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New Irish abortion law

A 350 million euro hospital for the nuns, 14 years jail time for those who exercise the right to choose

7 December 2018

The Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy Bill passed through the Irish Dail just before midnight on 5th December. The debate involved an ill-tempered confrontation between left and right, but this debate was on marginal issues rather than on the substance of the bill. A transparent wrecking attempt by the right around data collection and conscientious objection rights for anti-abortion medical personnel failed and the government proposals were passed with minimal changes.

At one level the referendum and the passing of the Bill are historic moments in Irish history. Socialist TDs have been self-congratulatory about what has been achieved and their role in the referendum campaign. However the bill’s passage has been met with a certain level of disquiet. It has become evident to activists that abortion rights remain heavily restricted, that many issues will have to be fought again in the state structures and in the medical services and that the idea that the link between church and state in Ireland had been broken has proved to be mistaken.

A decision was made early on in the Repeal campaign to limit the issue to repeal alone. The intention was to ensure the broadest possible unity, but the outcome was to leave legislation to the right wing government and the Dail – hostile environments for women’s rights.

In the event the legislation is quite restrictive.

The main promise was that there would be essentially abortion on demand in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, but to exercise this right the woman must receive certification from a doctor and then must have the procedure carried out within three days.

After 12 weeks conditions are very restrictive: abortion is allowed on the basis of fatal foetal abnormality or where there is a risk to the life, or of serious harm to the health, of the pregnant woman. Worryingly this process is only available where the foetus is not deemed viable.  We have already had cases where “termination” was interpreted as forcing the woman to give birth. As in the past there will be a panel of doctors, now reduced to two and a cumbersome appeal process.

Just to underline how restrictive the process is meant to be, punitive criminal sanctions of up to 14 years jail are retained in the legislation for anyone procuring an abortion outside the terms of the Act.

At protest meetings outside the Dail during the passage of the legislation congratulatory speeches by the socialist groups centred around the assertion that it was only because of the mobilisation around repeal that this legislation is going through: “We forced them to this point”.

But limits placed on the mobilisation around repeal means that the government is not under any pressure from a mass movement. There was no continuity after the repeal campaign.  It was disbanded and the issue went back to the Dail, an arena where historically women’s rights are trampled on rather than vindicated.

The mobilisation and enthusiastic participation of tens of thousands of women and youth was a huge gain but it's in the past. There were no structures left behind where women really could decide their fate. The fourteen year jail threat is a reinstatement of the criminalization of women's rights, with the usual weapons of intimidation and terror. It cannot be separated from the strategy of re - establishing church state relations on a stable basis. The contrast between the govt action in criminalising women's self determination over their own bodies and rewarding the Sisters of Charity, serial abusers of women and children, with the 350 million euro prize of the new national maternity hospital says it all about the limited progress made around a Dail centred strategy. It also underlines the nature of the state which has had the church as an essential pillar of its survival since it's foundation and is not about to give it up. The new relationship between church and state which Leo Varadker talked about with the pope is looking very like the old one.

As Social Democrat TD Roisin Shortall pointed out in the Dail, the fact that the government is now talking about having a representative on the board of the National Maternity Hospital  is evidence that the deal between church and state concocted by professional negotiator Keiran Mulvey two years ago was worthless and that even the government do not believe the assurances of the Sisters of Charity and of their shell company, St Vincent’s, that they will facilitate abortion.

Despite criticism the government are pressing ahead and are now proposing to link all maternity hospitals with surgical hospitals. This makes clinical sense. But without further discussion it means that the government’s corrupt deal with the churches shell company will become the standard practice in the health service.

It was perfectly correct to agree with others to fight together for repeal of the constitutional amendment banning abortion. What was wrong was subsuming other demands in the cause of unity and not fighting constantly for a deeper unity in defence of women’s right to choose and organising the many radicals and young people independently within the repeal campaign to fight on for full democratic rights.

In the new law, in the handover of the maternity hospital, the same old Janus face of the Irish state, the unity of Church and state, is emerging yet again.

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