Abortion referendum victory in Ireland

March 8 2002

Pro-choice campaigners celebrated throughout Ireland as a referendum which would have further restricted the availability of abortion in Ireland was defeated. The combined force of the government and catholic church campaigned heavily in favour of the referendum A letter from the Catholic bishops was read at every Mass in the State over the weekend pushing for a Yes vote.

It is not possible to obtain an abortion in Ireland. There are no laws that provide for it and no hospital will carry one out. However in 1991, in what became known as the x-case judgement, a court ruling stated that abortion was allowable where there was a threat to the life of the mother, including the threat of suicide. Instead of introducing legislation to allow this to happen all the political parties prevaricated. Each of the major political parties (Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, Labour, Progressive Democrats) have been in power since the X-case judgement and all have failed to implement legislation. In 1992, the ruling party, Fianna Fail introduced a referendum which exclude abortion in the threat of suicide. This was almost identical to the referendum that was held yesterday, and like yesterdays was defeated.

The vote was extremely close, just over 10,500 votes separated the two sides, 50.42 per cent voted No, while 49.58 per cent voting Yes. Total turnout was 42.89 per cent which was higher than the 35 per cent who turned out for the Nice Treaty vote last year but a lot lower then than the 66 per cent who turned out for the General Election in 1997. A strong urban and rural divide was evident, with the urban areas strongly rejecting the proposals.

Analysis of the result is complicated by the confusion that surrounded the referendum. The 'pro-life' movement split. The more conservative elements of an already conservative block opposed the referendum as it defined life as starting from implantation rather than from conception. However a comparison of the voting patterns of this referendum with that of earlier ones (on abortion and on divorce) show that these elements had very, very little support.

This is demonstrated in may ways. For instance we would have expected the 'pro-life' No vote to be highest in Donegal where the right wing Connaught-Ulster MEP, Dana Rosemary Scallon lives. She was elected on a 'pro-life' platform and was the only prominent 'pro-life' personality calling for a No vote. Yet the two Donegal constituencies returned the highest Yes votes in the whole country, 70.59% and 66.82% respectively. Donegal is traditionally one of the most anti-choice areas of the country, reflected in its large No votes in the referendums on divorce , right to information and right to travel over the last decade. In fact across the country it was observed that the Yes vote in this referendum was very, very close to the No vote for the same constituencies in the Divorce referendum of 1995. This traditionally liberal voting constituency of Dún Laoghaire had the biggest No vote, of 68 per cent, again confirming this trend.

The campaign leading up to this referendum saw a pro-choice movement that was much stronger and visible than had been in previous years. In June, amid much controversy, a boat offering to provide abortions to Irish women sailed in Dublin and Cork ports. Though legal complications meant that the Woman and Waves could not provide abortions as was intended, it did provide an opportunity for pro-choice arguments to heard in the mainstream. Even more importantly, behind the scenes, it provided an organising focus for activists. When a few months later, the abortion referendum was called, much of the networks needed to build an anti-referendum campaign had already been set up and for once the campaign started with money in the bank.

The main umbrella group coordinating the pro-choice opposition was called the Alliance for a No Vote. This was a broad coalition of socialist/anarchist and womens groups, family planning organisations, doctors and health care professionals. Though this was a wide coalition, the arguments presented by the ANV the campaign was much more strongly pro-choice than in previous referendums.

After the results ANV spokesperson Cathleen O'Neill said:

"The people have given their verdict on the government proposal, and it is a clear mandate to legislate for the X case. Politicians, of whatever party, now have no excuse to avoid the issue. They have to bring in laws to vindicate the right to an abortion for suicidal women.

"We also need to move on and address the wider questions. Rape and suicide victims should be allowed the choice of terminating their pregnancies, as should women, such as Deirdre de Barra, carrying foetuses that cannot survive. Now that the government's referendum has been rejected, the whole issue of abortion in Ireland has to be addressed properly."

A much wider level of door to door leafleting was achieved than in previous campaigns. Over 150,000 leaflets were distributed, mostly in Dublin and Cork. In Dublin Central, which includes the Bertie Aherns constituency, almost 58% voted against the referendum. In fact every single Dublin constituency voted No.

Irish anarchists including members of the Workers Solidarity Movement worked in the Alliance for a No Vote as we have worked in all the pro-choice campaigns of the past decades. We helped to organise demonstrations and meetings, put up posters, create web pages and give out tens of thousands of leaflets for the campaign. We also distributed 6,000 copies of our paper Workers Solidarity which carried articles calling for a No vote in the context of the struggle for abortion rights in Ireland.

However we must not forget that it is still not possible to get an abortion in Ireland. Bertie Ahern has already indicated that he does not intend to introduce legislation, the other parties with the exception of Labour, are similarly refusing to commit. While Labour are making positive noises, they have done so before when in opposition and reneged on promises when in power.

And we must not forget, that even if there were legislation, it would not affect the majority of women who currently travel for abortion to England. The legislation being talked about would almost certainly require women to go through complex procedures to 'prove' they were suicidal. Once more it will be Doctors and other supposed 'experts' that will make the final decision rather then the women herself. During the Women on Waves visit it was demonstrated that there are large numbers of working class women who have great difficulty raising the money to travel to Britain for an abortion. A 'right to choose' for these women will only be meaningful when abortion is available in Ireland as part of the health service.

Abortion is a taboo subject in Ireland. Most Irish people would like the issue to go away. They do not want more referendums, they do not want to listen to arguments about abortions and they do not want to have to make decisions about abortion. It's ironic, because until a sizeable proportion of the Irish population are willing to demand change we will are more than likely going to be doomed to decades of prevarication's and stupid referendums.

Nothing will change for women who are not judged suicidal unless there is a real movement demanding the provision of abortion facilities for any woman who wants one in Irish hospitals. Irish Anarchists will continue to be at the forefront in building this movement.

Useful links

A personal report written by Aileen and Andrew for Ainriail, the WSM news list.


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