD (ex-SP) and Mick Wallace, a maverick independent TD. To that end, the organisation announced on its website on December 14 that “we will be diminishing our participation in the ULA”.7 What this means is not clear. Apparently Joe Higgins, the SP’s remaining TD, will vote with the ULA when it suits. Presumably the SP will no longer do any organisational work or help build the alliance. Perhaps its comrades will still come along to national steering committee meetings to keep an eye on things.

It is a sectarian move, guaranteed to undermine the ULA still further. The fact that the SP uses abortion as one of its reasons for this step is truly ironic. There has been no mention of the question from the SP in any of its ULA election literature, including that of Ruth Coppinger, who is now its spokeswoman on the issue. And the organisation has been at the forefront of calls to allow abortion in cases of rape, incest health, etc, thus in reality undermining the pro-choice position. It is clear that the SP has cynically used this serious issue as a posture to justify its effective withdrawal from the ULA.

The Woman’s Right to Choose group and other activists remain determined to fight for choice as a principle. There will be a national meeting in January, when I and others will fight for that to be the leading slogan of the campaign. It is a principle and should be a right. We will fight for the immediate scrapping of the eighth amendment and, in the words of last month’s resolution, for “free and completely unfettered access to state-funded pregnancy-termination procedures and post-procedure support”. To the church and its supporters we respond in the words of that well-known slogan: ‘Keep your rosaries off my ovaries!’


1. www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/breaking/2012/1219/breaking1.html.

2. www.rte.ie/news/2012/1219/abortion.html.

3. www.rte.ie/news/2012/1219/abortion.html.

4. www.abortioninireland.org.

5. www.claredaly.ie/united-left-alliance-statement.

6. www.businesspost.ie/#!story/Home/News/Red+C+poll%3A+majority+demand+X+case+legislation/id/78241919-150b-a2a0-577f-97741195800.

7. www.socialistparty.net/component/content/article/1-latest-news/1103-the-socialist-party-a-the-political-position-a-operation-of-the-ula.