Victory is in sight for the movement to repeal the anti-abortion 8th Constitutional Amendment in the South. The government has been dragged further than some would have thought possible and the committee they set up has recommended not only repeal of the 8th but also to legislate for abortion in various circumstances, crucially without restriction up to 12 weeks gestation.
In 2014, socialist-feminist group ROSA travelled to Belfast by train to procure abortion pills with support from Northern activists, bringing them back to Dublin and taking the pills in front of the media outside the central train station. This “Abortion Pill Train” opened the discussion to acknowledge the reality of what was going on behind closed doors: abortion was a reality in Ireland no matter what the law said.
The political establishment has not simply been won over by reasonable arguments, they have been forced to confront the reality that banning abortion doesn’t work. This committee or the citizens’ assembly that preceded it would never have been convened only for the action taken by women and young people protesting on the streets, particularly since the horrific death of Savita Halappanavar after being denied a medically necessary abortion. 2017 saw major protests and a swell in people stepping forward and joining pro-choice campaign groups.
Members of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael – the main establishment parties – voted for abortion on request in early pregnancy, some citing regret that it was necessary or saying it was the only way to ensure access for rape survivors. However, it is clear that the issue of widespread use of abortion pills despite the law was the most pressing issue and they have recommended that GPs be able to prescribe them. The three Sinn Féin members of the committee abstained as it went “beyond party policy.” This conservatism and tail-ending of the movement for Repeal which they say they support makes it clear that Sinn Féin cannot be relied on to win equality. Movements must act to fight for it themselves.
A referendum is now likely in May or June. The anti-choice, hard-line groups will throw everything they have into their campaign though fundamentally the vast majority of people have moved away from that harsh, conservative approach to sexuality and women’s rights. Over years of campaigning, we have seen that raising pro-choice arguments with ordinary people is not a problem as people understand that parenting is life-changing and should be taken on willingly. Anti-choice myths do come up from time to time but those questions can easily be answered by a boldly pro-choice ‘yes’ campaign.
A victory south of the border will be an assist to those in the North who need abortion care. It should also signal that change is possible and inspire activists to get organised to fight for abortion rights. Opinion polls show that even voters for the most conservative, anti-choice parties support liberalising abortion law. A cross-community, grassroots campaign which highlights the reality that abortion is necessary health care and is happening both with people travelling to clinics in Britain and using pills in Northern Ireland is needed to encourage women and young people to step forward to win change.
By Rita Harrold, ROSA, Dublin