Abortion in Ireland - Historical Perspective and current campaigning

A talk given by Patricia McCarthy at the Workers Solidarity Movement open discussion in Dublin, September 1992 on 'the fight for abortion rights

Abortion was totally illegal in Ireland under all circumstances until the Supreme Court judgement in the "X" case earlier this year, which seems to permit abortion in the extremely limited case of threatened suicide by the mother. The 1861 Offences against the Persons Act states that any person "performing, attempting and or assisting in an abortion is liable to penal servitude for life". Laws such as this on the statute books of other European countries have been relaxed, liberalised or abolished in the face of the general realisation and acknowledgment that women always and everywhere will exert their right to end an unwanted pregnancy. In Ireland powerful reactionary forces have succeeded in not only preventing the liberalisation of laws here on abortion but have gone much further with a constitutional amendment, the 8th Amendment, and a series of court actions which have outlawed the distribution of information on abortion. Ireland is now the only country in the world that actually bans information on abortion. The offensive by the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign (PLAC) against womens' rights in Ireland is part of a world wide offensive against abortion rights. The upholding of Ireland's information ban by the E.C. Court of Justice places the campaign for abortion rights in Ireland in an international context.

Historically, back street abortion did exist in Ireland before the 1967 Abortion Act in Britain. Between 1926 and 1974 there were at least 58 recorded prosecutions under the 1861 Offences against the Persons Act. In 1956 Nurse Cadell was convicted of attempting to induce a miscarriage and sentenced to death, a sentence which was later commuted to life imprisonment. Since the 1967 Act in Britain, backstreet abortion ceased to be a problem in Ireland as over 4,000 Irish women a year travelled to England for abortions. Over 100,000 Irish women have had abortions in England since it was legalised there, demonstrating that women will always seek to control their fertility through abortion if necessary - no matter how difficult this option is made .

The situation in the North.

The six counties are excluded from the British Abortion Act of 1967 but under the Infant Life Act there are certain circumstances in which a woman may have an abortion in hospital there. However these circumstances are so restrictive that they are useless to most northern women.

Censorship of information.

The P.L.A.C. sponsored 8th Amendment to the constitution formed the legal basis for S.P.U.C. attacks on the Well-Woman & Open-Line counselling services and various student unions, British publications which carried advertisements for legal abortion services and generally on the rights of women and freedom of information in this country. The Hamilton judgement in April 1989 found in favour of S.PU.C. and prohibited the Well Woman Center and Open Line Counselling from operating their non-directive counselling services which included abortion advice and referral to reputable clinics in England. This vital service was judged to be contrary to the 8th Amendment. The full implications of this Amendment are still being revealed with library books being taken off the shelves by Dublin Corporation and the 'Guardian' newspaper being seized by customs officials. The self-censorship in the media which followed the passage of the 8th Amendment and the Hamilton judgement has meant the issue of abortion which had been opened up for debate during the 1983 anti-amendment campaign once again became a taboo subject. This changed again earlier this year with the "X" case, which I will refer to later. A series of legal actions against student unions by S.P.U.C. began in September 1988 and the latest High court ruling in this case again upheld the Hamilton judgement. This censorship of information with its sinister and anti-democratic thrust has created a repressive atmosphere and a climate of fear and isolation for women seeking information on abortion. It has done nothing to stop the numbers of women who travel to England for abortions but it has added greatly to the trauma and stress they experience.

Abortion - A woman's right to choose.

As anarchists we are committed to true equality between the sexes and recognise that this is impossible if women cannot control their fertility and decide themselves to choose or refuse motherhood. In Ireland's capitalist society, child rearing is an expensive, isolating business with little or no state nursery provision, cutbacks in health and welfare services and a massive unemployment rate creating hardship and poverty for thousands of children, especially the children of single parents who are left to cope with hopelessly inadequate social and economic support systems. If the child is unfortunate to be handicapped in any way, the parents face a life of unending struggle to get access to the services the child needs, services which often do not even exist in this state. Yet the anti-abortionists have succeeded in establishing the supremacy of the foetus's right to life over the woman's right to physical and mental health and personal choice. Women choose abortion for all kinds of reasons- because of rape or incest, because they already have too many children, because their health would be damaged by another pregnancy, because they could not cope with rearing a handicapped child in this society, or simply because they do not want a child. All of these reasons are valid and the choice must be the woman's only, not dictated by any medical or religious body.

Abortion is also a class issue. The question of free access to abortion in this country, not Britain, is a vital one for thousands of working class women who not only have to furtively seek out the information they need but also have to raise the considerable costs involved both of the operation itself and of the travel to England.

The fight for abortion rights in Ireland.

In 1979 the Family Planning Act made contraception slightly legal in this country. Many feminists and people on the left felt confident that the 1980s would see Ireland move in the direction of the rest of Europe in terms of social legislation. It was thought that as the decade progressed contraception would become freely available, divorce would be introduced, and eventually abortion would be introduced at least in limited circumstances. The 80s turned out very differently due to the highly organised push by right-wing forces against womens' rights and against the minor gains of the 1970s. The 8th Amendment was carried in 1983 in an atmosphere of emotionalism, misinformation and moral blackmail. Three years later the divorce referendum was defeated with the familiar faces from P.L.A.C. resurfacing as the Anti-Divorce Campaign. These were massive defeats for the supporters of womens' liberation. One of the big mistakes of the Anti-Amendment Campaign in 1983 was to concentrate on the issue of information only and to play down the issue of abortion itself, and especially the 'right to choose' position. Far from drawing in more support this tactic had the opposite effect, by making the anti-amendment position position appear dishonest.

Despite the demoralisation which followed the defeats of the 80s and the fact that these defeats took place at a time of economic crisis and industrial defeats for the working class generally, opposition to the moral policing and intimidation of S.P.U.C and their allies survived. In December 1991 Abortion Information Campaigns in Cork and Dublin started to publicly distribute information on abortion. The Womens Information Network has continued to continued to provide information on all pregnancy options. Last November the Dublin Council of trade Unions passed a motion seeking abortion facilities in this country and upholding the right to information.

The "X" case in February of this year opened up a whole new debate on the issue of abortion. The huge march of 10.000 people in support of the 14 year old rape victim's right to travel to England for an abortion demonstrated that the climate had changed dramatically since 1983. Surveys showed 16% of the population in favour of abortion without restrictions and up to 60% in favour in limited circumstances. S.P.U.C.'s failure to get it's vote out in the recent Maastricht referendum and the recent liberalisation of the contraceptive laws demonstrate that their influence is not what it was in 1983 and shows that their traditionalist position is at variance with the opinions of the majority of people in this country. However it would be a mistake to underestimate S.P.U.C. and groups like them. The experience of the divorce referendum, especially, showed how quickly public opinion can be turned around by their emotional blackmail, lies and distortions - all ably supported from the pulpits of the Catholic church. The Workers Solidarity Movement has produced a detailed proposal setting out concrete suggestions for the current Repeal the 8th Amendment Campaign. We argue for a broadly based activist campaign which incorporates an open 'right to choose' position. We think that the issue can be won this time around but only with an open democratic campaign that actively seeks to draw in the largest possible number of people and progressive organisations.