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demonstrators with signs in Dublin

March for Choice in Dublin, September 2012. Photo: William Murphy

Friday's referendum is a vital step in the fight for women's equality in Ireland, argues Amy O'Donoghue

The movement to repeal the 8th Amendment to the Irish Constitution, central to the fight for abortion rights in Ireland, will culminate in Friday’s referendum. This is a historic opportunity to break with Ireland’s oppressive, conservative past and the legacy of Catholic Church dominance.

There is a near-total ban on abortion in Ireland, except in cases where the pregnant woman’s life is at risk. The 8th Amendment, which grants equal rights to the foetus (‘the unborn’) as to the woman, has prevented the Dáil, the Irish parliament, from legislating for abortion, even in cases such as rape or fatal foetal abnormality. The Amendment was introduced in 1983 by a conservative establishment under which homosexuality, contraception and divorce were illegal. This establishment controlled the behaviour of women in particular, with women and girls who became pregnant outside of marriage removed from society to the Laundries or ‘Mother and Baby Homes’.

The role of the Church in family life and as a force for sexual repression is traceable back to the mid- 19th century. After the almost halving of the population during the famine, and the social and economic decimation of the rural poor, the family form in Ireland was radically altered, and the Church gained its social hold, advocating for the family unit and against sexual freedom, with the role of women to raise children in line with the views of the Church. In the 1937 constitution, the Church’s role in the morality of the nation was reasserted, as well as the place of women in society: ‘The State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved’. Today, women in Ireland continue to be controlled by the State on the basis of the ability to reproduce, while the Church still maintains a considerable hold over the social life of the country, with over 90% of primary schools under its ownership and control.

A class issue: Abortion in Ireland

Despite a historical culture of denial, abortion has always been a reality for women in Ireland. Each day, an average of nine women travel from Ireland to access abortion services, while three more are estimated to take safe but illegal abortion pills at home after ordering them online, risking a 14-year jail sentence.

In Ireland in the 21st century, pregnant women have been left to die after being denied life-saving terminations, while others have been denied the freedom to travel and forced to give birth. Those who are able to travel to access abortion services in other countries do so at considerable expense, often alone and away from their support networks.

Under this draconian regime, abortion has only been made illegal, less safe and a matter of privilege for those who can afford to travel for access. Material inequality is at the heart of the fight for women’s liberation; wealthy women have always had access to proper abortion care, while the poor have been forced to continue with unwanted pregnancies or resort to backstreet abortions. The 8thAmendment discriminates in particular against women who cannot travel, such as those in poverty and asylum seekers.

The fight for liberation

The repeal movement is part of a wider international fight against women’s oppression. From the #metoo movement in the US to the Ni Una Menos movement against femicide in Latin America, and from the Polish women’s strikes against moves to further restrict abortion access to the #ibelieveher protests following the recent Belfast rape trial acquittal, women are demanding reproductive rights and an end to systemic sexism, sexual harassment and material inequality.

While the left in Ireland has campaigned against the 8th Amendment since its introduction in 1983, the death of Savita Halappanavar, who developed sepsis after being denied an abortion while miscarrying in 2012, was the catalyst for a wave of public anger against the State’s restriction on abortion that has propelled the movement since; in September of last year, tens of thousands, mostly young women, took part in the March for Choice in Dublin to demand the right to choose.

The establishment response

Pushed by the growing movement for choice, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, of the right-wing Fine Gael, has made an about-turn from an anti-choice position to support for repeal and limited abortion access. Presenting himself as socially liberal since his bid for leadership of his party in 2017, Varadkar has attempted to appeal to elements of the pro-choice movement, in particular white-collar liberals, and to marginalise the left.

In response, the umbrella campaign for the repeal vote, Together for Yes, has embraced Varadkar and other recently converted establishment politicians of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, placing them front and centre of the campaign. This has been a strategic pitfall, with the anti-choicers capitalising on anti-establishment anger to sway undecided voters.

The tightening of the gap between Yes and No in the final weeks of the campaign reveals the problems of strategy by the Yes campaign leadership (as distinct from the grassroots) – informed by PR strategies and focus groups. Throughout the campaign, the Yes campaign has shied away from the argument for a woman’s right to choose, in favour of what is regarded as a ‘softer’ emphasis on ‘compassion, care and change’.

In this attempt to appeal to an imagined (conservative) ‘middle ground’, the Yes campaign foreclosed on a powerful and fundamental argument that has significant purchase with voters: A recent Irish Times poll found that, while 44% supported repeal of the 8th Amendment, 62% thought the law in Ireland should be changed to recognise a woman’s right to choose (indicating the confusion caused by anti-choice messaging – dominated by smears, lies and scare tactics – about what repeal means).

Lack of clarity on arguments central to issues of women’s equality has been a gift to the anti-choice side.

Choice

Repeal of the 8th Amendment is a crucial step towards bodily autonomy and equality for women in Ireland, but it is only the first in the current fight. To end discrimination in reproductive choice, abortion services must be free, as well as safe and legal. In the wake of the referendum, the challenge for the movement, which the establishment parties would hope to tame, is to overcome the softening of demands of the official campaign and to continue to advance the case for real reproductive choice and for proper access.

It is through the fight for bodily autonomy and freedom from reproductive oppression that we can take on the continuing influence of the Church over social life in Ireland and move towards real equality for women.

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