For legal and free abortion – as early as possible, as late as necessary

by Philip Ferguson

The death of Savita Halappanavar on October 28 at University Hospital Galway has put the abortion issue right back in the centre of Irish politics – not just in the southern state, but throughout the country.  This is especially the case as it coincides with the opening of a Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast.

The Halappanavar case is especially tragic and dramatic because the foetus was clearly unviable, she was in the throes of a miscarriage and Savita’s life was in danger.  She was denied an abortion because there was still a foetal heartbeat.  That heartbeat took precedence over the heartbeat, and life, of a woman.  Moreover, whatever we might think about the callousness of the doctors, they were obeying the law.  Legally, an abortion is only allowable if the woman’s life is in immediate danger.

Abortion law on both sides of the border constitutes a major restriction on women’s rights and a major intrusion by church (both Catholic and Protestant) and state into women’s lives.  The opposition of so many Unionists to the extension of the British 1967 Abortion Act to the six counties is one of the things that reveals the hollowness of Unionist claims to ‘being British’.  They are ‘British’ when it suits them, and only then.

The opposition of Sinn Fein to women’s right to abortion, at the same time, is indicative of the equivocal nature of the Shinners’ republicanism.   Just as the Unionists are ‘British’ when it suits them and then don’t want a bar of British law when it comes to abortion, so the Shinners are republican when it suits them but then don’t want a bar of secularism when it comes to abortion.  Well, in the north at least.  South of the border the Shinners are opportunistically trying to put themselves in the van of the movement to ‘tidy up’ the legislation so that deaths like this won’t happen again but women will still be denied access to terminations.

It’s a mark of the deeply reactionary nature of Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fail that southern Irish law on abortion is so tied to Catholic teaching.  The idea, enshrined in the 1937 Constitution, is that women’s place in society is primarily that of wife and mother.  If something goes wrong with a pregnancy, it’s the woman’s fault – some kind of sin has been committed and miscarriage is God’s punishment. . . as is death in childbirth or death in miscarriage.

Republicanism has always been a modernising and secularising movement in Ireland.  This means that it stands for the emancipation of women, an emancipation which is simply not possible as long as the church and state have more control over women’s bodies than women themselves.

What is needed is the scrapping of all restrictions on women’s democratic right to choose to terminate a pregnancy.  Abortion should be legal and free.  In terms of time-limits, women seeking terminations are likely to seek them early in the pregnancy, but the option needs to be open – in other words, as early as possible, as late as necessary.

The struggle over the right to abortion is a struggle over the nature of Irish society.  And that means north and south.

Maud Gonne; her perspective of free women in a free Ireland is in urgent need of revival

A hundred years ago, Connolly, a strong supporter of women’s emancipation, argued that partition would lead to a “carnival of reaction” with the most backward and reactionary forces in power in both statelets.  Savita Halappanavar is the latest victim of that carnival of reaction.  A struggle for legal, free abortion, carried out on a 32-county basis, would be a massive blow against that carnival of reaction and for progress, secularism, freedom and equality across the whole island.  It could show that the interests of the mass of Irish women are obstructed by both reactionary statelets but could be met in a free Ireland.

Over a hundred years ago, Inghinidhe na hEireann, the revolutionary republican women’s group founded by Maud Gonne, put forward the idea that women’s freedom could only be achieved in a free Ireland.  It’s long since time to renew that perspective.

Posted on November 23, 2012, in 21st century republicanism and socialism, Democratic rights - general, Irish politics today, national, Partition, Political education and theory, Provos - then and now, six counties, twenty-six counties, Women, Women in republican history. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Philip, The fact that the ‘socialist republican’group Eirigi have also adapted an official position of anti-choice also highlights this paying of lip service to socialism and emancipation in all its forms. Also highlights the dominance of more green issues in republicanism

  2. I’m not sure why you put quote marks around socialist-republican. They clearly are socialist republicans. The position they adopted is that “éirígí is calling for legal, free and safe abortion services to be made available across Ireland” in a set of six circumstances. Those circumstances are listed at:

    I’m a supporter of women’s right to abortion so, obviously, I don’t think their position goes anywhere near far enough, but I’d see it as a promising start rather than them adopting “an official position of anti-choice”.

    Their position on the issue doesn’t in any way change my fundamental support for them.

    Moreover, from what I can see, none of the gas-and-water socialist groups campaign for the repeal of all laws against abortion, although they may have formal positions (ie give lip service) along those lines.

    If we were talking about a left group in an imperialist country, then the eirigi position would be pretty bad. But the mass of people in countries which have been dominated by colonialism and then imperialism often do have positions on these kinds of issues that are related to the historical experience of oppression. When I was in Sinn Fein I had a personal friend who would have lain down her life for a revolution but who was staunchly anti-abortion in practically all circumstances. She saw abortion as something that the liberal middle class (and, behind them, imperialism) wanted to inflict on the masses. Given historical Irish experiences of famine and mass emigration, I wasn’t totally shocked by her position.

    The unfortunate reality is that there is no left current of any size in Ireland campaigning unequivocally for safe, legal abortion. Those who do advocate such a position either have backward positions of their own on the national question or, in the case of Socialist Democracy, which is solid on both issues, have simply been unable to build an organisation of any weight at all.

    Blending the socio-economic and national questions is clearly going to take more time. Until it happens, progress towards the overthrow of imperialism and the Irish bourgeoisie – and thus the achievement of real freedom – is going to be limited.


  3. ‘If we were talking about a left group in an imperialist country, then the eirigi position would be pretty bad. But the mass of people in countries which have been dominated by colonialism and then imperialism often do have positions on these kinds of issues that are related to the historical experience of oppression’
    If you think the national question has any relevance to this you are away with it. The PUP have a more progressive policy on choice than this. Two years to come up with a compromise that won’t offend their ‘hard men’ in Belfast.

  4. ‘I’d see it as a promising start’ … 2012!
    As it happens the most left-wing members of eirigi in Dublin have left the organisation, which during the Lisbon referendum was postering ‘for country and community, vote no’ shades of SF’s 1984 ‘One Ireland, one people’. Progress?

  5. From their ard fheis statement:
    “This Ard-Fheis accepts and fully endorses James Connolly’s Marxist-based analysis of the development of Irish society and believes that analysis remains as valid and as applicable today as it was 100 years ago; this Ard-Fheis views capitalism to be a form of theft which seeks to deprive the working man and woman of that which is rightfully theirs: the intrinsic value of their own labour. Like Connolly and his comrades, we also fight for an Irish Socialist Republic, understanding that it alone can guarantee the interests of the Irish working class.”

    No shades of Sinn Fein there.

    And if you don’t think that the backward situation in Ireland (north and south) regarding abortion has anything to do with partition and the national question then you haven’t understood Connolly’s “carnival of reaction” analysis of partition.

    Perhaps you’d like to cite the part of the PUP programme, or PUP press statements, that show their position is more progressive than eirigi. Or are you simply referring to the fact that Dawn Purvis is the Stopes clinic director?


  6. Branno's ultra-left t-shirt

    I think there is a reference to the PUP position on the Choice Ireland website. Long before Dawn Purvis was prominent they supported abortion rights.

    • Cheers. I looked at the link and yes, it’s a fairly advanced position (especially given some of their other positions). I find it odd, however, that when I checked the PUP site I could find nothing indicating a position on abortion.

  1. Pingback: Il y a un mois, Savita Halappanavar mourait à l’hôpital de Galway | Liberation Irlande

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