"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)
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
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.
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.
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."
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
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.
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:
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.
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."
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.