25th May was a momentous and historic day – two thirds of voters in the South voted to repeal the anti-choice eighth amendment from the constitution, demanding the right of women and pregnant people to access abortion services. Unsurprisingly, it was women, young and LGBT+ people and working-class communities that were to the fore in this revolt. The result was a body blow to the Catholic Church’s domination of Irish society which, in living memory, led to such horrors as the imprisonment of women in Magdalene laundries and state-sanctioned abduction of children from unmarried mothers.
A quiet revolution?
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar claims that what took place represented a “quiet revolution”. Leo and the conservative establishment may have been quiet on the issue until very recently but many others have not – from pro-choice activists, including socialists, who have been campaigning for the right to choose for decades to the tens of thousands who have marched, protested and taken strike action in the years since the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar in Galway in 2012 after being denied a medically necessary abortion. The referendum was forced and won by the action of these people, not handed down by the elite.
Northern Ireland is next
No sooner was the result clear than the focus shifted to the fight for the right to choose in Northern Ireland, which now has the unenviable distinction of being the only place in western Europe other than Malta to have an almost blanket ban on abortion. The political establishment, both locally and at Westminster, are under pressure on the issue. A recent poll showed that 54% of people here support unrestricted abortion access up to 12 weeks into pregnancy. While opposing any change to the law here, the DUP boast that they speak for the people of Northern Ireland but they don’t even speak for their own voters when it comes to abortion.
Theresa May has faced calls to take action to grant abortion rights in Northern Ireland but insists its an issue for the non-existent Stormont Assembly. Having been forced to liberalise its position on abortion, dragged along in the wake of the movement, Sinn Féin now posture as a voice for change but have made it clear they oppose Westminster legislating for abortion access here, unlike on other issues. In other words, they say women and pregnant people here must continue to wait until a Stormont Executive is established and actually deals with this issue. We have waited long enough!
Grassroots movement needed
Learning from the experience of the South, we must not sit back passively but take to the streets to demand reproductive rights immediately. Socialist-feminist group ROSA’s Bus4Choice in the wake of the referendum aimed to raise awareness of the availability of abortion pills online, to demonstrate their safety and to challenge our backward laws. Such actions played an important role in the South in shifting the debate around abortion. We need to build a determined, cross-community movement which takes the fight to the entire political establishment, mobilising popular support and making the status quo untenable. If you want to get involved in that fight, join ROSA today!