We are posting another article from the August issue of Socialist Democracy (Ireland). This is on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act in Ireland. It is a follow up to an earlier posting about Savita Halappanavar who died when denied an abortion at the University Hospital in Galway (see We Have Heartbeats Too!).


In the case of the abortion bill the vociferous opposition of the far right boosts this impression. The logic here is that if the SPUC, Youth Defence and the Catholic hierarchy are against something then it must have a progressive element. But this is false. For opposition from such sources reflects more their rabid nature than the progressive character of the legislation. A much better guide is the support the legislation received from the Irish political class. Despite most of the political parties being anti-abortion to some degree or other the legislation passed with a comfortable majority. The predicted upheavals within parties such and Fine Gael and Fianna Fail failed to materialise.

Lack of ructions

The reason for the lack of ructions within the political class is that the legislation did not challenge their conservative position. It maintains a ban on abortion; reduces the exceptional cases to an extremely small category; interprets previous legal judgements in the most restrictive way; and introduces draconian penalties for anyone in breach of the law. Overall it creates a more restrictive framework than existed when the only guidance came from legal judgements.

The foundation of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy legislation, and the basis of its restrictive terms, is the legal definition of “unborn life”. Previously this had been quite vague and allowed some degree of interpretation. However, the very precise definition of “unborn” contained in the legislation – as the period from the moment of implantation until delivery – greatly reduces the scope for abortion. The legislation rules out abortions; in the case of fatal foetal abnormality, in the case of miscarriage while there is still a foetal heartbeat, and in the case of a woman whose health is at risk if a pregnancy is continued. It also makes no provision for abortion in cases of rape or incest.

Doctor’s tribunal

By distinguishing between the mental and physical health of the woman the legislation greatly restricts access to abortion for pregnant women who are suicidal. It would require a panel of three doctors in the case of suicide to determine if a woman should be allowed an abortion in Ireland. And if one of these doctors refuses to recommend a termination of pregnancy an appeal can be made to a review panel of ten medical practitioners who can take up to three days to assemble and make a decision. It is unlikely that any woman would subject herself to such a process but would instead head for a different jurisdiction.

The only ‘liberal’ element of the legislation is the protection of the right to travel. Section 18 makes it clear that nothing in the legislation shall prevent a woman having an abortion abroad. A woman can travel to have an abortion on grounds that it would be denied to her in Ireland. What this highlights is how the legislation, with its severe restrictions and draconian penalties, is consciously structured to force woman seeking an abortion out of the state. It’s a new variation on the old theme of how the Irish solution to problems is to export them.

At most the Protection of Life During Pregnancy legislation will cover some of the worst-case scenarios that may occur, but for 99% of the women who seek abortions it is worthless. The greatest condemnation of this legislation is that it would not have allowed the suicidal pregnant teenager who was the subject of the X case to access a legal abortion in Ireland nor saved the life of Savita Halappanavar. This is despite the fact that it was supposed to legislate for the X case and moreover that it was prompted by the public outcry over the death of Savita at University Hospital Galway.

The failure of the legislation to advance women’s rights is another illustration of the impossibility achieving reform by lobbying within the parliamentary process. It also discredits the notion that the passage of time or the modernising dynamic of capitalism will liberalise Irish society. If this is the case why hasn’t the most recent period of economic expansion been accompanied by an extension of democratic rights? What it has actually produced is a situation in which Ireland is more dominated by imperialism than ever and where social and political rights are less than they were twenty years ago.

Left opposition

To their credit the Left TD’s recognised the reactionary nature of the abortion legislation and opposed it. The problem is that they don’t have a strategy that goes beyond a form of more militant lobbying. In this schema a public outcry over a particularly outrageous case will translate into legislative reform. But the history of abortion rights show this is not the case. There were massive public outcries and mobilisations around the X case in the early 1990’s and more recently over the death of Savita Halappanavar. And while such mass spontaneous activity is necessary to get anywhere in itself it is not enough to bring about change. The experience is that it usually dissipates and the status quo continues once the political class make some empty gestures towards public concern.

The reality is that the ruling class will only concede genuine reforms in response to a determined struggle. This needs to go well beyond the ad hoc campaigns that periodically pop up over a range of issues. It also needs to go beyond specific issues and take up the question of oppression more generally. The historic gains in women’s rights have always been situated in a more general upsurge of the working class. The claim by James Connolly that the fate of the oppressed is bound up with the cause of labour is still relevant today.

It is only an organised movement within the working class can bring all these threads together in a common struggle. While such a movement does not currently exist it is the task of socialists to help build it. This is a massive task but given the level of oppression in Ireland anything else would be wholly inadequate. It cannot be done by avoiding basic questions of women’s rights such as the right to choose and advancing a halfway house of reform that blocks even the beginnings of mobilisation and independent action.

Also see Orange and Green bigots unite in opposition to Marie Stopes Clinic and Magdalene – When “Sorry” isn’t anywhere near enough on A Tribute To International Women’s Day