International Women’s Day Ireland 2018: Repeal and Abortion Rights – a defining struggle

International Women’s Day 2018 will be dominated by the issue of abortion on the island of Ireland, with particular focus on the South where years of agitation and mobilisation has succeeded in winning the right to a crucial referendum that is due to take place in late May. In the last five years tens of thousands have marched, students have organised to make their colleges and Student Unions’ pro-choice, the wearing of black jumpers with ‘Repeal’ emblazoned on them has become ubiquitous, and huge political pressure has been exerted by a groundswell demand from below for change. Like with Marriage Equality in 2015, a key element is the strong support among working class women.

Five years ago women and LGBTQ activists in the Socialist Party initiated ROSA, the socialist feminist movement, on International Women’s Day 2013. ROSA has been a vibrant and youthful part of the pro-choice and women’s and LGBTQ movement ever since. Furthermore, the Socialist Party was at the forefront of giving voice to this political pressure inside the Dail (parliament) pushing the call consistently for repeal the 8th amendment to the country’s constitution and abortion rights, through the intervention of Solidarity MPs, particularly Ruth Coppinger, who is viewed as one of the most fearless advocates of abortion rights and women’s rights.

A most memorable moment in the abortion rights movement was on International Women’s Day 2017, in which the call for a strike was answered by thousands of school and college students, and many workers throughout the state. Dublin city centre was shut down entirely on this day, with traffic blocked for hours on end because of the occupation of the streets by this youth movement. That evening, up to 20,000 marched to the parliament in an angry, defiant demonstration led by school students from working class areas.

International Women’s Day 2018 will also see a march on parliament for abortion rights, as women, LGBTQ, youth, trade union and community activists across the state put plans in place to build the Yes campaign and movement.

The referendum is to repeal the 8th amendment to the country’s constitution, to lift Ireland’s 35 year constitutional abortion ban. This misogynistic equation of a woman with a foetus was inserted into the Constitution at the behest of the Catholic Church. Since then, 150,000 women have travelled abroad to access abortion, at great expense and difficulty. There have also been deaths, including that of Savita Halappanavar in 2012, that kicked off a new movement that has resulted in this referendum.

In the North of Ireland, the eyes of women and young people in particular will be on events in the South. The demand for abortion rights in the North will be massively boosted if it is legalised in the South. Any repeal of the 8th amendment in the South will be a huge impetus to the demand the extension to the North of the 1967 Act that legalised abortion in Britain. Women and LGBTQ activists in the Socialist Party in the North have launched ROSA – the Socialist Feminist Movement and will be mobilising volunteers from the North to assist in the ‘Yes’ campaign in the South.

Enthusiasm for the campaign

All signs point towards a burgeoning youth revolt for a Yes vote being on the cards in the weeks and months ahead. The young generation are unapologetically pro-choice. They see abortion as a basic right and a question of bodily autonomy. 75% of those aged 18-24 support the proposal to make abortion available on request up to 12 weeks of pregnancy.

As well as for young people, this campaign is seen a seminal battle by different generations of women and working class people. The battle for abortion rights gets to the heart of the desire of the majority of people for a secular, progressive state in which the dark days of Catholic Church entanglement in the state are gone for ever. In ROSA’s campaign launch video, this is summed up by the declaration:
“The anti-choice brigade’s Ireland was one of the slavery of poor women in Magdalene Laundries, the mass graves of Mother and Baby Homes, the torturous practice of Symphysiotomy (a brutal alternative to Caesarean section), and a contraception ban. That was their time – it’s our time now! Be part of making history in 2018; join ROSA’s YES campaign: – for abortion rights, for bodily autonomy, for freedom and equality!”

Abortion up to 12 weeks on request plus the abortion pill!

The political establishment in Ireland is innately socially backward. The parties of the capitalist establishment have been complicit in all the crimes mentioned above of a ‘priest-ridden’ state, as the writer James Joyce facetiously called it. Considering this, what is particularly noteworthy and important is that the Government has indicated that, should repeal happen, it will pass legislation that caters not only for abortion for health reasons, but also for abortion on request for up to 12 weeks of pregnancy, which would cater for 92% of all abortions wanted. The idea would be that the majority of abortions could be provided by local GPs via the abortion pills, making access to abortion a reality. This would represent a huge victory.

How has this happened? As recently as 2013, legislation was passed that reasserted Ireland’s abortion ban and allowed for a 14 year prison sentence for anyone having or aiding an illegal abortion (abortion in which one’s life is not in immediate danger). Ever since then demands for change from below have been rebuffed by an approach from the media and politicians that only legislation which dealt with the ‘hard cases’ of rape and fatal foetal abnormality would be accepted.

Firstly, the Government established a ‘Citizens’ Assembly’ early last year made up of 99 citizens selected by a polling company to make recommendations on the 8th amendment and abortion. They were trying to ensure its conclusions would be significantly less than the sentiment developing in society, as a whole. Essentially, this backfired on the political and media establishment. The 99 people, when they were presented with all the facts surrounding abortion, chose to endorse a pro-choice position. Recommendations included up to 12 weeks of pregnancy on request, up to 22 weeks for ‘socio-economic reasons’ and a plethora of other progressive proposals including a comprehensive roll out of quality sex education and free contraception. This was a huge fillip to the pro-choice movement, presenting an opportunity to ensure that repeal meant abortion rights in reality, not just more restrictive legislation.

The conclusions were hugely influenced by the campaign of civil disobedience with the abortion pills, waged since 2014 by ROSA in conjunction with The Abortion Pill Train, and subsequent abortion pill buses sought to make a mockery of Irish abortion law by aiding access to safe abortion with pills, and illustrating that every day people were accessing abortions in this very state, despite the ban. The actions got enormous national and international coverage and became a factor in and of themselves. As more and more people learned of the abortion pills, more and more began to use them safely in Ireland. ROSA very consciously chose to highlight the pills, precisely to cut across a concerted attempt by the whole establishment to ignore the reality that women get abortions every day for many reasons. They failed in their thinly veiled attempt to make the public discussion and future legislation all about the ‘hard cases’ only.

A prominent political correspondent for state television said himself that the task of the Parliamentary Committee established to consider the Citizens’ Assembly recommendations would be to ‘water down’ the Assembly’s proposals. As a result, the intervention of the Socialist Party’s Ruth Coppinger on the Dail (parliamentary) committee was laser focused on the ‘12 weeks on request’ proposal.

Ruth was instrumental in making the abortion pills (that can be taken up to 12 weeks of pregnancy) a central feature of the Dail Committee by calling Abigail Aiken from the University of Texas to present her findings. Aiken has carried out ground-breaking research on the use of abortion pills from on the island of Ireland. Aiken’s research laid bare the reality that there are now five women a day accessing safe abortions with pills, as well as the ten each day who travel abroad. Part of Aiken’s research indicated that ROSA’s civil disobedience actions played a very important role in increasing knowledge about how to access these pills. Aiken’s intervention on the Parliamentary Committee has been widely recognised as revelatory: the fact that abortion is a reality in Ireland makes it very hard to continue to advocate even a partial ban!

The pro-choice movement as a whole, and the ground-breaking civil disobedience led by ROSA with the abortion pills in particular, have provided a context for the historically conservative medical establishment to shift its position, with important figures becoming more vocal about the need for legal change. The intervention of medical professionals also made an impactful on the Dail Committee, particularly the comments by Dr. Peter Boylan, former Master of the National Maternity Hospital. He made a strong argument for 12 weeks on request, saying that now, with the abortion pills, “the genie is out of the bottle”. The outcome of the Dail Committee included both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael deputies (but not Sinn Fein, which is noteworthy) voting for 12 weeks on request, all citing the use of the abortion pills as a crucial factor in their vote.

It was always stated that if the 8th Amendment was to be repealed, it would be appropriate to make clear what abortion legislation would come into effect when it is gone. As it stands, the Government has now said it is drawing up legislation based on these Committee recommendations. However, the Tanaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) has expressed his own opposition to 12 weeks on request, and enquiries into the positions of the various MPs indicates that it will be very tight getting the legislation passed through the Dail. That’s why the type of ‘Yes’ campaign that is waged, and how decisive a ‘Yes’ vote there is, are very pertinent as they could play a role in pushing the politicians to endorse the legislation.

#Time4Choice – ROSA’s Yes Campaign

ROSA, with Socialist Party activists playing a major role, has launched its Yes campaign, called #Time4Choice. This campaign will seek to aid the building of a major grassroots movement of young people, women, LGBTQ people, community and workplace activists to deliver a ‘Yes’ to abortion rights. Crucially, #Time4Choice will positively make the case to respect the difficult decision people make every day to get an abortion, and to allow women and trans people to make that decision privately, without legal / financial etc. barriers to access and with medical assistance. #Time4Choice will argue positively for the 12 weeks on request proposal. If it’s clear that people are voting ‘Yes’, not only for repeal, but also to support the enacting of abortion rights in a major popular vote, it will make it politically very difficult for politicians to stand in the way in a vote on the legislation.

The nature of the ‘Yes’ campaign is an important question. Despite the conservatism of these parties, you will have the paradox of major parties of the political establishment being on the ‘Yes’ side, but their individual MPs in many cases being deeply conservative on the abortion issue, at best lukewarm about, at worst utterly opposed to a 12 weeks on request law. These politicians will be incapable of delivering a ‘Yes’ vote. The political establishment will not be able to answer the fear-mongering of the anti-choice campaign that will play on the utterly justified hatred of the Dail and politicians in its campaign. Nothing can be guaranteed in terms of the result. The Citizen’s Assembly has shifted the debate from repeal to abortion. There has been a hesitancy to have a real debate on the substantive issue, but now the case for abortion needs to be made. A grassroots movement, entirely independent of the political establishment that positively advocates for abortion rights is the best way to guarantee a successful repeal of the 8th.

Crucial weeks ahead and the need for a socialist feminist movement

We are facing a potentially historic few months in the run up to the abortion referendum (with 25 May as the most likely date). A ‘Yes’ would be celebrated by women and the working class, in general, and by a generation of young people who are saying that ‘Time’s Up’ for misogyny and the backward state. A grassroots movement to achieve such a victory would be an immensely politicising and radicalising event. The stronger the ‘Yes’ and the more it is seen to be an endorsement of ‘12 weeks’, the more pressure on politicians to vote it in. A yes vote, but with a tight margin, would likely see some in the political establishment argue for a pull back on this promised legislation after repeal. Further civil disobedience with the abortion pills can force the issue.

ROSA and Socialist Party activists, when building the #Time4Choice campaign will be seeking to build the greatest possible organised socialist-feminist force in the course of the ‘Yes’ campaign and to continue the struggle against all sexism, oppression and inequality after the referendum. Such a struggle is strongest when it is combined with an anti-capitalist and socialist programme that seeks to tear down all power inequities and injustices in society, including wealth inequality. The private ownership of wealth needs to be challenged to resolve the housing crisis, precarity of jobs and low pay at work, provide free quality public childcare and services — all absolutely vital to create the basis for equality for working and poor women. Women playing a leading role in such a working class struggle can also ensure that their issues become part and parcel of that movement, including challenging sexist culture.

Fundamentally, the pro-choice movement is part of a broader struggle to separate Church and State – to get the Catholic Church out of state hospitals and schools. This is a huge task as, for example, over 90% of state primary schools are still under the patronage of the Catholic Church, as are the majority of secondary schools, as well as most public hospitals. The political establishment in Ireland has no intention of provoking a major clash with the Catholic Church on this question. For example, last year the Minister for Health was about to hand over a brand new maternity hospital to the control of the Church, and only was forced to pull back due to public outrage. In some towns, new ‘Educate Together’ primary schools are being instructed by the Department of Education to curtail how many new students they take on, in order to ensure that the other state schools in the town that are under Catholic patronage do not contract in size.

In this way, feminist and LGBTQ struggles for secular schools that roll out progressive, LGBTQ-inclusive sex education with an emphasis on consent, have a direct interest in campaigning for a left government that sweeps out the conservative political establishment. Such a government would have the full separation of church and state at the heart of its programme, alongside an anti-capitalist and socialist challenge to wealth inequality, and the neo-liberal economic status quo.

Capitalism as a system rests upon women’s oppression and requires a global challenge to it. Globally Oxfam estimates that women’s unpaid work amounted to ten trillion US dollars in 2017. In this, we can see that women’s oppression is stitched into the very fabric of the profit system. The capitalist system has a vested interest in promoting sexist ideas, as a justification for this reality. And of course the oppression of women allows the profit-driven nature of capitalism another way to make profits. Industries like the sex industry both feed off and profit from sexism and exacerbate it, by promoting sexist ideas in society.

The global capitalist system requires a global challenge. The young people fighting for repeal and abortion rights in Ireland are following the global movements from #MeToo to #NiUnaMenos in Latin America and the fight against an abortion ban in Poland. Winning this generation to the global socialist movement and the CWI is an absolute priority for the Socialist Party in Ireland.

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March 2018