site-campaign-small

The Abortion Referendum in Ireland

PrintE-mail
The Irish population in a referendum has just rejected a government move to further restrict women's limited access to abortions. This is a blow for the reactionaries but the right to abortion is still out of reach for most Irish women, being available only to those who can afford to travel to Britain.

"It is a paradox that so much passion and energy should be invested on behalf of the unborn in a state that is confronted daily with its failure to provide for the weakest and most vulnerable of its living. The elderly and dying are jostled about on hospital trolleys. The disabled and their helpers struggle for basic rights. The accident and emergency system is daily and nightly in crisis at the hospitals." (Irish Times editorial, March 5, 2002)

To have an abortion has been a criminal offence in Ireland since 1861. The referendum which has just taken place however, was not aimed at changing that to grant women the right to have an abortion. In recent years there has been some extremely limited reform introduced to allow victims of rape whose own lives are endangered by the threat of suicide arising from their experience of that horrific and violent crime, to legally get an abortion. Now, in 2002 this so-called civilised western democracy, a fully signed-up member of the EU, has attempted to reverse even this.

Almost ten years to the day since 10,000 people marched to demand the right of a young teenage rape victim to have an abortion, the people of Ireland were asked to vote in a referendum for an amendment which would have ruled out the risk of suicide being an acceptable medical reason to allow an abortion to go ahead.

With a turnout of over 40%, this reactionary amendment has been rejected, though only by a narrow majority of just 10,000 votes. To have passed this referendum would have been a major step backwards - a cruel blow to one of the most vulnerable sections of society. Therefore the No vote was important. However, it solves nothing for thousands of women in Ireland. It simply maintains the status quo.

Approximately 7,000 Irish abortions take place every year in Britain. This referendum will not change that. If the government were serious about reducing the number of unwanted or "crisis pregnancies", they would make a start by investing seriously in a programme of education and provide access to information, contraception, etc. They have consistently failed to do even this. There is no chance of them getting to grips with the real social problems at the heart of all the difficulties confronting ordinary working people in Ireland. Decent affordable housing, full employment on a living wage, better education and health services - these are the rights we must fight for. Inevitably such a fight will bring us into conflict with the capitalist system which has clearly demonstrated in its best period, the lengthy economic boom which saw the press label Ireland the Celtic Tiger, that it cannot afford these basics of civilisation for the majority.

The referendum result illustrates that a sea change is taking place in public opinion. Current abortion legislation in Ireland stems from an amendment to the constitution in 1983 which asserts: "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."

After certain struggles over the right to distribute information describing how to get an abortion abroad in the 1980s, Ireland signed up to the Maastricht Treaty on European union after receiving an assurance that this would not affect the country's strict abortion laws. Many readers outside of Ireland may be unaware of these strict laws, so we will quote them here even though these references might make the text a little laborious.

Then in 1992 came the X case. Justice Costello granted an injunction in the High Court preventing a 14-year-old girl, pregnant as a result of rape, from travelling to the UK for an abortion. The matter had come to the attention of the Attorney General when the Gardaí were consulted about getting DNA samples in anticipation of criminal charges. He obtained the injunction to prevent her travelling. There followed an appeal in the Supreme Court.

By a majority of three to two, the court found that, if there was a real and substantial risk to the life, as distinct from the health, of the mother, and that this risk could only be averted by the termination of her pregnancy, this would be lawful. It accepted that there was a real danger that she would commit suicide if she had to carry the child to full term, and that this therefore constituted a real risk to her life. The court lifted the injunction.

The constitution was amended again at the end of 1992 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.

"This subsection shall not limit freedom to travel between the State and another state.

"This subsection shall not limit freedom to obtain or make available, in the State, subject to such conditions as may be laid down by law, information relating to services lawfully available in another state."

In other words the law on abortion could not prevent someone from travelling abroad, or prevent them reading about abortion. It did not however, make it legal to travel abroad to have an abortion.

This was followed in 1997 by the C case. In the C case another raped and pregnant teenager - in the care of the Eastern Health Board - sought an abortion in the UK. This case differed from the X case in that the victim's parents opposed her decision to travel to the UK for an abortion. They had sought an injunction preventing the board from taking her to the UK. Basing themselves on the judgement in the X case the court ruled that she could travel. However, the judge also commented: "The amended Constitution does not now confer a right to abortion outside of Ireland. It merely prevents injunctions against travelling for that purpose."

Even after these changes, which are barely even a minimum of a civilised approach, women remain a long way from obtaining the right to have an abortion in Ireland. These raped teenagers, left suicidal by the trauma they experienced, were allowed to travel to the UK for an abortion.

Recent polls have consistently demonstrated that most people now believe that the option of abortion should be available to women at least in certain circumstances. A poll in Ireland on Sunday (October 2001) showed that 49% of women and men want access to abortion to be made easier rather than harder. This shift in opinion is particularly marked among the young and among women. Sixty percent of women aged 18-34 believe that there should be easier access to abortion facilities.

A poll in the Irish Independent (December 2001) showed that only one in five voters backed a total ban on abortion and that 44 percent backed the Supreme Court's decision in the X case.

Now we have the result of the real poll, the referendum. Notably the No vote was much higher in the main urban centres, especially in Dublin where all 11 constituencies rejected the amendment. This was repeated in other cities like Cork, Limerick and Galway. Meanwhile there was a substantial majority voting Yes in many rural areas. There were complaints too that whilst campaigning is not permitted in or around polling booths many people were confronted by copies of the bible on the registration table in polling stations.

The main purpose of this referendum was an attempt to roll back the Supreme Court ruling by specifically excluding suicide risk as grounds for an abortion. They have failed. The referendum proposed to add two new sub-sections to Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution, quoted above, which asserts the equal right to life of the mother and the unborn. A new Article 40.3.4 stated: "In particular, the life of the unborn in the womb shall be protected in accordance with the provisions of the Protection of Human Life in Pregnancy Act, 2002." Another new Article, 40.3.5, proposed that this Act could not be changed unless approved by the people in a new referendum. The main provisions of this "Protection of Human Life in Pregnancy Bill" were: The threat of suicide, based on the X case, would be removed as a ground for abortion; Abortion will be defined as the intentional destruction by any means of unborn human life after implantation in the womb (this definition presumes that the IUD and the morning-after pill would be legally protected, yet there is no doubt that had the amendment been carried there would have been legal challenges about the use of these forms of contraception); A procedure carried out by a medical practitioner at an approved place to prevent a real and substantial risk of the loss of a woman's life, other than by self-destruction, will not be regarded as an abortion; Anyone aiding or procuring an abortion will be liable for up to 12 years' imprisonment.

The government claimed that if the so-called loophole whereby suicidal women were entitled to an abortion was not closed, then women, presumably with the collusion of the mental health profession, would literally be queuing up to pretend that they were suicidal in order to obtain abortions for a myriad of "social reasons". This type of filthy scare mongering is nothing new.

At the time of the X case there was a disgusting smear campaign against the victim. A book published by Human Life International, The X Case: How Abortion was Brought to Ireland, claimed to reveal the "lies and manipulation" behind the case. Father Michael Cleary, on his Dublin local radio talk show in June 1993, claimed that the X case was "a model…planned deliberately to test the amendment" and that there was a great deal of organisation behind it.

The meaning of this was clear: the victim (a 14-year-old girl who had been raped, remember) was a liar acting out a role on behalf of sinister pro-abortion forces. What a nauseating mixture of reaction and cynicism! This same outlook, couched in the more subtle language of legalese, was behind the proposed constitutional amendment which has now been rejected.

Michael McDowell, the Attorney General who drafted the amendment, has explicitly stated that women will lie about rape simply to get an abortion.

In July 2000 he was reported as saying that allowing women who have been made pregnant as a result of rape to have abortions "might lead to a series of false accusations of rape if the means of access to abortion in Ireland were to be made an accusation of rape."

"It might be thought there would be a temptation to characterise sexual intercourse on an occasion giving rise to a pregnancy as non-consensual with a view to availing of that right."

The Attorney General is a "civilised" man and his language is much more polite than that of Father Michael Cleary. But the view of women is the same. They are manipulative liars who will make false accusations of rape simply in order to get an abortion. The vicious slur on the victim in the X case is made vaguer but it remains at the core of the amendment.

So rape is left out of the legal equation because in the words of our civilised friend the Attorney General, women would make up allegations. Similarly they wanted to remove the threat of suicide from the equation because girls and women would cynically and falsely claim to be suicidal.

As the Irish Times asked on March 5: "Has any Western democracy ever been asked to enshrine such a bleak, cruel view of half of its citizens into its fundamental law?" So much for so-called civilisation. What an illustration of the failure of the Irish bourgeoisie to take society forward in the eighty years since independence.

In fact the proposal to discard a woman's possible suicide as a basis for abortion is nothing short of barbaric. Both the young women in the X and C cases were suicidal because of the circumstances surrounding their pregnancies. Their lives had literally been torn apart. And they are not the only ones to have suffered in this way. Incidentally, ten years on and the perpetrator of that heinous crime has again been convicted of raping a teenage girl.

The Irish government has exposed its reactionary hypocrisy. Their position is that such problems must be exported out of sight. A section of the Irish establishment have more or less accepted that abortion is "tolerable", provided the Irish women who have abortions get them abroad. So essentially the only time you can have an abortion is when it is not an abortion but a life-saving operation, or when it is abroad, where a blind eye can be turned.

This whole approach is disgustingly dishonest.

The government claims that its legislation will give legal protection to "medical procedures" (i.e. abortions) carried out to "prevent a real and substantial risk of loss of the woman's life". In reality, abortions which are necessary to save women's lives are carried out regularly in Irish hospitals under the constitutional provision guaranteeing women an "equal right to life". The freedom to travel and to receive information is hardly something to brag about and, in any case, these basic democratic rights were already won in the 1992 abortion referendum.

Moreover, it is important to make the distinction between the freedom to travel and the right to travel. Freedom to travel means little to a woman who cannot afford hundreds of euros to go to get an abortion in Britain. This clearly discriminates against women on the basis of their class. Working-class women are therefore oppressed on two levels - firstly as workers, like the rest of us - but also as women, and we have seen here the attitude the ruling class displays towards women.

Clearly, neither the government nor the so-called pro-life groups give a damn about women, some of whom could be the victims of terrible crimes. Ahern now declares that there will be no new legislation until after a new election. The government has cynically used this referendum to hold on to the support of their coalition partners and to play to the prejudices of what they see as their bedrock support in these forthcoming elections.

Abortion for tens of thousands of women in Ireland already has been or will be a reality. Legislation should not be introduced that denies that reality. On the contrary, women who find themselves in the position of requiring an abortion, for whatever reason, should get assistance not a tar brush and feathers.

There are very many reasons, medical, social and economic why women feel that they can't go through with a pregnancy and therefore abortion should be legalised. Contrary to the despicable opinions expressed by the ruling class, women are not going to treat abortion in a light-minded manner. There must be the right to have an abortion; that doesn't mean we want women to have abortions. The women facing such a choice undoubtedly "want" an abortion least of all. There is no right to choose in a society that does not provide women or anyone else with the right to a job, the right to a home, the right to education and a decent life. The reactionaries who present a woman's right to abortion as a choice similar to selecting different goods from a supermarket shelf are very keen on the right to life before birth, and on the right to life after death; what they care less about it seems is the right of the majority to live while they are alive.

No-one can pretend that abortion is a good thing. We want a society free from the desperate social conditions, the poverty, the lack of housing, adequate childcare and so on which leads to unwanted pregnancy. More, we want a society where the relations between men and women are freed from the impositions of economics. A society where humanity can flourish, no longer restricted by the constraints imposed by prejudice and oppression. We want a society where the right of abortion would increasingly not need to be used. We are fighting for such a socialist society. Until it is established however, we must fight too for every basic right and reform which can improve the conditions of life for ordinary working people.

The southern bourgeoisie stands absolutely condemned for its complete inability to develop Irish society. The result of this referendum demonstrates that a return to the restrictions of the past will not be tolerated by ordinary Irish men and women. In fact, there is a growing desire for social change in Ireland which cannot be satisfied by the capitalist system.

This system uses a million and one devices to hold back, deceive and divide the working class. It ruthlessly uses religion, race and gender for this purpose. Capitalism is a system mired in exploitation and oppression. The exploitation and oppression of women is inextricably linked to the class system. It can only be ended by a wholesale transformation of society and the building of a new socialist world.

History & Theory » Topics » Women & Marxism