On the 25th of May the Irish people will face a major democratic challenge: to vote for the repeal of the 8th Amendment to the Constitution and remove, once and for all, the constitutional restrictions placed on women seeking to avail of essential medical treatment.
Safe and legal access to abortion is an absolute necessity.
What is really at stake are the democratic rights of women: the right to decide the steps they need to take to protect their lives; the right to decide which medical procedures and treatment to have, and the right to have access to them; the right to decide if, and when, to have a child.
The 8th Amendment has gravely restricted these rights and continues to endanger the lives of women.
For too long in this state women have been treated as second-class citizens. Historically women have been subjected to discriminatory laws in relation to employment, wages, family planning, and now medical access to abortion. This is a legacy of the alliance of a reactionary state, a state created by the victory of counter-revolutionary forces, with the Catholic Church. Women, who played such an important role in the revolutionary decade from 1913 to 1922, had to be driven back, repressed, and controlled—just as the state had to drive the working class and revolutionary forces back so as to cement its victory.
This state imposed repressive laws, and continues to practise both economic pressure and discrimination, against all those who opposed the birth of this confessional state.
The Irish establishment was quick to consolidate its power and influence by giving a free hand to the Catholic Church. The Church was used as one of the bulwarks in creating the ideological base of this failed state. Those in power were happy to have “a Catholic state for a Catholic people”—a complete anathema to their supposed republican principles—as long as they continued to hold authority.
As James Connolly predicted, the partitioning of Ireland led to a “carnival of reaction.” That carnival of reaction helped to consolidate two sectarian political institutions in this country, resulting from British-imposed partition. In the two jurisdictions the nationalism of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil and the deeply reactionary ideology of unionism were scared by, and deeply hostile to, women and women’s equality.
On the 25th of May we will have the opportunity to repeal one of the main pieces of discriminatory legislation within the legal and constitutional system of this state. The 8th Amendment attempted to control and to penalise women for being women. For far too long women have been told what to do, where to go, what to wear or not wear. In particular, women’s sexuality has been a central point of control. Women have been told to wait patiently for their rights to be given to them (or taken away, as the case may be).
The repeal of the 8th Amendment will end thirty-five years of a refusal to recognise women and their lived experience. It will mean no longer turning a blind eye to the fact that at least nine women leave this state every day seeking an abortion. That’s at least 3,285 women a year, women ignored and stigmatised.
Over the last thirty-five years more than 100,000 women have been forced to travel abroad, at a huge mental, physical and monetary cost. And this number does not include the thousands of women from the Six Counties who also have to travel to obtain safe, secure abortion.
While the right of access to safe and secure abortion is an issue for all women, it is also one that tells the story of a class-divided society. As women make up the majority of low-paid workers, it is working women who mainly experience precarious employment, zero-hour contracts, and “we’ll call you when we need you” jobs. For them to gather the necessary funds both for travel and to have a termination in Britain, and also to secure the necessary time to do so, has an inordinately discriminatory effect on working-class women.
Repealing the 8th Amendment is about democracy for women, for medical equality, for giving women a choice in what they need to do, what is in their best interests. No-one else can or should decide what is in a woman’s best interest. It’s up to her. None so fit to decide what is a fetter as those who wear them.
Ní saoirse go saoirse na mban!