Certain objective conditions, such as the greater urbanisation of Irish society, have had some effect on changing attitudes away from the conservative and ultra-Catholic views that dominated Irish society in the past. However no progressive reforms would ever have occurred were it not for people organising and fighting for these changes.
Prior to the X-case in 1992 abortion in Ireland was illegal in all circumstances. It was also illegal to give out any information about abortion facilities in other countries. Clinics were prohibited from giving non-directive counseling and the Censorship of Publications Act was used to ban health books and sections of British newspapers and magazines which contained information on where to get an abortion.
However, when the government then attempted to prevent the 14 year old suicidal Ms X from leaving the county to obtain an abortion abroad, there was a huge public outcry. Through mass mobilisations, school strikes and protests outside the Dáil people forced the government to back down.
A Supreme Court ruling then removed the ban on abortion in Ireland where there was a substantial risk to the life of the pregnant woman, with the threat of suicide included as such a risk. In the subsequent referendum people rejected the proposal to overturn the X-case judgement, they also voted to end the ban on information and voted for the right of women to travel abroad for an abortion. It is clear that these changes would never have taken place were it not for people engaging in the battle of ideas about abortion and ensuring that their voices were heard by taking part in marches and demonstrations.
The referendum on Divorce in 1995, which was only narrowly won by a mere 9,114 votes, shows how important it is that people get actively involved in the battle of ideas. Many people had just assumed that the referendum would be won and it was only as the referendum date drew near and polls indicated that it might possibly be lost that activists started to distribute leaflets and canvass door to door, making the argument for the divorce to be legalised in Ireland.
Since 1995 there have been no more major progressive reforms and the government has consistantly refused to make the legal changes that would implement the X-case ruling. Over this period the "pro-lifers" have been very active and, as well as lobbying politicians, have put huge resources into attempting to influence public opinion on the ground.
They have, for example, distributed glossy anti-choice leaflets to tens of thousands of households. The government has now called yet another anti-abortion referendum, which if passed will reverse the X-case ruling and increase to a maximum 12 years the jail sentence for desperate women who attempt to give themselves an abortion.
There is little popular support for this referendum. Recent opinion polls show that only 22% of the electorate favour a complete ban on abortion (1). Yet this does not mean that it will automatically be defeated.
If the divorce referendum showed anything, it showed that we cannot leave it up to media pundits to convince people that the government proposal is a backward step. As in the last abortion referendum, one of the problems we face is voter confusion over the implications of the vote. On the Irish Times webpage, for instance, both pro-choice and ant-abortion posters were calling for both a yes and a no vote.
Furthermore abortion is a taboo subject in Ireland. The emotional and personal nature of 'pro-life' attacks on those who disagree with them has meant that many people have taken the decision to avoid taking any position on abortion. It is one of the few areas of political life where people are not comfortable making known their opinions.
It is one of the few topics that is never talked about over a few pints in the pub. Many people won't vote in this referendum because they have been intimidated away from even thinking about this issue.
And yet it is important for us to win. And we can win. But it will mean going door to door with leaflets, giving out leaflets at bus and train queues, putting up posters, convincing our friends and family that their vote counts, that it is important that they take a stand. No change has ever been won without people like you and me spending time and effort trying to make it happen. Now is the time to give a hand.
The Alliance for a NO vote is the umbrella network for pro-choice organisations and individuals. Ask them to put you in touch with others in your area who are willing give out leaflets in the weeks before the referendum.
Tel 086-3615287 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Deirdre Hogan & Aileen O'Carroll
(1) Irish Independent poll, Monday December 31st 2001
As well as writting a letter to us at WSM, PO Box 1528, Dublin 8 you can also comment on any of the articles in this issue at www.struggle.ws/wsm/comment.html
This edition is No68 published in Jan 2002