We need another referendum on abortion

The twentieth anniversary of X is a very important marker in the history of pro-choice activity in Ireland but even immediate delivery of legislation on X would have little impact on solving the problems generated by the absence of abortion services in Ireland.

Dr Mary Favier, of Doctors for Choice, laid out this position very coherently in the aftermath of the 2002 referendum when the Fianna Fáil/Progressive Democrat coalition government attempted to overturn the X judgment:

‘Any change to allow for suicide risk and foetal malformation would involve only a very small change in the law and would not substantively affect the lives of Irish women seeking abortion … Pro-choice activists need to be cautious about being drawn in to any broad alliance of support for such a limited legal change. Doctors for Choice would argue that this is a mistake as it continues to deny the reality of the 7000 women travelling to England every year. At all times this issue should remain the focus of any campaign to change the law. Scarce energy and resources are better spent on creating an acceptance of abortion as a reality in Ireland. Any campaign should start with where it means to end – Irish women have a right to access abortion services in Ireland and the law needs to be changed accordingly.’

The government’s failure in the 2002 referendum to overturn the X judgment underlined an already  significant shift in Irish public opinion. Nearly 10 years later the X anniversary should serve as a launching point for a more long-term and sustained campaign for abortion rights for all women in Ireland.

Last year Choice Ireland asked all the Irish political parties under what circumstances, if any, they would allow legal abortion in Ireland. Among the mainstream parties, Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin did not reply to the question. The Green Party (a coalition partner in government at the time of the survey) said they left it to their members to make up their own minds. Labour gave the most comprehensive response to the question and tied up a lengthy ‘on the one hand and on the other hand’ analysis of the legal situation with a commitment to provide for the availability of a termination of pregnancy in the cases of:

  • A risk to the life of the woman, including the risk of suicide;
  • Foetal abnormality which is such that the foetus will never be born alive;
  • A risk of significant injury to the physical health of the mother.

Some smaller political parties, including the United Left Alliance (ULA), who are sponsoring a Private Members Bill to legislate on the X judgment, affirmed their commitment to a pro-choice position, with the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party (members of the ULA) standing for the provision of abortion as part of the health service.

If the Labour Party is genuine about its commitment to legislate on X (and there is little evidence that this is likely to be a priority for them) they can co-operate with the ULA and independent TDs who have expressed a willingness to push this agenda. Given their record on other issues it is highly unlikely that they will be prepared to upset their coalition partners. The Fine Gael position on the issue was made clear by Enda Kenny before the election last year and has been emphasised by the relegation of the European Court of Human Rights ruling to discussion by yet another Dáil committee. The recent Action on X protest outside the Dáil reminded us that successive governments have taken such evasive action. It should be remembered that Labour was a coalition partner with Fine Gael in 1983 when the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution put the right to life of embryos and grown women on an equal legal footing and laid the groundwork for the X debacle in the first place. Labour was a partner with Fine Gael again in 1992 when the right to information and travel were enshrined in the Constitution, but there was no attempt made to legislate for X. While individual Labour representatives – Ivana Bacik in particular - have played a very creditable role in seeking abortion rights in Ireland, in general the party has run for the hills when it was in a position to push for even the minimal steps required to act on the X judgment.

The current economic climate in Ireland means more women are experiencing unplanned pregnancies as a crisis. The long-standing problem of Irish women having late abortions because of the time it takes to make arrangements and get the money together is also exacerbated by the recession. There are also the ongoing difficulties for asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants whose status requires them to seek state approval to travel outside the country.

This X anniversary year is a symbol of the shameful lack of action by successive governments but it can provide the impetus for a sustainable long-term campaign for full abortion rights focused on generating a demand from a majority of Irish voters for a referendum on the Eighth Amendment. Until that is repealed there is no possibility of a full abortion service in Ireland, regardless of whether there is legislation on X or indeed the A, B or C cases following last year’s judgment by the European Court of Human Rights.

Considerable preparatory work would have to be done to get the broad range of representative bodies and groups engaged that would be necessary for the success of a campaign for a new referendum. At this point many bodies, including trade unions, do have broadly pro-choice policies, but have had little or no active involvement in demanding abortion rights, despite the fact that many of their members would have contributed to the polls in recent years that show just how much Irish public opinion has changed. In this case many public representatives, both civil society and political, are well behind their constituents in their attitude to abortion. We should be long past the stage where we play down what we are talking about as pro-choice activists. Abortion is a medical gynaecological procedure that should be included in any health service and any decision on whether or not it is availed of should be a matter for the woman concerned and her medical advisers.

The European Court judgment on the A, B and C cases pushed the issue back into the unwilling hands of Irish politicians who have sought to delay action through the establishment of yet another expert group. Given that this has been the response of previous governments the constitutional, legal and medical issues have been thoroughly explored. Legislation on X is so long overdue and would be so restrictive in its application that only political cowardice is the only explanation for the failure to pass it. The people voted against overturning the minimal provisions of the X judgment in the 2002 referendum. The focus of future political campaigning on the issue should be the immediate enactment of an X Bill as the launching point for a campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment to pave the way for the provision of full abortion rights as part of our medical services. {jathumbnailoff}

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