The reproductive health of women has been a key issue of dispute between those seeking to keep Irish society mired in its sectarian past and others advocating progressive change, reports Francis Donohoe.
An unlikely coalition spanning the trade unions, left political parties, feminist campaign groups to the leaders of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael has emerged in support of removing the 8th Amendment to the Irish Constitution.
The so-called pro-life amendment, which equates the viability of a foetus with the life of a woman, was forced into the Constitution in 1983. This was achieved after two and a half years of highly effective campaigning by elements of the Catholic far-right, financially backed by organisations in the United States and supported by the Catholic Hierarchy.
It was clear from its establishment, in late 1980, that the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign (PLAC) saw abortion as merely the most emotive issue it could focus on in a wider conservative crusade against contraception and other aspects of what it saw as anti-Christian, liberal and socialistic influence in Ireland. As the PLAC main spokeswoman, Dr Julia Vaughan, a former nun, gynaecologist and one-time assistant master of Holles Street maternity hospital, saw it, Ireland would act as “a beacon” and help “turn the tide in the western world” in the battle of values between conservatism and progress.
In contrast to the present situation, in the early 1980s, active opposition to the Amendment, and what then Workers’ Party President Tomas Mac Giolla publicly condemned as the “ultra-Catholic” agenda behind it, was largely left to small groups of activists and principled left politicians. Although opposed to the amendment, the trade union movement decided not to actively campaign on the issue.
This was indeed the safer option, with the abortion issue used to undermine left-wing politicians such as the Labour Party’s Michael D. Higgins and Democratic Socialist Jim Kemmy, who both lost their Dáil seats in 1983 just months before the original 8th Amendment Referendum.
The campaign greatly intensified in the run up to the referendum poll in September 1983. The bitter fight pitted a well-funded Church-backed machine against an isolated and largely marginalised Anti-Amendment Campaign (AAC), which often found difficulty securing meeting rooms as businesses came under pressure not to host ‘child killers’.
In the end, Fine Gael leader Garret Fitzgerald reversed his party position on the amendment and led his coalition government to endorse the Labour Party stance of opposition to it, the view also expressed by the Protestant Churches. However, campaigning against the Amendment was largely left up to the ACC.
There are just some struggles that have to be fought whatever the outcome
As ACC activist Seamus McDonagh recalls, pushing against the wellorchestrated mass hysteria that had been whipped up by the Catholic right was not for the faint hearted. “While canvassing I had bricks thrown at me, threats were made against members of the ACC and there was a real attempt to make it impossible for us to campaign”, he recalls.
“As a socialist and secular republican, I had no doubt what we were up against and also knew early on that we were going to be defeated in the face of a massively well-funded and fanatical opposition. However, there are just some struggles that have to be fought whatever the outcome,” McDonagh added.
In the end the result delivered on 7th September, 1983, was decisive: 841,233 (66.9%) in favour of placing the 8th Amendment in the Constitution, with 416,136 (33.1%) opposed.
The political landscape is starkly different in 2018, when Irish citizens will be given the opportunity to finally remove the 8th Amendment from the Constitution. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil were quick to initially endorse the PLAC campaign in the early 80s. This was not least due to the influence of the masoniclike secretive lay Catholic organisation, the Knights of Saint Columbanus, within both parties and the wider professional classes at that time.
Perhaps the single greatest transformation to the political landscape in which the current Referendum campaign is being fought has come from outside the traditional politics, that is the upsurge of organisation amongst young women on the issue.
The establishment of the Abortion Rights Campaign (ARC) in 2012 came at a point when even its founders debated whether or not using the word ‘abortion’ so explicitly was tactically positive. ARC founding member Cathie Shiels reflects, “Before 2012, the debate was about ‘choice’ about ‘termination.’
For a campaign to be able to speak clearly about the reality of abortion, and still build such a scale of support and strength, has done a lot to destigmatise abortion.”
That ARC has succeeded in organising across all 26 southern counties and has several groups that support it in the North, indicates the cultural and political shift expands well beyond the major urban areas.
Meanwhile, assisted by the lobbying and activity of groups such as the Trade Union Campaign to Repeal the 8th Amendment, workers’ organisations have taken a much more active role in the campaign. When the SIPTU Biennial Delegate Conference voted in October 2017 to back the holding of a referendum, SIPTU National Executive Committee member, Suzanna Griffin, declared: “Women comprise more than half of the trade union membership in Ireland and it is unacceptable that they live in a country where the law puts their health and lives at risk, criminalises them and forces them to travel abroad to avail of safe and legal abortion services.”
In contrast, the forces which brought the 8th Amendment into existence seem demoralised and disorganised. The furious pulpit thumping which for a generation has been used to whip Catholic church goers into line on the issue is less evident.
However, the Catholic right have shown themselves to be adept at utilising the reproductive health issue to rally their strength. While decades of revelations concerning the systemic abuse of working class children and women by the Catholic Church in Ireland has destroyed its once hegemonic social position, the organisation remains a potent force and one still capable of zealous intemperate interventions. As in the case of West Belfast Priest Fr Paddy McCafferty stating in January that those supporting the removal of the 8th Amendment are seeking “to kill unborn children” and declaring “abortion an unspeakable evil”.
The three referendums held in November 1992 that curtailed the reach of the 8th Amendment in terms of suicide and access to abortion, the right to information on reproductive healthcare and the right of women to travel to avail of it, resulted in a progressive outcome.
However, the campaign around these referendums, and the X Case which led to them, nonetheless spawned Youth Defence – an organisation which brought right-wing Catholic extremism to a new generation. It is a graduate of this group, the somewhat comical Justin Barrett, and his current political venture the National Party that is among the extremist groups which are positioned to use the current campaign to assist their growth.
Although largely ineffective and prone to inadvertently humorous media interventions, the National Party effectively parrot the positions of the European extreme right, a movement which its diminutive leader has long standing connections to.
Whatever the outcome of the Referendum, the campaign concerning it may well play a crucial role in defining the battle lines in the ongoing fight to build a secular republic in Ireland for a generation.