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Not the church, not the state..

Socialist Democracy statement on the denial of an abortion to a victim of rape. 

24 August 2014

Alongside the bizarre and grotesque story of a young migrant woman, a victim of rape, forced through a caesarean section by the Irish state, lie other strange stories that must also be considered. 

One is that the new abortion legislation, passed last year following the death of Savita Halappanavar after she was refused an abortion, is actually being applied. A comfort blanket for many on the left was the belief that the repulsive law, requiring an inquisition by a panel of doctors, would never be used because women would travel to England to avoid the humiliation. 

With hindsight we can see that the law was only a fiction in relation to the rich, the powerful, and the upper classes. It was bound to be used in just the way it was - against the poorest and most oppressed sections of society - in this case a young migrant who was not able to leave the country.

The current legislation differs from earlier law in that it allows for abortion where the life of the mother is at risk. This specifically includes the risk of suicide. A panel of doctors considered that the women was indeed at risk of suicide but went on, as they were required to by the legislation, to consider the rights of the foetus.

Here we enter truly bizarre territory. Although the woman is suicidal, the doctors decide to delay action until the foetus can be delivered by caesarean section on the grounds that this satisfied the termination of pregnancy clause in the bill. The response to a hunger and thirst strike was to seek a court order against the woman. Eventually the procedure takes place with the "agreement" of the victim. 

This is modern Ireland. We are assured that the Magdalene laundries, the crippling of women through symphysiotomy operations, the baby farming, the medical experiments, the piles of tiny bones outside children's homes, the litany of sexual and physical abuse of women, children and the poor. All these are of the past. Yet the mechanism of misogyny and class oppression continues unabated.

A system of Russian dolls operates. The state gives to itself the power to control woman's fertility. They designate that power to doctors. The doctors are the outcome of a system dominated by Church control. So at the heart of the process is a misogynistic religious fundamentalism that negates the rights of woman and thinks nothing of proposing to carry out a medical procedure on a women without her consent. 

We must also consider the low level of response to this savagery - in sharp contrast to the mass protests that followed the death of Savita Halappanavar, a young Indian woman who died of septicaemia because an abortion was refused.

This is because of a major strategic and political error by sections of the Irish socialist and feminist movements.  Ireland has always had an absolute ban on abortion.  The Catholic right successfully campaigned to enshrine the ban in the constitution.  Later the X case arose where a 14 year old had been prevented by social services from travelling to England for an abortion. Under pressure of mass protest the judiciary interpreted the constitutional "equal right to life" of mother and foetus as allowing her to travel.

The result was an Irish solution where the constitution said one thing, the judiciary another and the legal code something else.

The “Irish solution”, satisfying different  political interests, but ignoring the rights of women, held until Savita Halappanavar died in an Irish hospital of acute septicaemia and pleading for an abortion, only to be told that "Ireland was a Catholic country".

In the uproar that followed the majority of socialists and feminists built a campaign under the heading "legislate for X". They built it around legal manoeuvres in the Dail with the perspective of a gradual reform of abortion rights extending over many decades.

This fitted into very well with the overall political orientation of the left. It enabled co-operation with the Labour Party wing of the coalition government and their supporters in the trade union leaderships but reformist "realism" restricted legal change to what would be accepted by the far right Fine Gael majority in the government.

This was not an unconsidered strategy. Those who called for a campaign around the right to chose were denounced as ultra-lefts. We explained at the time that it was possible to intervene in all sorts of campaigns but that if socialists and feminists were not willing to advance the basic democratic right to choose they were betraying themselves, betraying women and making it impossible to build even the nucleus of a self-organized movement of women.

The final bill was welcomed by many activists, despite a clause allowing for a 14 year sentence for procuring an abortion and the central mechanism of a medical inquisition to dissect the mental state of pregnant women and the exclusion of rape, incest and foetal abnormality as grounds for termination. 

This set many Irish feminists and socialists to the right of a body as conservative as the United Nations, which simply dismissed Irish legislation as treating women as vessels for the production of babies rather than as human beings in their own right.

In the horror of the degradation of the  young victim of the legislation, the range of responses has covered a narrow spectrum. The government suggests that guidance notes be drawn up or that the procedure might be amended. The opposition call for a broadening of criteria to include rape, incest and foetal abnormality. A government minister joins with critics of the system in arguing for the removal of article 8 of the constitution - although she presents this as an issue for the future rather than an immediate task.

We should learn from the ''legislate for X" debacle. The obstacle to change is not the far right alone, but the willingness of others to operate within a framework of "social partnership." Our task is not to water down our demands to ensure the comfort of the Labour party, the union bureaucracy and of parties such as Sinn Fein, but precisely to call on their members to commit absolutely to democratic rights - specifically the right of women to control their own bodies.

A national "Repeal the 8th" conference is to be held in the Gresham hotel Dublin. Everyone should support the campaign, but we should not limit the movement to a simple call for repeal. 

We repeat the classical democratic demand of the woman's movement:

"Not the Church, not the state. Women must decide their fate."

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