Ireland abortion referendum: a mighty blow against the Catholic Church

On Friday 25 May, Ireland went to the polls to decide whether to repeal the 8th amendment of the constitution, which denied women the right to abortion as long as the unborn fetus had a heartbeat. Under these laws, which are part of the legacy of the Catholic Church’s domination of Ireland, abortion was illegal, even under the horrific circumstances of rape, incest or fetal abnormalities. The repeal of the 8th amendment is an epoch-making slap in the face against the Catholic Church and the establishment in the Republic.

As the results came in it was clear that the people had mobilised in huge numbers. The Irish electorate voted by 1,429,981 votes to 723,632 in favour to repeal the amendment and to introduce abortion rights. Turnout reached a massive 64.1 percent, even higher than the 60.5 percent who voted for same-sex marriage in 2015. Thousands of people even flew home just to vote, some from as far as 9,000 miles away! With one tremendous push, the dead hand of the past has been thrust aside. More than anything else, this was a mighty blow against the Catholic Church, which for decades has kept women enslaved in Ireland.

The ‘Yes’ vote carried 66.4 percent of the total, winning in every single constituency with the exception of Donegal, where the turnout was the lowest. In Dublin the vote was as high as 75 percent. But even in the rural areas, which the ‘No’ campaign thought it could rest upon, the ‘Yes’ vote won by 63 percent. Among the youth levels of support for 'Yes' reached an absolutely crushing 87.6 percent for the 18-to-24-year-olds. But among all other age groups other than the over-65s the 'Yes' vote won. Amongst women, 72.1 percent voted 'Yes'.

Even traditionally conservative Roscommon-Galway, the only constituency which voted against gay marriage in 2015, voted 57 percent to repeal the amendment on a 65 percent turnout.

Another revolutionary moment

To appreciate just how revolutionary these changes in Irish society have been, we need only look back at how recently it was that the Catholic Church had Ireland in its grip. Until as late as the 1990s homosexuality and divorce remained illegal. From a rural, priest-ridden island under the aegis of the Catholic Church in the 1980s, Ireland has become transformed into an urban, forward-looking society, with a large, educated and youthful working class.

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It was just 35 years ago that a referendum was carried to introduce the 8th amendment by a crushing majority, similar to that with which it has now been repealed. Even as recently as 2002, a referendum to make abortion more restrictive was only narrowly defeated. In the past, however, the Catholic Church was not afraid to campaign for “moral purity” directly from the pulpit. In this referendum, as in the 2015 same-sex marriage referendum, the Church has been conspicuous by its absence. And no wonder – it stands today utterly discredited and could only have assisted the 'Yes' vote by its intervention.

The thousands of women who had gathered at Dublin Castle to hear the announcement of the results were chanting “get your rosaries off our ovaries”!

Church and state

Since the Free State was established in the 1920s, the Church has lorded it over the Irish people, keeping them under the heel of a medieval-style theocracy. Women suffered the worst of its abuses. While denied the right to abortion, those who had children outside of marriage were shunned as “fallen women”. Their babies might be taken from them and given away. The women themselves were locked up in institutions like the Magdalene laundries.

Magdalen asylum Image public domain'Fallen women' were sent to hell-holes like the Magdalene laundries to slave for the Church / Image: public domain

In these hellholes the “sanctity of life” was trampled underfoot. Women were stripped of their possessions, their dignity, and even their names and forced to perform slave labour for the religious orders. From the labour of these enslaved women, the Church made millions. There they were subjected to mental, physical and sexual torture and when women and children died in these institutions, as often they did, they were dumped in mass graves and septic tanks.

Only since the 1990s has this systematic torture of innocent women and children, and a litany of other abuses, been brought to the surface. This has led to a wave of revulsion against the Church’s subjugation of women. Since 2008 and the collapse of the ‘Celtic Tiger’, the authority of every pillar of the establishment has dramatically collapsed with it.

Despite its declining authority however, the Church continues to maintain deep links with the Irish capitalist class and its state. To this day it continues to run 90 percent of primary schools and 50 percent of secondary schools, as well as many hospitals. In theory there exists “separation of church and state” in Ireland. In practice there is none. Ironically, the Church (through its control of sex education) and the poverty capitalism creates, have undoubtedly increased the number of unwanted pregnancies.

The lingering effects

The struggle against the 8th amendment shows that the Church’s legacy is not as-yet thing of the past. This was shockingly brought into the light of day in 2012 by the tragic case of a young Indian woman, Savita Halappanavar.

20121117 abortion rally William MurphySavita Halappanavar's death in 2012 highlighted the barbarism of Ireland's abortion ban / Image: William Murphy

Savita visited hospital in utter agony, clearly suffering from a miscarriage. There was no chance of successfully delivering the fetus and Savita begged the doctors for an abortion. She was told that “unfortunately, this is a Catholic country,” as she lay in agony, dying.

Since then dozens of women have shared their horror stories. What is clear is that these laws haven’t prevented abortions. Instead, women have been forced abroad. Every year a stream of more than 3,000 women fly from Ireland to Liverpool, Manchester or London seeking an abortion. Inevitably such trips require thousands of euros and days of bedrest, thereby persecuting working-class women hardest.

For women who can’t afford the flight there have always been riskier alternatives: the purchase of online abortion pills for instance, with all of their attendant risks.

Liberal elites

The crushing nature of the vote means that it is almost inevitable that the government will have to introduce the right to termination until 12 weeks.

It should be noted though that those now expected to carry out the people’s will are very recent converts to the idea that women should be able to control their own bodies. Both Leo Varadkar and Michael Martin, along with the rest of the Fine Gael-Fianna Fail establishment, were traditionally, staunchly pro-life.

Indeed, FG health minister, Simon Harris (who will be expected to help draft new laws on abortion), wrote to the Pro-Life Campaign in 2011 seeking their support in his election:

“Please be assured of my support. I need number-one votes on Friday so I can be in a position to support these positions in Dail Eireann.”

Expecting a tight-run thing, one of Varadkar’s close associates back in 2017 told the press:

“He doesn’t believe in an absolute abolition of the amendment. What he’s talking about is minimal change. He wants to rebalance it.”

Leo Varadkar Image Flickr LLysaghtLeo Varadkar, who was previously staunchly pro-life, has hypocritically described the result as a "quiet revolution" / Image: Flickr, LLysaght

Now he is hailing a “quiet revolution” that has made Ireland a “kinder” place! It seems Varadkar, like all liberal politicians, can change principles as easily as he changes his colourful socks! In fact the establishment has slowly been putting distance between itself and the Catholic Church in anticipation of a 'Yes' vote for some time.

None of them expected this, however! All of the pundits and press commentators anticipated a slight 'Yes' majority, but this is an earthquake. Once more the liberal ruling class has demonstrated precisely how out of touch it is.

Eyes turn to the North

Nowhere is the shock of this vote going to be more strongly felt than in the North of Ireland. With the repeal of the 8th, the law in effect in the North of Ireland has now become the most reactionary anywhere on these islands. There is now growing clamour for Theresa May to do something to address this long-standing injustice against women, with senior Tories even calling for a referendum on abortion rights in Northern Ireland.

In the past the unionist politicians of the North could point to the conservatism of the South and its domination by the Catholic Church as an argument against unification. Now things have been turned into their opposite. The jubilation North of the border shows that this is really one struggle across Ireland. Arlene Foster and the DUP have tried to downplay the all-Irish significance of the repeal of the eighth. Already, however, Sinn Fein have raised the need for a poll on Irish reunification.

The situation in the North of Ireland represents a growing fire under the backsides of the Tories. Every day, the grounds for refusing a border poll grow more tenuous. At the last Assembly election, unionism lost its historic majority. However, as May told a recent meeting of 150 Tory MPs, she’s not about to risk a border poll any time soon because she won’t be guaranteed of winning it!

With May forced to rest on a precarious alliance with the rotten reactionaries of the DUP, it looks unlikely she will be making any concessions on abortion rights. Instead we have been assured that this is an issue for Stormont – which doesn’t look likely to come back from the grave any time soon!

The Tories are not the only ones who have sacrificed reproductive rights in appeasement of the DUP. Back in 2008, amendments were tabled to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, by none other than Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott. If passed they would have seen abortion legalised in Northern Ireland. But because the New Labour government of the day had depended upon the DUP on 42 days detention, they decided to disgracefully sabotage the amendments to keep the DUP sweet.

What next?

While the politicians in the Dáil are unlikely to try and prevent legislation giving women their right to abortion, there remain obstacles. The reactionary 'No' campaign – and behind it the Catholic Church – will strive might and main to stop abortion rights becoming a reality.

A spokesman for the Save the 8th campaign made their bitterness abundantly clear when appearing to threaten abortion clinic pickets:

“If and when abortion clinics are opened in Ireland, because of the inability of the Government to keep their promise about a GP-led service, we will oppose that as well. Every time an unborn child has his or her life ended in Ireland, we will oppose that, and make our voices known.”

The Catholic Church remains an immensely powerful section of the ruling class, with huge amounts of wealth an influence in the state. As Marxists we believe it is time for a revolution that completely uproots the Church’s influence. All of its assets must be nationalised without compensation and it must be booted out of education. Religion should be a private affair.

But the Church alone is not the only obstacle. There remains another: the austerity being carried out by Fine Gael and Fianna Fail. It is not for abortions alone that Irish people are forced to travel abroad every year. Such is the state of healthcare that last year alone more than 2,000 people travelled abroad for healthcare because waiting lists were too long at home! Even simple operations like cataract removals can involve waits of five-to-six-years.

The ruling class can grant the theoretical right to access medical procedures. However, under conditions of ongoing crisis it is stripping working class people of the basic access to healthcare that makes for a semi-civilised standard of living.

The struggle therefore for the full material liberation of women must be linked to the struggle to overthrow capitalism.

Womens strike Image Isabel SerraThe subterranean, revolutionary mode has been expressed in a number of fabulous struggles for women's rights worldover, like the 8 March women's strike in Spain (pictured) / Image: Isabel Serra

The ramifications of the repeal earthquake are being felt the worldover. The vote is a manifestation of a subterranean mood – a revolutionary mood – of anger and opposition to the old order developing internationally. And everywhere this developing mood is accompanied by women’s struggles. In Latin American, women have risen up against gender violence; in Poland for reproductive rights; in Spain there is the fabulous example of the March 8 feminist strike.

To be finally successful and to achieve the full equality and liberation of women, these struggles must run like many tributaries into a single torrent. Only the revolutionary struggle of the working class of the whole world to overthrow capitalism and create a socialist society can put an end once and for all to the oppression of women.

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