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Women's situation in Ireland today: an overview

The following is a transcript of the contribution from Socialist Democracy sympathiser Anne Conway to the Canadian group Socialist Action IWD meeting on March 4th 2021.

The issues briefly covered in the presentation were: the 2018 abortion referendum, the Cervical Screening Scandal, the Campaign Against Church Ownership of Women’s Health Care, Catholic Church/State abuse of women and children.

The Referendum to Repeal the Constitutional Amendment on Abortion

The stunning landslide victory in the 2018 abortion referendum vote that removed the ban on abortion from the Irish constitution was international news headlines.

It was a historic moment and a resounding victory for pro-choice campaigners and the Irish people in general.  Years of hard campaigning led to the victory but a catalyst was the tragic death of a young Indian woman dentist denied an abortion. Her avoidable death shook the country giving rise to huge mobilizations, particularly of young women, demanding the removal of the constitutional amendment forbidding abortion. It was a planned pregnancy that resulted in a danger to her health and she was still denied an abortion which she had requested. It showed the reactionary nature of it all, that she was denied an abortion of a foetus that had at best days left. Her name was Savita Halappanaver, she died from sepsis.

The referendum results astounded the country. In the capital city Dublin, more than three quarters voted for repeal. Several working-class Dublin areas registered a massive 80% pro-choice vote. The urban-rural divide crumbled with almost two thirds voting to get rid of the hated so-called pro-life amendment and this despite the fact that the pro repeal movement was sparse in rural Ireland. However, the most significant statistic was that 87% of those aged 18-24 old voted for repeal throughout the country.

I must add that massive working-class support was also recorded in the marriage equality referendum in 2015. 90% in the disadvantaged working-class area of Jobstown, however the final result was watered down by the middle-class areas of the constituency voting against the referendum.

The landslide repeal vote demonstrated the sea change in attitudes that had taken place in Ireland.  In 1983, at the time the referendum that inserted the amendment into the constitution was held, church attendance was around 80%. In the exit poll in the 2018 referendum just 12% said their religious views were an influence on how they voted. The long record of church abuse led to a massive decline in Mass attendance.  The widespread revulsion at the horrendous litany of abuse of children, women and men by the catholic church and religious orders was a definite factor influencing the vote.

The repeal vote represented a crisis for the Catholic Church, it had been the reliable base for conservatism through its control of schools and major hospitals, including maternity hospitals.

The Catholic Church record of abuse

From the mid-1990’s there were continuous reports of abuse of women and children in orphanages, in industrial schools, in Mother and Baby homes, in addition to clerical sex abuse where paedophile Catholic priests were moved around from parish to parish to continue abusing vulnerable children with the Church refusing to pay compensation to their victims.

In a report issued just four days after the referendum, the Minister for Children announced that between 1946 and1969, tens of thousands of children were illegally adopted. Mothers were told their babies had died. Fake birth certificates were used, and the nuns were paid for the adopted child, some of whom were sent to the U.S. The state was complicit and had been covering up the issue for several years. A TV programme on 4th March this year aired explosive revelations of the illegal stealing and selling of babies of unmarried women, showing collusion between church, state and prominent consultants - one consultant was the son of the former President Eamon de Valera.

In February of this year a report on the findings of a commission on the Mother and Baby homes was issued.  Government politicians on the national airwaves attributed almost equal blame to bigoted backward misogynist attitudes prevailing in wider society during the years the abuse occurred as opposed to placing the responsibility for the horrors revealed in the report at the door of the catholic church and the state. Their mantra was we are all to blame, society knew what was going on. The state wants to avoid compensating the victims.  There was outrage from the survivors and society in general to the handling of the report by the government, which includes the Green party. The religious orders who abused and enslaved women and children are guilty of crimes against humanity and should be prosecuted and stripped of their assets.

A quote from a Mother and Baby home survivor compared the institutional abuse suffered by women and children to the Holocaust.

I’m old enough to remember the stultifying repressive climate that existed in the 60’s as a result of the domination of society by the catholic church, the state and the powers that be. Their domination resulted from the defeat of the revolutionary forces in 1916 and subsequently and gave rise to a reactionary clerical-controlled state where the working class, the poor and women were subjugated and powerless.

The Cervical Screening Scandal

Hot on the heels of the scandal of the religious orders abuse came the shocking revelations from terminally ill women about the cover up of their cervical screening results.
Women had not been informed of numerous irregular smear results over a number of years and some developed and died of cervical cancer. The story was only revealed when a terminally ill woman sued the U.S. corporation to which the smear tests had been outsourced. The country’s Health Service Executive colluded with the US corporation. Several women have already died as a result of this, and terminally ill women were forced to campaign outside government buildings for support and compensation. Consultant doctors at the time of the outsourcing raised concerns about the substandard smear testing results from the corporation in question. A public inquiry on the smear testing scandal vindicated the women but to receive compensation seriously ill women were dragged through the courts for their cases to be heard.

To add insult to injury, late last year, the National Screening Service Communications management saw fit to remove the word woman from its screening literature to be replaced with the wording ‘anyone with a cervix’. Following an outcry on the national airwaves, women’s organizations and a leading pro-choice consultant the word woman was reinserted alongside anyone with a cervix.

Campaign against Church Ownership of Women’s Healthcare

A further major scandal arose in the months following the repeal victory, it involved the government handing over the ownership and control of a new proposed state funded National Maternity Hospital to the Sisters of Charity. This order was involved in one of the gravest child abuse baby selling scandals and had failed to pay their share of compensation to the victims. There was outrage and a campaign aptly named the Campaign against Church Ownership of Women’s Healthcare was launched and won widespread national support for its demand that the new hospital be secular and public. It continues to organize on the issue.

As the repeal movement largely disappeared from political activity after the repeal vote, with the exception of hard-core activists, there was limited involvement from former activists against the state handing over the new maternity hospital to the nuns.

Where do we go from here?

The repeal campaign, like the marriage equality campaign in 2015, mobilized tens of thousands of activists but these mobilizations were not enduring after the votes were won in the respective referendums.

The leadership of the repeal campaign consisted of predominantly reformist and bourgeois women whose focus was repealing the amendment, however, exit polls showed the public were ahead of the campaign with almost two thirds of respondents supporting a woman’s right to choose.

This prochoice mass sentiment was not tapped into by feminist activists or indeed generally by the left in the campaign and an opportunity to rebuild a women’s movement with a strong working-class base was lost. This was a missed opportunity as we saw the working class voted massively for abortion rights.

Women workers have been to the forefront of struggles in recent years. Nurses mobilized militantly during their national strike in 2019 for better pay and working conditions.  Teachers and again nurses on the covid frontline organized for safe working conditions and better pay for student nurses. The unions who are charged with defending them, let them down time and again, as they have been in partnership with successive governments for decades.

Women united with workers, the oppressed and marginalized will be necessary to overthrow the rotten system that gives rise to ongoing scandals and oppression and bring about the liberation of women.

I want to acknowledge the profound influence my comrade and partner, Kevin Keating, who passed away last May, has had on my contribution tonight.  He has supported or campaigned alongside me, as appropriate, in all of the main struggles on women’s issues that I participated in from the late 70’s.

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