By Alan Gibson, pro-choice activist in Cork
The referendum result on 25 May 2018 was a blow against reaction and a significant step forward for reproductive rights in Ireland. A resounding 66.4% Yes vote from a turnout of 64.1% of registered voters shows that repeal of the 8th Amendment is an idea whose time has come, removing the legal equation of the life of a pregnant woman with a fetus and opening the door to a continued struggle towards full abortion rights for all.
An RTE poll of people leaving the voting stations indicated that supporting repeal has been the view of the majority of Irish people for quite some time, with 82% of those polled saying they did not change their mind during the campaign. Savita Halappanavar’s tragic death in 2012 was a factor for some, but for most their decision on which way to vote predated even that.
This victory reflects an increasing recognition that abortion is a social reality for women in Ireland which should be dealt with here at home by the health services. It is also the product of sterling work by Together For Yes and decades of campaigning by pro-choice activists up and down the country to highlight that reality and make it an acceptable topic of discussion.
There is still much to do. This autumn’s proposed legislation is likely to allow for abortion on request up to 12 weeks and later in rare circumstances approved by a panel of doctors. This will meet the needs of many women in Ireland faced with an unwanted pregnancy, and we must support attempts to make it as far-reaching as possible, but it is clear that whatever legislation is passed will fall well short of providing free, safe and legal abortion on demand.
The government and political establishment will want to treat the referendum result and coming legislation as the end of the matter, but now is not the time to relax. Although the RTE exit poll indicated that only 52% of voters are fully in favour of abortion on request up to 12 weeks, the tide of popular opinion is moving in our favour. We must continue to fight for women’s right to access abortion services without any time limits or gatekeepers.
Progressive social gains, like the historic Roe v Wade decision in the United States, can also be rolled back. Despite their comprehensive defeat in the referendum, the anti-choice side will seek to take advantage of any opportunity to further their aims. The immediate battleground will be over allowing medical professionals to refuse to perform abortions due to “conscientious objection”. This would have a devastating effect on poor woman in rural Ireland with restricted choice of medical facilities, as well as young women with unsympathetic parents. Abortion must not only be legal but also be freely available where and when women want it.
Anti-choice campaigners are backed by the Catholic Church which still exerts significant control over the infrastructure of public health services. “Catholic ethos” also has considerable influence on the role of women and other aspects of social morality through the Church running 90% of the country’s primary schools. However, despite those formal positions of power, the influence of the Church is steadily decreasing, shown by the attendance in the Phoenix Park for the Pope’s visit – perhaps as little as 10% of the numbers who turned out for John Paul II forty years ago. It is time to start agitating for full separation of church and state. All publicly funded hospitals and schools should be owned and run by the state without any form of religious “ethos” restricting medical procedures or interfering with the curriculum. Religious belief is a private matter and, other than as part of general study of human society, should not have any place in the teaching of children or the provision of health care.
As well as advocating free, safe and legal access to abortion and freely available contraception, advocates for the liberation of women should seek to take advantage of our victory in the referendum to push further. We should fight for abortion rights to be extended to the North, where women’s bodies are held hostage to the reactionary DUP propping up the Tories in Westminster. In both North and South we should fight for further extensions to women’s rights – at the very least, the right to immediate divorce at the request of either partner; full funding for women’s refuges; extended parental leave for both parents on full pay; full employment at good wages index-linked to the cost of living; free quality healthcare (including care for the disabled) and state-provided free 24-hour childcare along with decent affordable housing for all.
Our capitalist rulers and their lackeys in the Dáil may pay some lip service to elements of these basic social advances but will hide behind their “we can’t afford it” mantra. This is only true if the capitalists are allowed to continue syphoning off a huge proportion of societal wealth in the form of the legalised theft known as “profit”. The vast productive capacity available to humanity in the 21st century is directed towards maximisation of those profits regardless of the social and environmental cost, rather than being used to meet the needs of all.
Truly ending women’s oppression will only become a possibility when the working masses overthrow capitalism and start constructing a new non-exploitative socio-economic order, including fully socialising domestic labour. This requires a revolutionary party that not only works towards this long-term goal but has a consistent commitment to fighting for women’s rights here and now as an integral part of the culture and practice of the revolutionary movement. This is a necessary prerequisite for a future social system being able to create new human relations based on true equality and respect.