The Struggle for Abortion Rights in Ireland

Clerical Reaction & Women’s Oppression

The following statement was originally distributed in September 2013.

Responding to national and international protests over Savita Halappanavar’s tragic death from septicaemia after she was denied an abortion, the Irish government passed the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act on 30 July 2013. Halappanavar’s death, along with this new “X-Case legislation”, has reinvigorated the pro-choice movement and placed the question of women’s rights in the forefront of Irish politics.

The new legislation is extremely restrictive, relaxing the total ban on legal abortions only in cases where the woman’s life is at risk. The decision about abortion is still not in the hands of the woman herself, but the doctors who determine whether her life is in danger. The law thus codifies an explicitly anti-choice position and was correctly opposed by many abortion rights activists.

Only a handful of women will benefit from this legislation and it would almost certainly not have saved the life of Savita Halappanavar. Her death illustrates that those who are opposed to the availability of abortion are not “pro-life.” Without the right to safe, legal abortions, thousands of women every year are still forced to travel to Britain and the continent to terminate their pregnancies. The hundreds, perhaps thousands, of women who self-administer the RU 486 “abortion pill” at home in Ireland are still considered criminals, along with anyone who helps them.

The Right to Choose Means Free Abortion on Demand

Abortion is illegal in Ireland under section 40.3.3 of the Constitution:

“The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.”

In the wake of the X-Case legislation, there is talk of a campaign to repeal section 40.3.3. This should be supported, but it is clearly not enough. There are differences over the alternative—from restricting abortion to cases of rape, incest, fatal foetal abnormality or a threat to the woman’s health, to a pro-choice position of free, safe and legal abortion on demand. The “right to choose” can only mean that the pregnant woman herself decides whether or not to have an abortion, with no conditions attached. We need a campaign that calls for nothing less than abortion on demand and for the provision of facilities to make this a reality.

Such a campaign would collaborate where possible with those seeking constitutional change, but it is also necessary to build a militant challenge to the existing legal restrictions. The thousands of Irish women who need abortions every year cannot afford to wait for a promise of future change to the law. The pro-choice movement needs to be actively involved in maximising women’s options right now, despite the legal restrictions—distributing information on how to procure and safely use the abortion pill and supporting women travelling to have abortions. Harsh bans on abortion don’t actually lower abortion rates, they in fact encourage unsafe practices, which result in the deaths of some 47,000 women each year across the globe. The threat of up to 14 years imprisonment for taking the abortion pill can only discourage women who have complications from seeking medical help. We should aim to establish a semi-underground network, based around sympathetic medical professionals, which could provide support and medical care for women in need of assistance. The greater the access to abortion for women who need it, the less viable the repressive legislation becomes, and the greater the momentum to repeal it altogether.

The Right to Choose and the Irish State

Legal change will not come about through lobbying TDs [members of the Irish parliament] but through mass political mobilisation. Neither Fine Gael nor the Labour Party is willing to call a referendum to change the Constitution. The main opposition party, Fianna Fáil, is even more backward on the issue, while Sinn Fein and the Greens support abortion only if a woman’s life is threatened.

The capitalist parties reflect the prejudices of the church and the misogynist state, but they are also well aware that polls regularly indicate that around 35% of the population supports the right to choose, although close to 80% believe that abortion should be allowed when the woman’s health is in danger and nearly 90% when there is a threat to the woman’s life. Some in the pro-choice camp argue that we should therefore limit our demands until a majority supports free abortion on demand. On the contrary, our task as fighters for women’s rights is to build that majority, to convince Irish workers and the oppressed that the struggle for reproductive freedom and abortion is integral to the fight against all oppression. Irish women will never have equal rights while they are denied access to free, safe and legal abortion.

Ireland’s misogynist culture has been manifested in various ways historically, from the symphysiotomy procedures imposed on many women during childbirth, to the abuse that occurred in the Magdalene Laundries and “mother and baby homes.” The Constitution has enshrined the oppression of women since the consolidation of the state in the 1930s. Article 41.2 stipulates that women’s primary social role is motherhood:

“1. In particular, the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.

“2. The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.”

This still stands despite the reality that over 50% of Irish mothers are employed and the hypocrisy over the concern for motherhood is shown by continued cuts to child benefit and social welfare for lone parents. Until 1973 women in the Civil Service faced mandatory retirement on marriage. Only in 1994 was the right to divorce allowed in Ireland, four years after marital rape was criminalised. Not until 2005 was there a successful conviction for this crime that affects so many women (Rape Crisis Network Ireland, 18 November 2005). Nearly 8,000 women received support from Domestic Violence Support Services in Ireland in 2011 (, while many thousands of other incidents of domestic violence went unreported.

The Right to Choose and Women’s Liberation

The 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 subjugation of women under capitalism is rooted in their central role in the family as unpaid providers of the domestic services necessary for the maintenance of society. The Rape Crisis Network notes that “most sexual violence in Ireland is…committed in the family home, by male members of the family and male relatives, within the institution of the family” (Rape Crisis Network Ireland, 18 November 2005). The family also functions as an atomised unit, providing an ideal conveyor belt for the state’s and church’s backward and regressive ideas.

An essential bulwark of women’s oppression in Ireland is the Catholic Church, which campaigned against the new abortion law as being “too liberal.” It 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.” (, [5 October 2007]).

The Church still runs 90% of the country’s primary schools. To oppose the attempts of religious reactionaries to poison the minds of youth with socially backward superstition, it is necessary to fight for the total separation of church and state and a completely secular education system. As well as championing free and universal access to contraceptives and free abortion on demand, we should also demand the right to immediate divorce at the request of either partner, funding for women’s refuges, extended parental leave for either parent at full pay, full employment at good wages, free quality healthcare (including care for the disabled), 24-hour childcare and decent affordable housing for all.

The oppression of women can only be ended when the domestic services traditionally performed within the nuclear family (childcare, housework, food preparation, etc.) are socialised. This in turn requires the overthrow of capitalist rule by the workers’ movement and the constructing of a new non-exploitative economic order that can provide the material foundation for human relations based on true equality and respect.

A workers’ revolution that expropriates capitalist property and can open the door to a socialist future requires an organisation that can provide political leadership to all of capitalism’s victims with a programme capable of liberating them. The Bolshevik Party of Lenin and Trotsky, which led the Russian working class to power in October 1917 and immediately began to lay the material basis for the emancipation of women, provides a model of such an organisation. They legalised divorce and homosexuality, organised collective laundries, canteens and childcare, and undertook to free women from lives of domestic drudgery—gains that were tragically reversed as the revolution degenerated under Stalin. A revolutionary organisation of the same type as the Bolshevik Party must be created in Ireland today, one that participates in the day-to-day struggles of working people and the oppressed and is based on a programme of establishing an Irish workers’ republic within a socialist federation of Europe and ending capitalism and exploitation for good.