By JD in Dublin
The referendum taking place in the Republic of Ireland on Friday the 25th May presents a clear choice for repealing the constitutional eighth amendment, and thereby enabling the government to introduce legislation to legalise abortion.
At the moment this reactionary clause in the constitution grants equal rights to the foetus, even at its earliest stages of development, as to the rights of the woman carrying that foetus. This applies no matter how much the woman might feels unable to cope with the pregnancy and even to the point whereby her health might be critically endangered by carrying that foetus.
Many readers of Left Horizon will scratch their heads wondering how this got into the Irish constitution, but that is to underestimate the traditional power of the Catholic Church in Ireland over the past 100 years. Thankfully, much has changed in recent decades with divorce and then most notably, the introduction of same-sex marriage rights two years ago following a similar landmark referendum.
The key to understanding this new ‘liberal’ enlightenment is not the persuasive powers of lobby groups and politicians but more fundamentally the transformation of the Republic of Ireland from a predominantly rural-based society to one where approximately 70 to 75 per cent of the population live in cities or urban centres.
This dramatic change has taken place in less than fifty years and, coupled with the growth of the working class, the globalisation of culture and human rights, has also undermined the influence of conservative social forces in Ireland as elsewhere. The litany of domestic and international paedophile scandals has also contributed to a marked decline in the trust of the faithful towards an institution, which claimed to have a direct line with God.
While abortion has been all but banned legally in Ireland, the need for abortions of course has continued. The solution found by the establishment is to turn a blind eye to the need for it and allow the solution to be ‘contracted out’ (metaphorically speaking) to British health service providers.
The eighth amendment doesn't prevent the occurrence of abortion. In 1983, the very year it was introduced into the constitution, 3,677 women gave Irish addresses at UK abortion clinics. By 2001, a recorded 6,673 women gave Irish addresses at UK abortion clinics. These numbers are considered not to be the full story, as many women would give the address of friends and relatives living in Britain when they have sought a pregnancy termination in the UK. Since that amendment that effectively ended abortions in Ireland, more than 170,000 women have travelled abroad for abortions!
Serious or permanent risk
What these figures make clear is that the eighth amendment did absolutely nothing to reduce the number of Irish women accessing abortion. All it achieved was to interfere with the care of pregnant women. It requires doctors and nurses – often against their own medical and ethical beliefs – to override the wishes of a pregnant woman, even when it is clear that the pregnancy involves serious or permanent risk to her health.
When doctors and obstetricians see a woman with an underlying serious medical condition, as things stand currently they have to make decisions in a legal rather than a medical framework and indeed these decisions take place under the threat of a custodial sentence.
The result of all this is that women are forced to undergo an arduous and expensive trip overseas to procure the termination of an unwanted pregnancy, be it for family or financial reasons or indeed to end a pregnancy arising from incest, marital or date rape. The costs incurred are often prohibitive for women on low incomes. In some instances, women with no money are resorting to induced miscarriage at home without any medical assistance.
This absolute rigidity in the law, which criminalises women and doctors if equal rights are not measurably given to the woman and her foetus within all clinical decisions, has been found consistently to violate women’s human rights by several UN and European bodies. There has been a campaign running for several years now to finally repeal the eighth amendment and ditch it from the Irish constitution. A National Coalition to Repeal the amendment has come together and has been to the fore in campaigning for progress on the issue.
Nevertheless, the conservative forces that have been trying to police women’s bodies for centuries are not giving up without a fight. A highly effective poster blitz and social media campaign has been orchestrated with money not just from some of the churches in Ireland, but from deep pockets in the south of the United States. Graphic images of abortion and appeals to ‘Love Both’ are making apparent inroads into the original 2-1 predictions in favour of change. Repealing the amendment is being portrayed as ‘A Licence to Kill’ and there are claims that ‘another way’ is possible.
Trades unions and women’s groups
A clever tactic is being deployed which allows for the ‘No’ change campaigners to acknowledge ‘there is a problem which needs to be addressed,’ but that ‘the government proposals go too far…. providing for ‘abortion on demand’ and are extreme’ and that ‘a safer compromise is possible’, thereby implying that another solution is possible down the road. This maybe having an effect in that it cynically spreads the false notion that retaining the amendment is possible while prioritising the health of both mother and foetus.
This campaign of preserving the status quo also points out that the Supreme Court ruled that abortion is possible as a last resort, where it is necessary to save a woman or a girl’s life. However, that ruling did not save the life of Sapina Halappanaver in 2012, and many other women have come close to death in the meantime.
Another cynical ploy being used by the ‘No vote’ is to take the government to task for their poor record of taking care of people’s health generally, thanks to savage health cuts over the years. People are being asked to trust that this government wants to put people’s health first! It doesn’t take a genius to work out that the government is vulnerable on this one.
However, thankfully many trade unions and women’s groups have come out and called for a Yes vote to change the constitution and the legal framework around abortion provision. And it is the unions and the left who are highlighting also how procuring an abortion disproportionately hurts the low paid, particularly in the case of complicated procedures.
Friday the 25th can be a watershed day for women’s rights in Ireland. The result could be tighter than predicted a month ago, but it is still likely that those looking to repeal the Irish Constitution will secure victory. A lot of nails will be bitten between now and the result and nothing is taken for granted. Hopefully, it will be a day to celebrate for all those who believe in trusting women to make the right decision for themselves and their families.
For more reading on Ireland and the role of the Catholic hierarchy see:
Ireland's 1916 Uprising. The Sell Out Of Women and the Catholic Hierarchy.