FINE GAEL Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has given notice of an abortion referendum to be held next year in the Republic of Ireland. The Eighth Amendment of the Irish constitution gives Ireland some of the most restrictive laws on abortion in Europe. This amendment ensures that the life of the unborn carries equal weight to that of its mother. A woman could spend fourteen years in prison for an illegal termination. Abortion is only allowed if the life of the mother is at risk.
That’s why it’s so important that a growing pro-choice campaign calling for the Repeal of the Eighth Amendment has developed in Ireland. Tens of thousands marched in Dublin on 30 September to show their support for choice organised by the Abortion Rights Campaign. This follows on from Strike4Repeal day in March where thousands occupied O’Connell Bridge as they made their way to a protest at the Irish Parliament, the Dail.
The waning influence of the Catholic Church especially amongst young people is indicative of changing attitudes in Ireland. The stunning referendum victory for same sex marriage supporters also revealed this change throughout the population. Opinion polls consistently point to majority support for increased abortion rights.
However this sentiment is not adequately reflected in the main political parties in Ireland. Both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail oppose repealing the Eighth; Labour support repeal but still want restrictions on abortion; Sinn Fein fudge the issue but similar to Labour. Only the Anti-Austerity Alliance/People before Profit and a few other independent TDs have a clear pro-choice position.
The growing clamour for repeal – even the un Human Rights Committee decreed the Irish law goes against human rights – has forced Varadkar to appoint a “Citizens’ Assembly” to consider the issue. Much to the surprise of Fine Gael and others, the Assembly recommended, by 64 per cent, that abortion should be permitted in a wide range of circumstances, and that abortion should be legalised upon request, up to 12 weeks into the pregnancy. A substantial minority, 28 per cent, called for the upper limit to be set at 22 weeks. A parliamentary committee will now decide on the wording in the referendum and will submit this to the government in December.
So it is not clear what the Irish people will be voting on as yet. Will the Eighth Amendment be completely removed, or replaced by a provision which determines differing levels of access to abortion? Given the socially conservative make up of the government and the Dail, a mass movement from below, headed by working class women themselves, will have to push hard on campuses, in workplaces and on estates for the recommendations of the Assembly in their entirety to be put to the people.
While it is vital to repeal the Eighth, that does not in itself mean free, legal and safe abortion for all who need or want it. Only by obtaining the right to free abortion on request and supporting a woman’s right to choose can we completely decriminalise abortion.
Similarly in Northern Ireland, despite being part of the ‘uk’, abortion is also illegal and only allowed if the woman’s life is in danger or there is permanent or serious danger to her mental or physical health. Until a recent victory following a campaign led by Labour’s Stella Creasy MP, women had to travel to England for privately paid abortions.
Now they will be available free on the NHS but women will still have to incur the costs of travel, accommodation and time off work. This makes women in Northern Ireland, and particularly poorer women, second class citizens. The Supreme Court has ruled the decision rests with the Stormont Assembly, so in Northern Ireland and across the uk we need a strong working class women’s movement to demand free and safe access to abortion for all.