By Ruth Coppinger TD
CRITICAL DECISIONS will be made on abortion rights in Ireland between September and December. An Oireachtas Committee of 21 TDs and Senators will adjudicate on the Citizens’ Assembly proposals. It will recommend to the Dáil what should happen regarding a referendum on the 8th Amendment and what legislation should follow.
It’s vital that the entire repeal / pro-choice movement, and all who want progressive change, see the importance of this Committee and demand it implements the spirit of what was proposed by the Citizens’ Assembly – and nothing less.
Citizens’ Assembly recommendations
The Citizens ‘Assembly was set up by the Dáil last year in a desperate bid to quell the rising repeal campaign. But while the establishment expected a conservative result, the Citizens’ Assembly refused to oblige! Outsourcing controversial decisions to ordinary people is clearly a risky business for the establishment.
Listening to reasoned information over a period of time, it concluded that the Dáil absolutely must act, that fundamentally the 8th had to go and abortion be introduced on a wide range of grounds. These include Fatal Foetal Abnormality, health, socio economic reasons up to 22 weeks and ‘without restriction as to reason’ up to 12 weeks.
We now have a fundamental clash: the first public forum ever on abortion rights has made radical recommendations. But the Dáil is ultra-conservative. Only one Dáil group, Solidarity-People Before Profit, plus a handful of TDs, support these proposals. It’s obvious that massive public pressure would be needed to force these parties to go beyond their current positions.
As a socialist and pro-choice activist on the Committee, (a joint position between Solidarity and People Before Profit) I will advocate full repeal of the 8th, with no replacement or amendment and nothing about women’s bodies or the ‘unborn’ in the Constitution. I will argue for a rights-based approach to legislation for abortion.
The Committee’s terms of reference mean it will vote on which of the CA grounds should be included or excluded from legislation. But it should not be the preserve of the Committee, or a conservative Dáil out of step with public opinion, to vote down this much-needed change.
Solidarity has put forward the idea of a plebiscite, where the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly would be put to the people for a vote, rather than being excluded by an unrepresentative Dáil Committee. A plebiscite is a vote on what should become legislation (not go into the Constitution).
We saw how the Irish establishment felt it necessary to put marriage equality to a popular vote – they simply hadn’t the guts themselves to introduce it as legislation. With their long ties to the church, the Irish establishment can’t be trusted to bring in social progress taken for granted in other EU states, to separate church and state, implement non- judgemental sex education, have free or even affordable contraception, and of course abortion rights. They will have to be compelled to by a very strong, active movement.
Building the pressure
Five years on from the death of Savita at the end of October, it’s incredible to think we may not have a recommendation for laws allowing abortion for what killed Savita!
All of the parties and individual TDs now have to be challenged. Some of the members of the traditional parties, including leading ones, do actually believe women are vessels. Others simply hide. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil can’t be allowed stand over their medieval position any longer.
But even parties favouring repeal, such as Labour, the Greens, Social Democrats, still have thresholds of suffering through which they think women should have to go before an abortion is allowable. It’s not acceptable that parties who say they’re pro-repeal (and even sometimes pro-choice) are considering less of a health ground than what is in the 50-year-old UK abortion law.
Sinn Féin, while supporting repeal, doesn’t even have a position of health at all, only supporting abortion for a “grave” threat to a woman’s mental health – in effect the suicide ground that already exists and under which it’s impossible for women to access abortions, as we’ve seen by the recent ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ cruelty to a suicidal rape victim. SF has an Ard Fheis in November and should be lobbied to change its position. If not now, when?
Claims are too often made that times are ‘historic’. But there certainly is an opportunity to win historic social change in Ireland – yes, the repeal of the odious 8th Amendment inflicted on us by the Catholic right and enacted by opportunist politicians. But also the scope of abortion legislation can be determined by the strength of the movement in the next months. Let’s resolve to win what really would be historic social change for women, for pregnant people and for this generation.
The next vital steps for the pro-choice movement
By Katia Hancke
THIS AUTUMN is shaping up to be a crucial turning point for the fight for abortion rights in Ireland, the most significant opportunity for a new generation of pro-choice activists to make sure we finally repeal the 8th Amendment and force pro-choice legislation through.
Over the last few years, the support for pro-choice legislation in Ireland has made important steps forward. There is now rowing support for the right to choose across the population not just for repeal but for pro-choice legislation. The movement has a broad base amongst young people and women. Most significantly, as the electric protests on 8 March showed, at its heart is now a new generation of young people,who confidently stand for the notion of bodily autonomy and trusting women.
The Citizens’ Assembly recommendations confirm just how much the influence of the Catholic Church and its teachings have declined. Let’s be clear about the intentions of the Government in setting up the Citizens’ Assembly – they were hoping to put the issue on the long finger and did everything possible to slant the direction of the debate in a more conservative direction. Despite this, when you leave 100 ordinary people to debate abortion rights, they overwhelmingly support pro-choice legislation, that is much more progressive than any of the political party’s positions, with the exception of Solidarity-People BeforeProfit!
The government is now indicating that a referendum in the first half of next year could be on the cards – by itself an indication of how much pressure the establishment is under. The Dáil Committee set up to look at the Citizens’ Assembly recommendations will meet for the first time on 20 September, and has to report back by the end of the year.
However, it would be a crucial and costly mistake for pro-choice activists to think we can just wait it out until this committee comes back with findings. To think that these politicians, many of them linked to conservative parties wedded to church institutions and vested interests, will just accept the Citizens’ Assembly recommendations would be naïve.
Church, State and establishment
The Catholic Church in Ireland has historically been used by the capitalist establishment and the state as a socially conservatising force to prop up their rule. Ordinary people have long since moved on, and freed themselves of the clutches of this backward institution, but state and church are still connected by a thousand ties.
If left in their “natural state” the establishment politicians will sit on the fence and water down the progressive proposals to a toothless “Repeal but abortion only in very limited circumstances”, or even worse to“Amend the 8th”. Only intense pressure from below, on the streets and in their constituencies, will force them to fall in line with what we need – pro-choice legislation, nothing less.
How can we win?
We need to use this autumn to ratchet up the pressure on the entire political establishment and to make sure that in particular the members of the Dáil Committee are left in no doubt as to what is needed.
An immediate focus is the first sitting of the Dáil Committee on 20 September, which we should use to highlight that we will not accept anything less than the Citizens’ Assembly recommendations. By then the agenda of the committee will be known – for instance, will they allow a representation of the 10 women EVERY DAY who had to travel to speak for themselves? If not, how do we ensure they can’t ignore those experiences? Luckily, we have impressive pro choice activists such as Ruth Coppinger on the committee to work with and respond to developments on a week by week basis. We have a responsibility not to leave them isolated but to show the broad support their position has in society.
This has to be linked with campaign of engaging the members of the Dáil Committee, visiting them, writing to them, phoning them, petitioning them, using social media in an organised way and making their views public so a broader layer of constituents are encouraged to put further pressure on them to follow the example of the Citizens’ Assembly.
The March for Choice on 30 September has to the biggest one yet – a massive national mobilisation of young people and women that forces the political establishment to take note. And from that massive mobilisation must come as one voice this crucial message – pro-choice, nothing less!
Savita’s death – five years on
28 October will mark five years since the tragic and avoidable death of Savita Halappanavar. In those five years, the political establishment have managed to make not a single improvement. Another Savita could happen any day. On this day let’s mark the cards of those who stopped progress or cowardly sat on the fence – five years on, we simply do not accept this. Those who try and stop the democratic right of a woman to have bodily autonomy should know they do not represent the vast majority of this country.
Those who once again cowardly sit on the fence are not worthy of representing us. We need to make sure our voices can no longer be ignored – by getting out on street and making sure the message is clear- we need the 8th Amendment and any reference to women’s bodies out of the constitution and we need pro-choice legislation, providing a framework for access to abortion in this country NOW.