Choice over the Future

Issue section: 
Issue: 
(261)

Women are fighting for the right to choose in Ireland's abortion referendum.

As the politicians yet again drag the abortion question into the political limelight, it is worth reflecting on the startling contradictions confronting women in Ireland in 2002. The Celtic Tiger was virtually built on the contribution of vast numbers of working women. The resulting financial independence, albeit poorly paid, has brought independence in all sorts of other areas. The constant rise each year in the numbers of women seeking abortions, and a slow but sure increase in the numbers saying publicly that they have had abortions, is part of a greater confidence on the part of women.

In stark contrast to this, Irish women in legal terms are still second class citizens who are meant to aspire to domestic duties only, who get paid three quarters of what men earn, and whose full personhood is curtailed by a supposed 'unborn child'. It is this hypocrisy that Fianna Fail and the Progressive Democrats wish to foist upon us yet again in the proposed abortion referendum due in March.

Under Fianna Fail leader Bertie Ahern's proposed Human Life in Pregnancy Bill, a woman will not have access to abortion in Ireland unless she is guaranteed to die during the exact term of the pregnancy rather than months or years later. If this bill is passed pregnant women will receive medical treatment that doctors consider necessary to literally save their lives but no more. Suicidal feelings will be completely prohibited as grounds for abortion.

This month is the tenth anniversary of the X case, when a 14 year old pregnant girl who had been raped and was suicidal was dragged through the Irish courts in an attempt to prevent her from travelling to Britain to obtain an abortion. A huge outcry ensued, and day after day thousands of people took to the streets demanding that she should be allowed have an abortion. The Supreme Court not only overturned the injunction preventing her from leaving Ireland, but also ruled that Ms X could have an abortion in Ireland because the continuance of her pregnancy posed a 'real and substantial risk' to her life from suicide.

The X case rocked Irish society to its foundations and changed it irrevocably. Many people came to rethink their position on a whole series of issues from divorce to the role of the Catholic church in Irish society. That same year the government held a referendum where people voted in favour of the right to travel abroad for an abortion and the right to information on abortion. Most importantly they voted against Fianna Fail (Ireland's Tory party) and the anti-abortion right's attempt to restrict suicide as grounds for seeking an abortion in Ireland. In other words, people voted for limited legal abortion in Ireland where the woman was suicidal.

The Fianna Fail government at the time promised to legislate in accordance with the Supreme Court ruling but did nothing. Ten years and three governments later, including a coalition government in which Labour held the balance of power, nothing has happened.

Now the right wing are attempting to overturn the X case and introduce even more draconian legislation on abortion. But this referendum is about a broader strategy than just limiting abortion rights for Irish women. Fianna Fail is using the referendum to rebuild a popular base for right wing politics. It understands that parties such as Labour and Sinn Fein are reticent on the issue, and it wants to put them on the back foot before the general election in May. Fianna Fail has indicated that after attacking women's rights it plans to attack the rights of asylum seekers by preventing children born to asylum seekers in Ireland from obtaining Irish citizenship.

Sinn Fein has been virtually silent on the issue since the referendum was announced. Labour is only campaigning on the issue of suicidal women having abortions, and have refused to label themselves pro-choice despite having a mandate from their recent conference to campaign for pro-choice legislation. Their spokesperson on health, Liz McManus, demanded an apology when she was labelled pro-choice in the Dail recently. Socialists are arguing that bishops and politicians have no right to force Irish women to travel to Britain for an abortion to suit the state's hypocrisy.

Criminal offence

The net effect of this legislation will be to dilute the right to life of the pregnant woman and make it less than equal with that of the foetus. A new criminal offence will be introduced where women who attempt to abort their own foetus and/or anyone who helps or advises them will face up to 12 years imprisonment. This all means that if this referendum wins Ireland will have an anti-abortion regime comparable only to Iran or Afghanistan.

Abortion is a reality in Ireland, no matter how many referenda the government holds. The vast majority of women choose abortions because they do not want a child at that particular time in their lives. At least 150,000 Irish women, North and South, have had abortions in Britain in the last 25 years. 'The Women in Crisis Pregnancy Research' in the South and 'The Other Irish Journey' in the North found that most women told two or three others about their trip. These figures suggest that some half a million people have had an abortion or supported someone in having one. In fact more Irish women have abortions per head of population than women in Holland or Denmark, where abortion is almost available on demand.

In the South politicians are content to allow 19 women to travel to Britain every day for an abortion, and they are at pains to point out that this referendum will not restrict that right. But for thousands of Irish women every year, travelling to Britain is simply not an option because they cannot afford it.

The position of socialists is pro-choice. We are for the right to have a child or not to have a child. 'Protect women and children' is Fianna Fail's slogan. But it has done nothing for women and children. In the last budget single parents got an increase of less than £8 in state aid. There are a mere nine state creches in the whole of Ireland, and the cost of childcare is increasing monthly, with the average parent paying £137 per week to have their child looked after. The leading children's hospital in Ireland has not received state investment since 1978.

Irish women will not be forced back into the official comely maiden/virgin mother mould. Furthermore, the bishops coming out in favour of the referendum may just be the kiss of death for it. Increasing cynicism towards formal Catholic teaching on the issue has chipped away at the shame women once felt about these issues.

An identical referendum was defeated in 1992, and limited abortion rights were won when women and men took to the streets and fought. More and more people are realising the class dimension that determines a woman's access to abortion, and that abortion is part of Irish women's lives today. This is how a no vote--and a woman's right to choose--will be won.