The struggle for abortion rights in Ireland

December 5, 2012

Shaun Harkin reports on developments in the fight for reproductive rights in Ireland in the wake of a young pregnant woman's tragic and preventable death.

ABORTION AND the struggle for a woman's right to choose is taking center stage on both sides of the Irish border, in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland.

The death of a young woman in the Republic of Ireland because she was denied an abortion brought thousands onto the streets in outrage--while in Northern Ireland, the opening of an abortion clinic in Belfast has challenged the conservative establishment consensus.

The debate is opening up a new front of struggle amid the ongoing repercussions of the collapse of the Irish economic boom, known internationally as the Celtic Tiger, as well as economic stagnation in Northern Ireland.

The economic meltdown has had a staggering impact on Irish politics and society. In the Republic of Ireland, Fianna Fail, the dominant party over the previous 70 years, was severely punished in the 2011 national elections. Austerity continues to widen inequality, deepen class polarization and fuel latent resistance. But resistance isn't just developing for economic justice, but for social justice as well.

Thousands march in Dublin in memory of Savita Halappanavar and to demand abortion rights
Thousands march in Dublin in memory of Savita Halappanavar and to demand abortion rights (William Murphy)

SATIVA HALAPPANAVAR, a 31-year-old Indian immigrant and dentist, died on October 28 after doctors at Galway University Hospital refused to terminate her pregnancy. Savita and her husband Praveen, were told an abortion couldn't be performed because Ireland is "a Catholic country."

The India Times correctly characterized what happened with the headline: "Ireland Murders Pregnant Indian Dentist." Thousands have taken to the streets to demonstrate their anger at this completely unnecessary tragedy and to demand new legislation so it never happens again.

Savita, who has been in Ireland with her husband since 2008, was informed by doctors on October 21 that she was miscarrying. She suffered days of agony and her appeals for a termination were turned down. On October 24, the fetal heartbeat could no longer be detected, and the fetus was removed. But Savita had to be taken to intensive care with multi-organ failure. She died on October 28 after contracting a blood infection.

This happened because the Republic of Ireland has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe. Abortion remains illegal under the antiquated 1861 Offenses Against the Person Act. In 1992, Ireland's High Court was pressured to rule that abortions could take place if there was a threat to the life of the mother and that women would have the right to travel abroad for the procedure.

The 1992 ruling came in response to a case in which a 14-year-old victim of rape was denied the right to have an abortion or travel elsewhere. Huge demonstrations and a massive public outcry forced the government to backtrack.

Some 3,000 women now travel from the Republic of Ireland to the United Kingdom or elsewhere for abortions every year. However, the cost of travel and arranging an abortion makes it much more difficult for working-class and poor women. While the Celtic boom made headlines in the financial press, provisions for maternity, parental leave and child benefits improved only marginally and lagged well behind the rest of the European Union of which the Republic of Ireland is a member state.

Child care costs in Ireland are among the highest in Europe, and one of the travesties of the Celtic Tiger boom was the government's complete failure of to fund an expansion of widely needed public services.

The 1990s crystallized tremendous social and economic changes across Ireland, with divorce and homosexuality legalized. The transformation in consciousness in the Irish population accompanied a massive increase in female participation in the workforce. In 1961, 26.4 percent of women were part of the workforce in a total population of 2.8 million; in 2011, the employment rate for women was 56 percent. The gender pay gap is still 12.6 percent.

The majority of the population remains nominally Catholic, but there has been a huge decline in adherence to Catholic doctrine. For example, an Irish Times poll in September 2010 found that only 13 percent of respondents described themselves as "strongly religious," and among those aged between 18 and 24, just 4 percent said they were "strongly religious." Some 62 percent of urban residents said they attended religious services "only occasionally" or "never."

On many defining issues, a majority of Irish Catholics don't follow Church doctrine. Polls consistently show a majority of Irish people support abortion rights. The exposure of the Catholic Church's tolerance of and defense of pedophiles in the 1990s also destroyed much of its moral authority. Overwhelming majorities support marriage for priests and the right for women to be priests.

IN NORTHERN Ireland, the first independent abortion clinic was opened October 18 on Queen Victoria Street in Belfast. Dawn Purvis, a former leader of the hard-line Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), has been a key advocate for the Marie Stopes International clinic, a not-for-profit charity, and will act as its program director.

In 1967, the government, then dominated by Unionists and Protestants, with the support of the Catholic Church, refused to allow the British Abortion Act to be extended to Northern Ireland. Technically, terminations can only be carried out in Northern Ireland to protect the life of the mother. In reality, potentially hundreds of abortions are performed, but not properly documented, because physicians fear they would face criminal charges.

An estimated 1,000 women traveled to other parts of the United Kingdom last year alone for abortions, and tens of thousands have been forced to do so over the last several decades.

The clinic was opened despite the hysterical rantings of fanatical pro-life groups like Precious Life and the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC). It should be no surprise that the Democratic Unionist Party, founded by evangelical bigot Ian Paisley and stacked with creationists, would be vehemently opposed to extending abortion rights in Northern Ireland, but support for the unacceptable status quo is shared by all the main political parties.

This includes Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) until the cessation of their armed struggle for national liberation in the 1990s. Sinn Fein leader and Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness joined with the Neanderthal chorus in arguing, "We've had a very consistent position down the years. Sinn Fein is not in favor of abortion, and we resisted any attempt to bring the British 1967 Abortion Act to the North."

Cynically, McGuinness went on to accuse Purvis of undermining the National Health Service by creating a competitor to it.

Attempts by Sinn Fein members to win the party to a pro-choice position have been voted down at its annual conference. In the 1980s, Margaret Ward, in her magnificent book Unmanageable Revolutionaries: Women and Irish Nationalism, described the limitations of Sinn Fein's radicalism and the frustration of feminists inside and outside the party:

There is no analysis of the origins of women's oppression in this document, whose basic thrust is aimed at legislative change so limited as barely to advance a women's status to that achieved by Scandinavian countries. Once again, imperialist domination becomes a convenient scapegoat to which all subsequent ills can be attributed, being "mainly inherited from Victorian England [as] in Celtic Ireland women had more equality with men than at any time since."

Sinn Fein now campaigns as an all-Ireland party for an "Ireland of Equals." But clearly this doesn't appear to apply to half the population and workforce.

The ruling parties in Northern Ireland, whether Unionist, Republican or Nationalist, are completely out of touch with growing numbers of both Protestants and Catholics. A majority already supports abortion, and a new poll published in the Belfast Telegraph found that 45 percent want further liberalization of abortion laws, with almost equal support from Catholics and Protestants.

THE FORMAL partitioning of Ireland in 1920 following the War of Independence laid the basis for two extremely conservative, religiously dominated and pro-capitalist governments and institutions on either side of the border. Revolutionary and founder of the Irish Socialist Republican Party James Connolly explained what partition would mean before his death in 1916:

Such a scheme would destroy the labor movement by disrupting it. It would perpetuate in a form aggravated in evil the discords now prevalent, and help the Home Rule (Irish Nationalists) and Orange (Pro-Union with Britain) capitalists and clerics to keep their rallying cries before the public as the political watchword of the day. In short, it would make division more intense and confusion of ideas and parties more confounded.

Connolly's point was that the division of Ireland would segregate the working class, weaken its ability to resist Green capitalists and Orange capitalists on either side of the border and undercut its ability to challenge religious bigotry to win social reforms.

Indeed, stoking and perpetuating religious identity would be used as a means to constantly weaken working-class resistance by aligning workers with "their" employers and "their" state--as a consequence, struggles for divorce, abortion rights, LGBT liberation and challenges to oppression were held back.

In 1937, Irish political leader Eamon de Valera proclaimed Ireland to be "a Catholic nation," and Catholic doctrine was coded into the new constitution. When the Irish State was founded, the Catholic Church was handed virtual control over primary and secondary level education. To this day, the Catholic Church controls some 2,899 of the 3, 282 primary schools in the Republic.

The new Northern Irish statelet was dominated by Unionists, backed by the military might of Britain, and decreed "a Protestant nation for a Protestant people," despite the fact that more than one-third of the population was Catholic. Though Unionists have claimed Northern Ireland should remain part of United Kingdom because of the supposed superiority of British institutions, they have, for decade after decade, opposed the implementation of every piece of progressive legislation passed in London's Westminster Parliament, including abortion rights.

The struggle across Ireland for abortion rights and against social conservatism today is part of challenging the disastrous legacy of partition.

The coalition government in the Republic of Ireland, dominated by the ardently pro-life Fine Gael party, is being pushed through protests to act quickly to change abortion laws. However, they are continuing to drag their heels. Irish Taoiseach (prime minister) Enda Kelly has already declared there any new legislation will not lead to abortion on demand. Left-wing representatives in the Dail (Irish Parliament) are pressing for legislation that would immediately extend abortion rights and ensure no other woman suffers Savita's tragedy.

Savita's husband is demanding a public inquiry and plans to take the struggle to the European Court of Human Rights. Pro-choice and abortion rights supporters feel emboldened and will continue to campaign to win justice for Savita, to lift the stigma from abortion and to win legal guarantees that give women--not the church or the state--the right to control their bodies.

The issues raised and the outcome of the struggle will have a tremendous impact, not just in the Republic, but also in Northern Ireland.

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