The following statement by the International Bolshevik Tendency has been distributed at abortion rights events in Dublin and Cork.
Since October 1983, the constitution of the Republic of Ireland has enshrined a supposed ‘equal right to life’ for a foetus and the woman carrying it. Marxists completely reject this reactionary proposition and its corollary: the prohibition of abortion in cases where the potential mother's life is not directly threatened. Such ‘pro-life’ legislation has had fatal consequences for many women around the world:
‘A World Health Organisation report shows that almost half the world's abortions are unauthorised and unsafe. In East Africa and Latin America, where religious conservatives ensure that terminations remain illegal, they account for almost all abortions. Methods include drinking turpentine or bleach, shoving sticks or coathangers into the uterus, and pummelling the abdomen, which often causes the uterus to burst, killing the patient. The WHO estimates that between 65,000 and 70,000 women die as a result of illegal abortions every year, while 5 million suffer severe complications. These effects, the organisation says, “are the visible consequences of restrictive legal codes”.’
—Guardian [London], 26 February 2008
Women in Ireland who can afford to fly to Britain for an abortion can escape these horrors, but those who are young, poor or immigrants without papers are stranded on this anti-choice island. Yet even in Britain the limited abortion rights that exist today are under attack. The 1967 Abortion Act legalised the procedure up to the 28th week of pregnancy, but in 1990 this was lowered to 24 weeks. In May 2008, the House of Commons rejected proposals to reduce it further to 22, 20, 16, and even 12 weeks. These proposals, which foreshadow future attempts to ban abortion outright, are dangerous in themselves as young and menopausal women are often unaware they are pregnant until relatively late, and many foetal abnormalities are not detected until 18-20 weeks of gestation.
British prime minister Gordon Brown, while personally claiming to oppose further restrictions on abortion services, allowed Labour members a ‘conscience vote’—a manoeuvre that could have had tragic repercussions for thousands of women on both sides of the Irish Sea, as dozens of his MPs, including several cabinet ministers, supported the reactionary measures.
George Galloway, the central figure in the now defunct Respect coalition, did not turn up for the vote, but his opposition to a woman's right to choose is a matter of public record. According to the bigots of Right to Life UK: —Throughout his parliamentary career he has consistently opposed abortion on demand and late abortions' (www.righttolife.org.uk).
Galloway, the only MP elected under the Respect banner, was for several years actively promoted by the pro-choice reformists of Britain's Socialist Workers Party (SWP), elder sister of the Irish group of the same name. To paper over the contradiction between Galloway's position and their own, the SWP avoided having Respect take an official position on abortion, leaving Galloway free to do as he wished.
The 1967 Abortion Act has not been applied in Northern Ireland during the British occupation, and a recent proposal to extend the law's ambit to the Six Counties was withdrawn in the face of furious opposition from all major religious and political leaders:
‘Catholic primate Cardinal Seán Brady, Methodist president the Rev Roy Cooper, Presbyterian moderator Dr John Finlay and Church of Ireland primate Archbishop Alan Harper said abortion legislation should be decided by the Northern Ireland Assembly, where there was a large anti-abortion majority, rather than by Westminster….
‘An amendment has been tabled which would provide for abortion in the North, but the DUP [Democratic Unionist Party], Sinn Féin, Ulster Unionists and the SDLP [Social Democratic and Labour Party] are opposed to the proposed extension.’
—Irish Times, 17 May 2008
The regulation of female sexuality and reproductive activity has always been central to women's oppression:
‘While the form, extent and intensity of women's oppression has varied among different societies, and in different historical periods, it has always been closely linked to women's role in the reproduction of the next generation. This, in turn, is ultimately shaped by the requirements of the prevailing mode of production and its accompanying social structure.
‘The subjugation of women under the capitalist “free market” is rooted in their central role in the family as unpaid providers of the domestic services necessary for the maintenance of society. These functions include primary responsibility for food, clothing and cleaning; for the care of the very young, the aged and the sick; and for meeting the varied emotional and psychological needs of all the members of the household. The family provides these services more cheaply for the ruling class (both in economic and political terms) than any alternative. The need to maintain the family as the basic unit of class-divided societies thus constitutes the material basis for the subordination of women.’
—1917, No. 19
The Irish constitution ‘recognises the Family as the natural primary and fundamental unit group of Society’ (Article 41.1.1) and ‘the necessary basis of social order’ (Article 41.1.2). The basic law also ‘recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved’ (Article 41.2.1). The social emancipation of women requires the expropriation of the capitalist exploiters, who derive real material benefits from female oppression. In order to do this, the state that serves and protects the capitalists must be smashed and replaced by the rule of the workers and oppressed.
While the influence of Catholicism, a traditional bulwark of Ireland's rulers, is declining, the Catholic Church still runs 92 percent of the country's primary schools. The constitution stipulates —that the homage of public worship is due to Almighty God' (Article 44.1), although reference to ‘the special position of the Holy Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church’ was deleted in 1972. The obscurantist clerical hierarchy opposes contraception as well as ‘abortion, abortifacient pills and devices, the abortion pill and the morning-after pill, destructive embryo and embryonic stem cell research, genetic engineering, euthanasia, etc.’ (www.catholiccommunications.ie, 5 October 2007).
Ireland's two largest ‘socialist’ organisations, the Socialist Party (SP) and the SWP, both nominally uphold a woman's right to choose, but have failed to mention the issue in electoral campaigns. The platform of the ‘People Before Profit Alliance’, in which the SWP was immersed for the 2007 Dáil election, said nothing about abortion rights. The SP's manifesto for the 2004 European and local elections also avoided the question.
Marxists in Ireland fight for the separation of church and state and the creation of a completely secular education system. Opposing the attempts of religious reactionaries to poison the minds of youth with social backwardness and superstition requires unflinching advocacy of free and universal access to contraceptives as well as free abortion on demand. It also means advancing a series of measures necessary to begin to liberate women from the shackles of the nuclear family, including the right to immediate divorce at the request of either partner, extended parental leave for either partner at full pay, full employment at good wages, free quality healthcare (including care for the disabled), 24-hour childcare, and a guarantee of decent housing for all.
Marxists participate in united-front campaigns alongside reformists, sectoralists and proponents of other non-revolutionary ideas to advance the interests of the oppressed. In doing so, we do not conceal our political views and neither demand that our partners support our programme nor take responsibility for theirs. The Cork Women's Right to Choose Group, in which we are active, has the following basis of unity:
‘The Cork Women's Right to Choose is a single-issue group; a loose alliance of women and men who believe that a woman has the right to control her fertility. We believe that abortion should be treated as a health issue and not as a criminal law matter. We campaign for full safe and legal access to abortion and reproductive health services for all women in Ireland regardless of income, age, sexuality, race, ability, geography, immigration status, or culture.’
Choice Ireland, a larger abortion-rights coalition, is organised on a different basis:
‘We proudly declare ourselves to be a feminist organisation. We reject the negative connotations that have been attached to feminism in recent years (mainly by its enemies). We call for all women who share our aims and principles to reassert ownership of the word.’
Among the founders of Choice Ireland are the ostensibly revolutionary anarchists of the Workers Solidarity Movement. Revolutionaries do not endorse feminism because it is a cross-class ideology that views gender inequality, rather than social class, as the fundamental axis of social oppression. This logically leads to promoting unity between working women and their ruling class ‘sisters’, and thus limits the fight for women's rights to what is compatible with the continuation of capitalist rule. While Marxists can work with feminists in concrete struggles, we consider feminism to be an ideological obstacle to women's liberation.
The anti-abortion alliance of the political and religious establishment across all 32 counties, along with the attempts to impose new restrictions in Britain, demonstrates that a woman's right to choose will never be secure under capitalism. Working people and the oppressed must struggle to sweep away the muck of ages by establishing an Irish workers' republic within a Socialist Federation of Europe.
Women's liberation will only be achieved when the provision of the domestic services traditionally performed within the nuclear family (childcare, housework, food preparation, etc.) are socialised as the material foundations of a classless society are laid. A workers' revolution that expropriates capitalist property and opens the door to a socialist economic order requires an organisation capable of providing political leadership to all of capitalism's victims. The model for such an organisation is the Bolshevik Party of Lenin and Trotsky which led the Russian working class to power in October 1917 and immediately began to lay the basis for the emancipation of women as it struggled to spread socialist revolution around the world.