Pamphlet: Winning Repeal & Abortion Rights
Introduction: Abortion is a Rights Issue
By Ruth Coppinger TD
Those who want abortion banned refer to themselves as ‘pro-life’. In fact, abortion bans result in the deaths of women. Such ‘pro-lifers’ despicably and ludicrously brand a huge proportion of women as murderers. On a global level, one in three women will have an abortion over the course of their lifetime. Abortion is one of the most common medical procedures in the world.
Access to safe abortion is a right. It is a right for women. It is a right for trans non-binary and trans men that can get pregnant too. In order for that right to be fully vindicated, it needs to be provided publicly, free of cost in order to ensure equality of access. Here are some reasons:
Banning abortion does not mean less abortions happen. It just means that women and pregnant people seek clandestine abortions, be they safe or unsafe. In Ireland, 160,000+ have travelled to access safe and legal abortion abroad since 1983. Where safe options are not possible, unsafe abortions result in the maiming and deaths of women, with 47,000 deaths annually around the world due to unsafe abortions. This is most common in poorer countries, and within all states it is the poorest and most marginalised that are pushed to resort to unsafe abortions. In this way, access to safe abortion is always good for women’s health, and good for the health of trans non-binary people and trans men who need access to abortion services.
In Ireland, the constitutional abortion ban is an inevitable denigration of women’s health. In 2010, doctors at Cork University Hospital advised Michelle Harte, who required treatment for cancer, to get an abortion, but then refused to carry one out. Michelle Harte had to travel to Britain in the throes of serious illness to access an abortion. Michelle Harte returned to Cork to continue cancer treatment and sadly died of that illness.
Bodily Autonomy & Human Rights
In a 2013 report, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment, Juan E. Méndez, stated that the denial of access to abortion can cause “tremendous and lasting physical and emotional suffering”. The report makes the call for legal access to abortion worldwide. Forcing someone to go through with a pregnancy when it is utterly against their will, is a form of torture. No one should be coerced into going through with a pregnancy. Everybody deserves rights over their own body. Women and trans people need rights over their own body. Access to abortion services are part of the right to bodily autonomy.
It’s a valid point to make that women who are coerced into pregnancy through rape should be able to access abortion, and of course they should. But as this UN report elucidates, states should not be putting rape victims through red tape in order to access their rights – the best way to ensure rape victims can access abortion, if that’s their decision, is to make abortion generally available.
Good healthcare & abortion access
Countries such as the Netherlands and Switzerland that have laws that make abortion very accessible have some of the lowest abortion rates in the world. Good sex education programmes in all schools, access to free contraception, and easy access to abortion in fact leads to lower abortion rates. Making abortion easily accessible also means that early abortions are the norm. For example, nearly all abortions in Norway today are medical abortions, performed with the abortion pills. In 1998, less than half of abortions in Norway were performed by the end of week nine of the pregnancy, whereas in 2013 the figures had increased to nearly 80%.
This does not mean that later term abortions should be banned. Later term abortions are rare cases, such as fatal foetal abnormality, risk to the woman’s health, or cases of extreme marginalisation of the pregnant person that results in them being unable to present earlier to access an abortion. But it shows that when abortion is made readily accessible, they will overwhelmingly be early abortions.
This pamphlet is a contribution from the Socialist Party to the discussion on winning abortion rights in Ireland, and we hope will be an assist to the thousands of pro-choice activists and young people who are an inspiration to those of us fighting for a better world.
The rising of the women means the rising of us all
On 21 January 2017, millions marched across the world, with demonstrations in every continent, as part of, and in solidarity with, the Women’s March on Washington. With people of all genders participating, these majority-women demonstrations happened the day after Donald Trump was inaugurated as US president and were the biggest demonstrations in US history on a single day.
Incredible figures such as half a million marching in Washington DC, 750,000 in Los Angeles, and many smaller cities having demonstrations of over 100,000, combine with heart-warming stories (like the small march of cancer patients and nursing staff in a hospital in California) to evoke the line from ‘Bread & Roses’ – a 1912 song inspired by a strike of women workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts:
“The rising of the women means the rising of us all”.
The threat to women, immigrant lives, people of colour, LGBTQ people, workers and in fact every oppressed and exploited group within the US and on the planet provoked this incredible day of mass demonstrations before Trump even had the opportunity to implement any of his odious policies.
21 January 2017 was a manifestation of a process developing for a whole period of years, namely the emergence of a new global women’s movement. The abortion rights and LGBTQ movement in Ireland are part of this global process.
Decades of neo-liberalism and a decade of capitalist austerity have perpetuated the gender pay gap; have reinforced the unpaid labour of women with the erosion of public services; have seen millions of women and girls in the neo-colonial world enter into extremely exploitative work in factories as multinationals seek cheaper labour to maximise profits, while women in Europe and the US increasingly toil in the low-paid and often non-unionised service and retail sectors. These processes were accompanied by an ideological backlash against the gains of women’s struggles, with sexism in the media promoting the idea that women’s bodies are objects to be possessed – a central tenet of sexual harassment, assault and intimate partner violence.
The impact of male violence against women is exacerbated by the victim-blaming culture of the police, courts and media, and by housing crises and poverty. Leaving an abusive relationship is never easy as abuse is designed to smash the self-worth of the victim, isolate them from friends, and make them question their own judgement. Lack of affordable housing can be an absolute fetter.
These processes coincide with an era where mass communication feeds an outward and global outlook, and an expectation on behalf of women, LGBTQ people and young people that sexism, racism and inequality are simply unacceptable, belong to another epoch, and should be banished permanently. In Latin America, the ‘Not One More’ movement against femicide sums up this mood – that we will not accept that one more woman’s mental health is damaged by sexual assault, nor that one more woman’s life is lost due to intimate partner violence, nor that one more trans person’s identity and humanity is disregarded and violated. This mood of ‘enough’ permeates the emerging global women’s movement including the abortion rights movement in Ireland.
“What f***ing year is this?”
This mood is summed up by a series of quotes taken from feminist demonstrations around the world in 2016:
Argentina: “We are saying ‘Enough’! We won’t go back to being submissive and we won’t tolerate any more misogyny or violence.” – from a demonstration in opposition male violence against women.
Poland: “We are saying ‘enough is enough’ over what is happening, to what the government, the Church and the so-called pro life organisations are planning for women.” – from a strike against abortion ban.
Iceland: “It’s just unacceptable to say we’ll correct this in 50 years.” – from a strike against the pay gap.
Turkey: “We will not shut up. We will not obey.” – from a victorious demonstration against a government proposal to legalise rape.
This is absolutely the mood of young people, women and LGBTQ people in Ireland in relation to the lack of abortion rights, the church influence on the state, the continued ban on same-sex marriage in the North, and continued homophobia and transphobia generally. It’s summed up by a placard that pops up at every abortion rights demonstration that says, “What f***ing year is this?”.
The question of repealing the 8th amendment and abortion rights is a defining issue and struggle. Of course a vital and sometimes life-and-death democratic rights issue for women and pregnant people in and of itself, for a growing section of young people, women and LGBTQ people, it’s got even broader resonance. It’s about striking the next blow to the church-state nexus after 2015’s seminal ‘Yes’ to Marriage Equality. It’s about breaking with the sexual repression and state-sanctioned overt misogyny of the past – the Magdalene Laundries, a form of bonded-labour inflicted on poor women; symphysiotomy, a medieval practice that inflicted permanent disability and illness on women in order to ensure that they could continue bearing children; cruelty and abuse inflicted on children in an austere Catholic education system; erasure and oppression of the LGBTQ community. Fundamentally the ‘repeal’ movement reflects a yearning for a secular, progressive and equal society.
Abortion rights in the North
In the North, the backward nature of the abortion ban is underscored by the fact that it is now half a century since Britain legislated to protect women’s health in the 1967 Act, effectively legalising abortion and making it available through the public health service. Sinn Féin and the DUP have cooperated to block the Act’s extension to Northern Ireland, and disgustingly, women are being dragged through the courts for procuring abortions with pills in the North. This is particularly affecting young, working-class and migrant women who have major financial (and other) barriers on travelling to access an abortion.
The youth who support abortion rights and are campaigning for marriage equality in the North are also repulsed by the sectarian division pedalled by the ruling political parties in the Executive, and their struggles represent the harbinger of progress, the antidote to the fawning over big business and welfare cuts of the Assembly, namely the potential for unity of working-class people across sectarian lines against the sectarian parties and their neo-liberal policies. At this moment, the abortion rights movement is more broadly active and confident in the South than the North. However, progress on abortion rights in any of the island would both be an assist to women and pregnant people across the island to access the healthcare they need, but also would be an impetus to the movement everywhere to abolish all backward restrictions on women’s health and decisions about their own bodies.
Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party in Britain, has raised that he would insist on the extension of the 1967 Act to the North. The perspectives remain unclear as to whether young people, women and the working class broadly can reclaim the Labour Party in Britain as a vehicle for their interests, and of the Left. Corbyn’s apparent squeamishness in decisively taking on the Blairites is a problem. However, the prospect of a left and pro-choice prime minister in Britain who has raised his desire to tackle the North’s abortion ban, would be a new dynamic, potentially providing fresh impetus to build the campaign to extend the 1967 Act to the North.
This short pamphlet will focus mainly on the repeal movement in the South given that we are at an important juncture in that particular struggle, and offers a socialist-feminist perspective on the question of reproductive rights.
A deeply conservative state
“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 lawcs to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.” – Article 40.3.3, The Constitution of Ireland
The 8th amendment, an effective constitutional abortion ban, equates a foetus with the life of a woman, denigrating women’s health, life and bodily autonomy, as well as that of trans men and trans non-binary people who can also get pregnant. Article 40.3.3 was inserted into the constitution in 1983. A campaign lobbying the political establishment to hold a referendum to bring in a “pro-life” (i.e. anti-choice), constitutional amendment was driven by the Catholic Church hierarchy and its offshoots. No other Church supported this campaign.
In essence, the Catholic right were prescient and wily. They saw a certain direction of travel in society, with the Catholic Church beginning to lose its grip, and the so-called ‘liberal agenda’ gaining ground. The Roe vs. Wade supreme court ruling in the US in 1973 that effectively legalised abortion, occurring under the pressure of a massive social movement, was legally premised on the right to privacy. The Catholic right-wing wished to ‘head off’ any such challenge in the Irish state. The best guarantee to a block on progress was a constitutional barrier. Thus began the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign, PLAC.
PLAC was established by a range of Catholic groups – the Congress of Catholic Secondary School Parents’ Associations, the Irish Catholic Doctors’ Guild, the Guild of Catholic Nurses, the Guild of Catholic Pharmacists, the Catholic Young Men’s Society, the St. Thomas More Society, the Irish Pro-Life Movement, the National Association of the Ovulation Method, the Council of Social Concern (COSC), the Irish Responsible Society, the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC), the St. Joseph’s Young Priests Society and the Christian Brothers Schools Parents’ Federation. PLAC’s founding meeting was convened by John O’Reilly, who had come to prominence campaigning against contraception and the Irish Family Planning Association in the 1970s.
PLAC was launched in April of 1981 and swiftly arranged meetings with the leaders of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour. Fianna Fáil were supportive of the initiative, but it was under a Fine Gael / Labour coalition that the referendum was held. It only took a little more than two and a half years for this hodgepodge of misogynists and backwoodsmen to get their referendum. This is all the more poignant when you consider that October 2017 will mark five years since the death of Savita Halappannavar – half a decade – and still no referendum, and still the possibility of another death like that of Savita’s.
The State in the South from its outset linked itself to the Catholic Church, both from the point of view of health, education and other services, but also ideologically. Church teachings were an important means of social control and repression. The right to be religious, just as the right to not be religious, is an important personal freedom and right. But the Catholic Church, nor any other religion, should not be linked or connected with the state in any way.
Irish capitalism can be summed up as follows: a weak capitalist state economically – even the heady days of the Celtic Tiger were fuelled by foreign direct investment and later a disastrous housing bubble – with a weak capitalist class, and a conservative and sycophophantic political establishment to boot. The legacy of the fanatical, sectarian PLAC campaign, and a deeply conservative political establishment to go along with it, is a constitutional abortion ban, the likes of which has only ever been implemented by a dictatorship elsewhere, under the monstrous Pinochet regime in Chile.
The girl in the grotto
Everybody knew, nobody said.
A week ago last Tuesday.
She was just fifteen years.
When she reached her full term.
She went to a grotto.
Just a field,
In The Middle of The Island.
To deliver herself.
Her baby died,
A week ago last Tuesday.
It was a sad slow stupid death for them both.
Everybody knew, nobody said.
At a Grotto
In a Field
In The Middle Of The Island
– Ann Lovett, by Christy Moore
Only four months after the referendum passed, on 31 January 1984, a 15 year old school-girl, Ann Lovett gave birth beside a statue of the Virgin Mary in Granard, County Longford and died later that day. Having hidden her pregnancy, Ann Lovett gave birth alone in the grotto, and her infant died there. This tragic and schocking case laid bare the harsh reality of the 8th to the nation. The impending clash with the Catholic Church was obvious, but the successful passing of the referendum had been a coup for the Catholic right with their constitutional bulwark against change.
The culture of silence and shame that pervaded in ‘priest-ridden’ Ireland, as Joyce put it, was also exposed in the Ann Lovett case, as the lyrics to the powerful Christy Moore song illustrate, “Everybody knew, nobody said”. This, and subsequent whisteblowing and quality journalists’ investigations and reportage on Church child sex abuse scandals, the realities of the Magadelene Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes (all of which were perpetrated disproportionately on the working class and poor), that came in the subsequent years have been central to dramatically damaging the reputation of the Catholic Church as an institution.
Though the 8th amendment passed comfortably, with 67% support, in fact it was an aberration, rather than a real indicator of attitudes. The direction of travel was towards the opening up of social attitudes and the undermining of the power and influence of the Catholic Church. However, the foresight of the PLAC campaigners combined with their lackeys in the political establishment who facilitated them, put a road block in front of progress on abortion rights. The deeply conservative nature of the political establishment should not be underestimated – it’s a living factor in our struggle for reproductive freedom today. It’s absolutely possible to defeat them, but to expect a reasonable approach on their behalf would both fly in the face of recent history and also potentially disarm or derail the reproductive rights movement today.
The X Case – “Let her go”
Developments around the X Case in 1992 give more of a picture of the changing attitudes. An appalling case, and an indictment of the state, that centred around a 14 year-old who had become pregnant as a result of rape. When the parents informed the Gardaí that they were bringing their daughter to England for an abortion in order to ensure that the Gardaí had collected all necessary evidence to prosecute the rape, unbelievably, the state intervened to stop her travelling.
There are no words for the cruelty and abuse that the state inflicted on this girl. The parents legally challenged. Public outcry and explosive demonstrations kicked off when the case was publicised. The demonstrations were led by young people and especially by school students who walked out of school and rallied under the poignant banner that cut to the heart of the state’s denial of rights and freedoms to women and girls, “Let her go”. The pressure of these developments outside of the courts impinged on the outcome. The X Case ruling, in contradistinction to anything envisioned by the architects of the 8th, creatively interpreted the amendment to allow abortion if the woman’s life is in danger, including the threat of suicide.
At that point, Miss X had already miscarried. It was now up to a Dáil to legislate to enact X, i.e. to allow abortions when the woman’s life is in danger, including from the threat of suicide. From the point of view of the Catholic Church hierarchy, and their friends in the political establishment, this was a potential ‘floodgate’ issue so it was never dealt with. Flowing from the X Case, pro-choice campaigners successfully got the right to information and the right to travel put into the Constitution. The absurd hypocrisy of the political establishment was then enshrined in the constitution – namely an abortion ban in the state, but a constitutional right to travel to get one elsewhere. Subsequent attempts to close the ‘loophole’ of suicide did not pass. So all referenda on the abortion question that took place after 1983 illustrated a more open and liberal approach to abortion on behalf of the population.
The X Case is also an example of the treatment this state has meted out to victims of rape. This sorry history has been added to in recent years by the Miss Y Case in 2014. Miss Y was a very young migrant rape victim who had sought refuge in Ireland. On discovering her pregnancy when here she desperately sought an abortion. Delay after delay and denial of her desperate requests to end her pregnancy, eventually resulted in her being coerced into carrying the pregnancy to viability, and a forced C section. Anti-choice campaigners had the audacity to name her baby and held a vigil outside the hospital that the media reported Miss Y was in.
The ignorance and cruelty of both the state and the self proclaimed ‘pro-life’ crowd when it comes to issues of sexual violence goes hand in hand with their denial of bodily autonomy to women and pregnant people. The Miss Y case is also an example of the disproportionate mistreatment of migrant and women of colour by maternity services in this state, and the disproportionate impact of the 8th on them.
“This is a Catholic country” – the death of Savita Halappanavar
“You lose your rights basically when you are pregnant here, I think. You lose your rights to get necessary healthcare. Savita and me, we knew that abortion was illegal in Ireland but not termination when it is a planned pregnancy, when you can’t save the baby and the mother may die if you don’t do something like terminate. That was big shock for us.” – Praveen Halappanavar, 19 April, 2013, Irish Times
The reality that over 150,000 women have travelled from Ireland in the decades since the 8th was put in place, acted as ‘safety valve’ for the establishment. Quietly, a bristling resentment was building. This was the context in which the death of Savita Halappannavar in October 2012, at the hands of the 8th amendment, sparked a new movement for abortion rights.
Savita Halappanavar, a 31 year-old dentist from India, had presented to University Hospital Galway suffering an inevitable miscarriage. She was in immense pain, and repeatedly requested that she would be assisted to end the pregnancy. She was denied her requests for an abortion because of the existence of a foetal heartbeat. Savita Halappanavar, or Savita as she became known to the tens of thousands who marched in anger and grief when the details of her case emerged, died in Galway University Hospital of septicaemia on 28 October 2012, a week after being admitted.
Savita’s husband, Praveen Halappanavar, bravely publicised the story, including the fact that Savita had been told that “this is a Catholic country” by a staff member when denied her request for a termination. The sectarian, backward state that enables Catholic Church influence in its laws and its hospitals claimed another innocent victim. Praveen speaking out in November of 2012 led to an explosion of anger that spilled onto the streets. There was not a developed pro-choice campaign or movement at the time, and a spontaneous march in Dublin the Saturday after the details of Savita’s death emerged attracted 20,000, with more marching and rallying around Ireland. The demonstration was mainly people in their 20s and 30s, a new generation to protests and activism that represented the desire for a progressive and secular state, that would break fundamentally with the repression of the past. The Socialist Party produced a placard that summed up the mood and became the slogan of the new movement – the placard said, “Never again – Abortion rights now”.
The anger and grief of those mobilising for change at this vital juncture was not funnelled into a sustained movement, as it could have been. Part of this was a lack of cohesion and some mistakes made around what the central demands of the movement would be. Ruth Coppinger, longstanding Socialist Party activist and currently a TD for the Anti-Austerity Alliance, was a Socialist Party Councillor at the time and spoke at the march to the Dáil in Dublin on 17 November, four days after the details of Savita’s death emerged. Ruth raised that:
“The X case is absolutely not enough – because it would not have guaranteed that she got the treatment that she needed – we need far, far more. In the X case, the life of the woman is pitted against her health… Are we saying that there’s an acceptable threshold of pain, suffering and torture that we’re willing to put women through before their lives are deemed to be in danger?”
Unfortunately, after these initial demonstrations, the pro-choice campaigners who called demonstrations in the aftermath of this social eruption, did so under the slogan ‘Legislate for X’. X case legislation (legislation for when a woman’s life is in danger, including the risk of suicide) itself would not prevent another death like Savita’s, as Savita’s health, as opposed to her life, was in danger at the time she presented at the hospital in Galway in the throes of an inevitable miscarriage. In order to safeguard women’s health, bold demands for a repeal referendum to safeguard women’s health should have been emphasised, alongside legislation for X.
At a certain stage it was clear that the government would have to act given the amount of pressure on it. This only further increased the limited call for X legislation as a demobilising factor. Fundamentally, it also paved the way for the most restrictive possible legislation that was eventually brought in, in 2013. This legislation, the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act (PLDPA) included a clear re-asserting of the abortion ban, with women, and anyone who helps them, to be criminalised with a potential 14 year sentence for having an abortion in any circumstance other than “clear and substantial” threat to life. The legislation that was ‘won’ was in fact so restrictive that the only Socialist Party TD at the time, Joe Higgins, voted against. The lesson here, is that if your demand is limited, your ‘victory’ will be even less, or non-existent. This is a vital lesson for the repeal movement today.
The spontaneous demonstration in Dublin in October 2012 after the details of Savita Halappannavar’s death emerged, was a seminal moment, and had the mood and potential movement that it represented been tapped and organised with optimism, the movement for repeal and abortion rights could be much further along.
The fact that Fine Gael and Labour brought in such incredibly backward legislation only a few short years ago (that’s the Labour Party who today are tail-ending the repeal movement in an attempt to gain some support or relevance after their stint of meting out austerity while in government), should steel the pro-choice movement now in opposition to any approach that shies away from demanding and pushing for the full rights women and pregnant people need, and nothing less.
Repeal the 8th – Pro-Choice
At the time of Savita’s death in late 2012, there was minimal awareness about the 8th amendment. The pro-choice campaigns, initiatives and movement since has changed this, with a decisive step forward in 2016 – the huge response that the Maser mural received, especially when the anti-choice millieu sought to repress it, and the launch of the ‘REPEAL’ jumpers. Furthermore, the March for Choice doubled in size in one year: 10,000 marched in 2015 and upwards of 20,000 marched in 2016.
The increasingly ubiquitous ‘REPEAL’ jumpers are testament to the acute awareness of the issue amongst large sections of society – one word sums it up. Importantly, the ‘REPEAL’ emblazoned in black and white, for those wearing them with pride, does not mean ‘replace the 8th’, and does not mean ‘repeal the 8th and legislate for abortion only in certain extreme circumstances and leave others travelling or using abortion pills in illegality’. Rather, it’s a rallying call for bodily autonomy. For large sections of women, those of all genders who are yearning for an equal society, especially the young, the mood is not for half measures or slow progress. It’s an unapologetic, defiant and impatient mood.
Pitting the ‘deserving’ against the ‘undeserving’
In the years since Savita’s death, every attempt by pro-choice TDs to progress abortion rights and repeal in the Dáil have been blocked. The crux of the conservative politicians arguments have centred around a scare-mongering that chaos will ensue if the 8th is repealed. For example, then Minister for Health, Leo Varadkar’s speech in the Dáil explaining why he was voting against Ruth Coppinger’s bill, in May 2015, for a simple repeal referendum, i.e. full deletion of the 8th amendment, was that; while recognising that the 8th is very restrictive, the bill “affords no protections or rights at all to the unborn”.
The refrain of politicians, “but what will we replace it with?”, both illustrates the misogyny inherent in abortion restrictions, i.e. the idea that women are incapable of making sound decisions about their own bodies, lives and health, and also the dangers that a future referendum will be linked to continued restrictions. The truth is that were the 8th repealed tomorrow, the PLDPA would still ban abortion. It would be up to the Dáil to pass new legislation.
There has been a concerted attempt by the political establishment, and to some extent by the media, to focus the discussion only on the ‘hard cases’. It’s an absolute indictment of this state that women with a fatal foetal diagnosis don’t have a choice to terminate their pregnancy in this state, if that’s their wish. The stories of these women are truly harrowing, and the campaign group, Terminations for Medical Reasons (TFMR) has been exemplary in illustrating the reality of the abortion ban. However, fatal foetal abnormalities (FFA) are only a tiny proportion of abortion cases.
There is a narrative pedalled of ‘deserving’ cases, in an attempt to curb and limit the debate, and indeed the demands of the movement. In fact, a whole section of the establishment, from the print and the broadcast media, to politicians in the main right-wing political parties, are conniving to ignore the issue of women’s health, despite this issue coming to the fore when Savita died. The Irish Times did a poll in October 2016 and choices for those in favour of repeal (74%) were either for choice in cases of rape and fatal foetal abnormality (55%), or else were in favour of a ‘UK style liberal abortion regime’ (19%). It’s patently obvious that the questions were framed in order to ensure that an argument could be constructed to say that ‘repeal’ will only prevail if it’s clear that a very limited change in abortion law will accompany it. “Almost 75% of voters favour repeal of Eighth Amendment to allow abortion in limited circumstances, survey shows”. (Irish Times, 7 October 2016).
When Judge Laffoy was appointed to chair the Citizens’ Assembly, repeatedly on RTE Radio One headlines, this was reported as a Citizens’ Assembly being convened to discuss the 8th amendment “in light of Fatal Foetal Abnormalities”. This is the degree to which women’s health, women having to travel to get abortions, women getting safe illegal abortions with pills every day in the state, are being consciously whitewashed by the establishment. The question has to be put up to the political establishment – out of the ten women who travel every day, or the three women on the island who access safe, but illegal abortions with pills from WomenOnWeb.org, which are you going to deem ‘deserving’, and which are you going to cast aside? The notion is preposterous, as is the continued pontification about women’s personal and private decisions by those not affected. The “What f***ing year is this?” placard comes to mind.
Policing our bodies and our voices
While the majority of voices in the mass media could be regarded as sympathetic or generally pro-repeal, a slew of newspaper headlines from Autumn / Winter of 2016 illustrate the insidious role of the mass media in backing up the approach of the political establishment – that is to constantly lower expectations and limit the discussion to ‘hard cases’ only, by incessant calls to ‘tone it down’: “Repeal activists would lose referendum” (Irish Examiner, 8 October 2016), “Moderate voices needed in the abortion debate” (Sunday Business Post editorial, 3 October 2016), “Has one tyranny been replaced with another?” (Irish Times, 1 Nov 2016), “Silence of centrists kills decent debate” (Irish Independent, 2 October 2016).
Interestingly, another such article, “Repeal campaign making the same mistake as Hillary Clinton – Pro-abortion activists not addressing the concerns of people who want to be convinced” (Irish Times 17, November 2016), was written in fact by a leading international anti-choice campaigner, Phelim McAleer. McAleer fails to own up to this in the article, but rather tries to paint himself as giving advice to the pro-choice movement. So calls to ‘tone it down’ are coming from both ‘friends’ and enemies of the pro-choice movement.
Anti-choice fanatics are of course not in the business of giving helpful advice to the pro-choice movement. The mood of young women and young people in the repeal movement to reject and ridicule these calls to ‘tone it down’, are completely correct. Had there not been an active abortion rights struggle in the wake of Savita’s death, the 8th amendment would be sitting pretty with no challenge to it whatsoever – a major push from below has ensured it’s stayed on the political agenda, the polar opposite to the wishes of the political establishment who attempt to bury the issue with the PLDPA in 2013
The Citizens’ Assembly convened in late 2016 – 99 citizens to discuss the 8th and report to the Dáil – is a talking shop and delay tactic. But it has also been convened in this context of a barrage of insidious propaganda over a period of years aimed at forming opinions, namely that this is a gravely ‘difficult issue’ and that change should be slow and miniscule and centred around the ‘hard cases’ with the status quo remaining for the rest. A key criterion to be one of the 99 is that you have never expressed an opinion online about abortion – this inevitably skews the composition of the assembly, with huge swathes of the population under 35 whose regular social media posts about repeal would debarr them. One original candidate was in fact excluded for wearing a pro-choice badge. Nonetheless, the outcome of the Assembly cannot be fully controlled. However, it is not binding and the issue will be bounced back to a Dáil Committee in any case.
Options that the political establishment may pursue:
Amending or replacing the 8th: The ‘replace the 8th’ mantra is what we must be extremely vigilant against. Any continued constitutional restriction on abortion rights would be odious. It would preclude pro-choice legislation. It would necessitate winning the right to, and winning another referendum in order to win abortion rights. Although it couldn’t be ruled out, it seems difficult for the Government and political establishment to propose something quite as absurd and restrictive as a clause in the constitution that allows abortion in the cases of rape and fatal foetal abnormalities. A prominent anti-choice campaigner, who himself opposes any referendum, has mooted the possibility of a clause in the Constitution that would necessitate a referendum in the instance of legislation governing abortion changing, in place of the 8th.
Deletion of the 8th, publishing of legislation: If there is a simple repeal referendum, the deletion of the 8th with nothing to go back into the Constitution as we wish, it’s likely any Government will have legislation already published, with an attempt to fight a referendum around this, rather than the broad question of abortion rights. Legislation can be changed by any Government, and it’s much easier for a movement to push for change in the law, than to push to change the Constitution which necessitates a referendum. Therefore, this would be a far better scenario than amending or replacing the 8th. With the option of having legislation to be published in advance of a repeal of the 8th, ready to be put on the statute books as soon as a possible repeal of the 8th, an important question will be what type of legislation. It’s likely to be restrictive. In this instance, whether or not women and pregnant people’s health is considered grounds for an abortion will be important.
Which option is most likely?
One of the scaremongering tactics of the anti-choice side, and the key argument of the establishment parties when voting against Bills from the left-wing for a repeal referendum, is to suggest that chaos would ensue if the 8th was repealed without a replacement, and that can mean either on a constitutional or legislation basis. This is nonsense, as if the 8th was repealed tomorrow, the PLDPA would still ban abortion. New laws would be required to legislate for abortion. This emphasises that any Government of the establishment that is reluctantly holding a referendum, will not want the argument from the anti-choice side that they are opening up the possibility of chaos, with nothing replacing the 8th.
If a Government repeals the 8th and then has restrictive legislation ready to be immediately passed through Dáil, that will open the Government up to legal challenges to the legislation on the basis of the right to privacy. Furthermore, a left-wing Government coming to power and simply bringing in pro-choice legislation once the 8th is gone is a possibility. The political establishment will not want to open the door to these possibilities, so the aforementioned clause (a constitutional clause necessitating a referendum in order to change legislation governing abortion) could be considered an option by the political establishment.
The 1995 referendum to legalise divorce is a warning. The wording continued a constitutional restriction on the right to divorce, namely that married couples had to live apart for at least four years before being eligible to get a divorce, which is repressive. This pertains over 20 years later and another referendum is needed in order to change it. Even though at the time, people voting ‘Yes’ were doing so in order to legalise divorce, in fact within the wording of the referendum, a restriction making divorce very difficult, was contained within it. Building the strongest, most active and largest possible pro-choice movement is the best way to stave off any rotten compromises on the question of reproductive rights and freedoms.
No struggle, no progress
“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favour freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without ploughing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters… Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” – Frederick Douglass, African American abolitionist campaigner (1818-1895)
Abortion rights where they exist are testament to the hard fought battles of women and their allies. In the rest of Europe and in the US, abortion rights were won, or partially won in the period of “second-wave” feminist struggle in the late 1960s, early 1970s. The women’s movement of that time sprung from a context of a wave of worker, anti-colonial, student and youth radicalisation and struggle on a global level, the apotheosis of which was the revolutionary wave engulfing the world in 1968.
The US second wave feminism that was globally influential on the women’s movement was directly inspired by the Civil Rights struggle for an ending of discrimination and oppression of African Americans. In fact, many of the young women who were the backbone of US second wave feminism had cut their teeth as activists in the civil rights and anti-war movements. Equal pay legislation, access to abortion and contraception, rape crisis centres and women’s refuges, women’s studies departments in universities, are some of the gains for women achieved in many countries in Europe and the US in particular, emanating from struggles of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The second wave in Britain is replete with examples of when the women’s and the strong labour and trade union movement coalesced effectively, in a sense symbolised by the fact that the fight of women workers in the Ford factory in Dagenham for equal pay in 1968 was a founding event of the women’s movement in Britain in this period, leading to the 1970 Equal Pay Act. This was the same year as the National Women’s Liberation Conference that endorsed demands for equal pay, childcare, abortion rights and contraception. The Times reported in 1975 that there were over 1,500 women’s liberation groups meeting regularly around the country, giving an indication of the scope of the movement that sprung up.
A strong feature of the struggle for abortion rights in Britain was the crucial role of the Trade Union Congress (TUC), including the mass demonstration in November 1979 to defend the 1967 Abortion Act against attempts by the establishment to roll back rights, called jointly by the National Abortion Campaign and the TUC. This synergy between the women’s and labour movement was effective, as typified by the “Women Against Pit Closures”, a crucial assist to the titanic class battle of the 1984-1985 Miners Strike.
The defeat of this movement by the capitalist establishment, personified by the vicious neoliberal, anti-working class, Margaret Thatcher, is universally seen as a seminal defeat for the working-class movement, but was also a defeat for the women’s movement. It began the ushering in of an era of ruthless neoliberal capitalism embraced by bourgeois, pro-capitalist feminists who shifted the focus to feminising the elite, and away from collective struggle.
While it has not been possible to push through any roll-back on the effective legalising of abortion through the 1967 Act, the decades of conscious running down of the National Health Service has been a more subtle chipping at full reproductive rights, which includes the right to high quality healthcare, free at the point of use, as a requisite to achieving equality of access. The running down of the NHS means waiting lists push many into paying for abortions in private clinics.
Globally today, around half of abortions are unsafe, the overwhelming majority of these take place in states where abortion is illegal. When abortions are legal and available, they are one of the safest and most common medical procedures you can go through. This is why the World Health Organisation recommends that abortions are made legally and safely available (WHO, 2012). One in three women over the course of her lifetime will have an abortion. Unsafe abortions today are still causing 47,000 needless deaths per annum, and five million hospital admissions. Most deaths occur in the neocolonial world, illustrating that the poorest and most oppressed suffer the most from abortion bans. In fact, this has always been the case.
In the US before Roe vs. Wade in 1973, estimates of the number of illegal abortions in the United States range from 200,000 to 1.2 million per year with as many as 5,000 American women dying annually as a direct result of unsafe abortions. Those who died or were permanently injured were mainly working class and poor, and disproportionately black and Latina. Access to money could buy a safe abortion even in times of illegality.
Because of these horrendous consequences of any abortion ban, many struggles for abortion rights in the past have incorporated into their organising, agitation, and mobilising for change, direct challenges to abortion bans by developing a mechanism to provide safe abortions. For example, in Chicago, the Women’s Liberation Union established the “Jane” campaign for abortion rights. Activists who were mainly very young women taught themselves how to perform safe, illegal abortions and “Jane” activists are purported to have carried out an incredible 11,000 abortions in the six years prior to the Roe vs. Wade ruling that legalised abortion in 1973.
The courage of these young women not only saved women’s lives, but in conjuction with an approach to building a mass movement of pressure to change the law, actively illustrated the futility of an abortion ban and exerted unstoppable pressure for change, no matter the steadfast opposition of the explicitly anti-choice Nixon administration. The Chicago Women’s Liberation Union, who saw themselves as socialist-feminists, also gave solidarity and assistance to women workers on strike in the city, including an important struggle of black women janitors working at City Hall. They mobilised a multi-racial campaign that won an investment of $1,000,000 in public childcare.
In Belgium, abortion did not become legal until 1990. Feminist groups forced the issue onto the agenda from the 1970s onwards, and once abortion became legal in the Netherlands in 1981 they organised cross border ‘rail-roads’ to abortion clinics there, both aiding access and making a public statement about the need for change. The limitations of this in terms of accessibility for working-class women led courageous women and doctors to set up illegal abortion clinics within the country. By the mid-1980s 18 of these were fully functioning. Renewed repression by the state including the prosecution of one of the doctors central to the provision of abortions in 1987, gave the pro-choice movement impetus and the popular support to push for legalisation.
In France, the MLAC (Movement for Liberalising of Abortion and Contraception) in the 1970s, combined mass mobilisations with doctors and activists defying the abortion ban, carrying out abortions, and also very publicly organising buses to travel to England where abortion was legal.
Putting power into the hands of women – Abortion Pills
Women and young people in the Socialist Party who are active in the socialist feminist group, ROSA, have engaged in similar actions, as have Socialist Party activists in the North. WomenOnWeb.org are a Netherlands based doctor-led organisation who provide cheap, safe early abortions with pills through the post to those living in countries where abortions are banned. Women On Web save lives every single day. The pills are on the World Health Organisation’s list of essential medicines. Check out WomenOnWeb.org for information on the pills and how to use them. WomenHelp.org is the other reputable website providing a similar service.
The fact that the abortion pills are safe and require quite minimal assistance from medical professionals – women can have abortions in their own home once they fit the criteria for use, have someone with them, and are close enough to a hospital should any complications arise – puts power into the hands of women. In Italy, where a mass movement achieved abortion rights in 1978, the continued Catholic Church influence in hospitals remains an impediment to abortion rights. Doctors ‘conscientiously objecting’ to providing abortion care is widespread. With Catholic hospital boards, career progress requires it.
The continued Catholic Church influence on public hospitals in Ireland will potentially be an issue should the abortion regime be relaxed. As well as linking our struggle for abortion rights to the full separation of church and state, the availability of abortion pills if abortion is decriminalised will put the onus on GPs to prescribe them and push for pro-choice legislation that enables and trusts women and pregnant people to make their own decisions about their own bodies.
Women On Web calculate that three women every day on the island of Ireland are using abortion pills received from them through the post. As customs in the South seize most of these pills coming in, the pills are posted to an address in the North, where abortion is also illegal. ROSA and Ruth Coppinger TD organised the Abortion Pill Train on 28 October 2014. Joined by pro-choice activists from a number of groups, activists re-enacted the Contraceptive Train of 1971 in which feminists travelled by train from Dublin to Belfast, to obtain contraception that was legal in the North, and illegal in the South. Bringing the contraceptives into Connolly Station to a flurry of media was a major publicity stunt for the campaign to legalise and make contraception accessible.
The Abortion Pill Train, organised in conjunction with WomenOnWeb, served to massively increase public knowledge about the pills, and the viability of accessing a safe, if illegal, abortion with pills in the state. The fact that Ruth Coppinger used her position as a TD to flout the law and highlight these pills was particularly powerful.
ROSA’s Abortion Pill Bus of October 2015 was an even bolder action. A major public event that got national and international media coverage, the bus travelled to cities across the state over the course of two days. In conjunction with doctors from Women On Web, ROSA helped over 20 women get safe, but illegal abortions with pills. The Abortion Pill Bus made a mockery of the abortion ban. With no state intervention whatsoever to try to stop the bus, ROSA showed how the laws governing abortion in Ireland were not only unjust but also impossible to implement. In essence, the pills, just as travel has been, are a safety valve for the establishment.
Furthermore, there is an understanding that should the state try to repress or prosecute women in desperate situations seeking abortions, it would simply not be accepted and in fact would provoke a social explosion that would speed up change. The abortion pills illustrate the reality that women and pregnant people need and get abortions for any number of reasons every day – showing the absurdity of the political establishment continuing to pontificate on in which cases abortion should be allowed.
Poland – women’s strike shows the way
The powerful movement in Poland last year saw hundreds of thousands of women and their allies on the streets for abortion rights. The Law and Justice Party, in cahoots with the Catholic Church, attempted to bring in a full abortion ban. This provoked the ire of women and a generation of youth who mobilised in a spontaneous mass movement, including a partial national strike, pushed for from below with business shut-downs and mass mobilisations of the streets, forcing a re-think of the Government.
This unapologetic and radical movement, not only pushed the Government back, but also according to surveys, increased the amount of people in society who identifiy as ‘pro-choice’. Take note the ‘tone police’ in Ireland who are concerned about campaigners being too vocal about their demands and putting people off! As the 2015 marriage equality referendum shows, a grassroots mass movement for equality and rights for an oppressed group is a powerful means to evoke the solidarity of working-class people generally.
Hyde Amendment – a warning
It’s worth noting that important victories decades ago, were often partial. In the US for example, the Hyde Amendment of 1977 was a huge setback. The Hyde Amendment impeded the use of public funds to pay for abortion, meaning that the demands of the movement to make abortion free, safe and legal were not achieved. The NOW, National Organisation of Women, had developed in the grooves of a focus on legal changes within the current system, increasingly reflecting the demands and aspirations of a privileged section of women.
Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in 1963. The “problem with no name” that she illuminated, of the inanity of life as a suburban housewife and the malaise many of these women felt inside, was a revelation and inspiration for a generation of mainly middle-class women who, despite their high educational attainments, were restricted to role of mother and wife alone due to social constraints on them. Friedan’s weaknesses have been amply elucidated, not least her sole focus on a relatively privileged section of women. These middle-class housewives were also in the main, white women. bell hooks in her 1984 book Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center wrote that:
“She did not discuss who would be called in to take care of the children and maintain the home if more women like herself were freed from their house labor…she did not speak of the needs of women without men, without children, without homes. She ignored the existence of all non-white and poor white women. She did not tell the readers whether it was more fulfilling to be a maid, a babysitter, a factory worker, a clerk or a prostitute than to be a leisure-class housewife.”
These are salient criticisms. Friedan was the head of the National Organisation of Women in 1966, one important strand of US second wave feminism – the primary mainstream women’s movement organisation that focused on lobbying for legal changes, and pursued many legal cases against universities and companies for sex discrimination, growing into the key organisation of ‘bourgeois feminism’ in the US. Its drift to the right is summed up by its failure to launch a major resistance to the Hyde Amendment, which affected the poorest and most oppressed the most. A sole focus on legal rights, that is silent on the economic and other barriers (including belonging to an oppressed group such as LGBTQ, immigrant, traveller communities etc.) to accessing these rights, is a hallmark of pro-capitalist, “bourgeois” or liberal feminism.
In contrast, socialist feminism, while pushing, probing and challenging every barrier to equality and justice in a combative and optimistic manner, in recognising the importance of all steps forward, consistently connects each struggle to its broader programme. In Ireland, the repealing of the 8th should be linked to, among other questions:
a push for pro-choice legislation;to the full separation of Church and State;to the implementation of mandatory progressive and LGBTQ positive sex education in schools that includes teaching young people about consent;to the ending of direct provision;to the need to develop a comprehensive national health service that provides all aspects of reproductive healthcare for free, including contraception, abortion and IVF;to the need for a mass public house building scheme that can end homelessness;to the need to the roll-out of a comprehensive public childcare scheme that is free at the point of delivery;to an end to the epidemic of workers being dismissed for being pregnant.
In this way, socialist feminism seeks to challenge both every way in which women and LGBTQ people are discriminated against, misrepresented, silenced, shamed and ignored – but also the very foundations of an economic system that undergirds and deepens inequality and oppression. This is especially poignant given the weak nature of Irish capitalism, both in term of its historical leaning on the Catholic Church, and also its economic kowtowing to multinationals that breeds an ultra-neoliberal form of capitalism – low or little corporation tax and woefully underdeveloped public services.
The politicisation of a whole young generation in the repeal movement should not and will not stop at a single issue. Not only criticising capitalism, but thorough and resolute anti-capitalism, is a pre-requisite to building a women’s and LGBTQ movement that is capable of acting in the interests of all the oppressed and marginalised. Fundamentally, such a movement needs to be linked to a generalised working-class struggle, capable of uniting all the oppressed and exploited to form the most powerful challenge possible to the status quo.
Oxfam’s wealth report that came out in January 2017 included the startling revelation that eight men own more wealth than the poorest 3.6 billion people. It’s impossible to achieve equality within the capitalist system which is predicated on the drive for profit and the accumulation of gargantuan wealth and hence the proliferation of power into a smaller and smaller number of hands.
A referendum & pro-choice legislation
The key question for our movement at this moment is winning a right to a referendum, crucially, to the right referendum, i.e. a simple repealing or deletion of the 8th amendment, with nothing at all to go back into the Constitution. Should we win this demand, we should have a vision for a major movement than can activate tens of thousands on a daily basis in the course of the repeal campaign. Winning the right to such a referendum may be somewhat complicated by the likely tactics of the political establishment. This is underscored by the current positions of the political parties.
Essentially, the only political party in the 32nd Dáil (elected in 2016) with a fully pro-choice position is the AAA-PBP. This includes Socialist Party members that are AAA TDs, Ruth Coppinger, Paul Murphy and Mick Barry. Labour, the Greens, the Social Democrats and Sinn Féin (who are opposed to the extension of the 1967 Act in the North) have a pro-repeal position but all advocate that repeal be followed by some form of restrictive legislation
Therefore, even in the case of winning the right to a referendum, it’s likely that a Government would have legislation already published that is restrictive, or possibly very restrictive (e.g. only FFA), with a view to trying to fight a referendum campaign within very narrow perimeters. In such an instance, the pro-choice movement cannot ‘get behind’ the Government. We should stand independently from the very political establishment that have allowed five years to pass since the death of Savita, without repealing the amendment that is the root cause of her death. Furthermore, it would be completely wrong to get boxed into a position of defending weak and inadequate legislation that will leave women and pregnant people travelling to accesss abortion, or using the abortion pills in Ireland accessed through the post from Women On Web doctors, rather than from the health service in Ireland. In terms of tactics for the pro-choice movement, if there are different aspects to a referendum – e.g. deletion of the 8th, plus adding something back into the Constitution, this would necessitate a campaign that called for a ‘Yes’ for the deletion, and a ‘No’ for adding some restriction back into the Constitution.
In terms of the arguments that can win a referendum, of course the central message is the absolute necessity to remove any restrictions or comments on women and pregnant people’s bodies from the Constitution. That it is draconian and virtually unprecedented around the world, ties the hands of doctors, and bans abortion in almost every circumstance, including when a woman has been raped, when there is a fatal foetal diagnosis etc. The debate on how to vote should be on the question of the need to remove a constitutional barrier to making legislation governing abortion.
A debate over legislation can and will happen after the removal of the 8th. However, while of course the 8th has other implications, including restricting consent and choice of women giving birth, the key question, the ‘substantive issue’ is abortion. This major debate in society needs pro-choice voices. While it’s perfectly true and salient to point out that if you want to allow choice even in the case of FFA, then you need to vote for repeal, the argument cannot be restricted to this alone. Pro-choice campaigners, with patience and sensitivity when addressing a genuine ordinary person, rather than a backward politician, should also consistently raise our own view of the need for pro-choice legislation. In fact this will be a more effective approach to a Yes campaign because it will more effectively answer the inevitable scaremongering of the anti-choice side.
The state and indeed the Catholic Church hierarchy are not popular. It’s not a leap of the imagination for a growing majority in society to make the shift to recognise that a woman herself, rather than unscrupulous politicians or a male and backward Catholic Church hierarchy, knows what’s best for her own body and her own life and should be trusted in law to make the decision for herself without interference from church or state. The reality of women travelling, the reality of women taking the abortion pills in Ireland needs to feature prominently in the debate. At all times, we will be dispelling myths and expounding facts about abortion.
Lessons from the Marriage Equality referendum
2015’s Marriage Equality referendum was a seminal moment in Irish society. It was a resounding affirmation of LGBTQ lives, and a blow to the Catholic Church. The overwhelming Yes votes in some of the most deprived working-class communities – 80-90% Yes in communities like Jobstown and Cherry Orchard in Dublin – was an inspiring display of working-class solidarity. Gráinne Healy, co-director of the Yes Equality campaign herself explained that, “When we were out canvassing in areas like Finglas, there was an overwhelming Yes. Once we moved into Glasnevin, there would be more resistance. It seemed the houses with two cars and plenty of money were just less open to Yes.”
A youthful, radical social movement was the backbone of the Yes Equality campaign. In contrast, part of the leadership of Yes Equality proffered slogans like ‘marriage matters’, attempting to frame LGBTQ civil rights in a very minimal and conservative framework. There was also a lack of visibility of trans and bisexual voices in the official campaign messaging, as they were deemed too outside the (hetero) norm, which might alienate ‘the middle ground’. Not only did this do a disservice to some of the most marginalised sections of the LGBTQ community, it also was a completely unnecessary concession. The resounding nature of the Yes vote is testament to the fact that the vote was about turning out to endorse equality and recognition for an oppressed group. It was about solidarity.
The uneasy joining of the parties of the political establishment with the Yes Equality campaign – uneasy because we know that, though the parties were officially signed up, many local councillors and even TDs were less than enthusiastic about joining the campaign’s canvassing in their localities – did not strengthen the campaign. In the case of a Repeal referendum, this will be intensified. To paraphrase a cliché from the second wave, the repeal movement needs anti-choice establishment politician spokespeople, like a fish needs a bicycle.
The Pope’s planned visit to Ireland in 2018 is blatant in its timing. It will be a rallying point for the right-wing and anti-choice brigade. The Marriage Equality campaign was in many ways a ‘dress rehearsal’ for the Catholic right for a future abortion referendum. The vicious homophobia underpinning their unsuccessful attempt to play upon people’s fears regarding children and child-welfare, gives a glimpse of the nastiness likely in any referendum on the 8th. None of this can pull significant sections of the population back to the Catholic Church, and will increase polarisation in society. In this context, the demand for full separation of church and state, for an end to Catholic Church influencing the running of state schools and hospitals, will be salient.
Socialists & abortion rights
One hundred years ago a socialist, revolutionary struggle and government in Russia abolished capitalism and landlordism and brought in the most progressive laws in human history. Abortion, divorce, homosexuality, being a sex worker were all decriminalised. All laws governing consensual sex of adults were abolished under the Bolsheviks, and rape was clearly criminalised. The Women’s Bureau, as well as beginning to implement state crèches, laundries and restaurants, travelled across the country to teach women peasants and workers to read, and to politicise and empower them. An openly gay man was appointed as Soviet Ambassador. It was possible to change your sex on your passport and in the first years of the Soviet government, some crude sex change operations were carried out by public doctors.
Notwithstanding the fact that many of these gains were repressed under Stalinism that represented a counter-revolution, the fact that a socialist government would legalise abortion a century before it’s been legalised in what the establishment claims is a modern capitalist state in Ireland speaks volumes. Putin’s regime in Russia, a capitalist economy with the leftovers of Stalinist repression, shows that the restoration of capitalism never heralded democracy, and the regime’s extreme anti-LGBTQ repression and legalising of domestic violence show how capitalism in Russia has meant a backwards journey into the dark ages.
Socialism means freedom & democracy
For socialists, abortions rights are a part of delivering full reproductive and sexual freedom for women. Even where contraception is free and accessible, contraception is not 100% effective. Women’s ability to enjoy sex for pleasure should not be curtailed by being ‘punished’ by forced pregnancy. Women’s rights and freedoms are impinged upon in various ways in capitalist society, and this applies especially to working-class and poor women, traveller and migrant women, women of colour, and LGBTQ women. One of these ways is the state controlling of women’s bodies, and the state and society curbing or shaming women’s sexuality and sexual freedom.
Historically, in capitalist society, the model of the patriarchal, hetero-normative family was ideologically promoted and imposed – central to this was the curtailing of women’s sexual freedom. This ideology served to foster the idea that women’s role is as unpaid ‘carer’. Though the model of the nuclear or patriarchal family has been massively, even irreversibly undermined, it’s still the case that women do more housework and unpaid caring work than men. Profits for big business can only be realised by the capitalists engaging the labour-power of the workforce. Unpaid emotional and domestic labour done disproportionately by women is crucial to the continued replenishing of this labour force in capitalist society. In this way, capitalism and women’s oppression are interlinked.
Women in the Socialist Party were central to the establishing of ROSA (for Reproductive Rights, against Oppression Sexism & Austerity) on International Women’s Day, 8 March 2013 as a socialist-feminist movement. Subsequently, ROSA has activated, politicised and engaged hundreds of women, LGBTQ and young people, with ROSA becoming the socialist-feminist pole in the pro-choice movement.
For a left-government that breaks with capitalism
The revolt against water charges of recent years has shown that when working-class people get organised en masse, they are powerful. Initially, the working class got organised in communities to challenge the water charges, a pillar of austerity and the neo-liberal drive. This has been swiftly followed by a new generation of workers getting organised within their trade unions, and pushing the trade union movement into a more challenging stance; standing up to the Government’s agenda of the privatisation of public services and the continued denigration of public sector workers wages and conditions (e.g. Dublin Bus), and to corporate greed (e.g. Tesco).
As this unfolds, the need for the women’s and LGBTQ movement to connect with the working-class and trade union movement, and in fact for women and LGBTQ workers to put their own demands and issues firmly on the agenda of that movement, will become salient and pressing. It will also make more concrete, the potential for a more fundamental challenge to all the myriad inequalities and oppression meted out by the capitalist system.
Connected to this is the fact that the struggle for abortion rights in Ireland is linked to the struggle for a Left Government that breaks with capitalism and implements socialist policies. After repeal, a Left Government would bring in pro-choice legislation. Only a Left Government would really take on the Catholic Church’s role in health and education. A piecemeal approach of setting up some new Educate Together schools here and there, while welcome when established, is not sufficient. There needs to be an end to an institution that actively campaigns against LGBTQ and women’s rights having access to children and teenagers’ education.
None of the establishment parties, nor Sinn Féin are willing to provoke the ire of the Church hierarchy, something that would be inevitable should its powerful if anachronistic influence in public schools, and the continued abortion ban, be removed. A Left Government would have to break the rules of the profit system, challenging the private ownership of wealth and resources in order to build public housing, develop a real public health service, free education and the right to a job with decent wages and conditions. Increasing taxation on profits and wealth, reversing austerity, and bringing the key levers of the economy into democratic public ownership in order to disempower the private marketeers would be vehemently opposed by the capitalist establishment.
A movement of the working class, women, LGBTQ and young people would have to work in tandem with a Left Government to carry through these policies. Such a movement would inspire the masses across Europe, raising the alternative of a socialist Europe, rather than the neo-liberal, pro-capitalist EU, and inspire a struggle for a socialist world to end oppression, inequality, war, poverty and degradation. The ‘worshippers of the accomplished fact’ say that such far-reaching change is impossible. For half the human race who hold less wealth than the eight richest individuals, for the 60 million refugees in the world, the present is impossible.