In Ireland, north and south, the law does not recognise that a woman has the right to control her own body. In the Republic of Ireland the Workers Party of Ireland is actively engaged in the Campaign to Repeal the Eight Amendment to Búnreacht na hÉireann (The Irish Constitution). Barriers to reproductive rights for women are also barriers to full social, economic and political.
The Eighth Amendment equates a woman's life with that of a foetus. It effectively introduced a constitutional ban on abortion and denies a woman the right to an abortion even when her health is in serious danger. Article 40.3.3 was inserted into the constitution, by referendum, in September 1983. At that time the Workers Party of Ireland opposed the introduction of this new sub-section and argued that the amendment was legally unnecessary, anti-woman, sectarian and divisive.
Women must have the right to control their own bodies, including their fertility, and to pursue all reproductive choices. Economic, social, political conditions, and the related legislation must be guaranteed to enable women to choose if and when to have a child, to have the right to safe abortion without legal restrictions, within a comprehensive, exclusively public and free health system, with an emphasis on preventive healthcare. This is fundamental to any reasonable concept of gender equality in order to achieve political, social, and economic equality with men. The two states in Ireland regard women as second class citizens incapable of making their own decisions. Both states criminalise women, infringe their rights and discriminate against those women who cannot afford to travel to have an abortion. Criminalising abortion harms individual women with unwanted pregnancies but it also deprives women collectively of control of their fertility, leaving them open to disempowerment, violation of their physical integrity, disruption to and adverse transformation of their lives together with a profound loss of autonomy relative to men. The tragic death of Savita Halappanavar in October 2012 when she was refused an abortion although her life was in danger was an illustration that women in Ireland are still regarded as child-bearing vessels rather than human beings in their own right.
Although women can travel abroad to obtain an abortion this is not an option for many working class women, including migrant women and women on low incomes. Between 1980 and 2014 at least 163,514 women with Irish addresses registered for terminations abroad. Women travelling from Ireland to access an abortion, for example, in the UK, have to have their abortions in a private clinic. The procedure itself can cost between €600 and €1700 and then there is the added costs of travel and accommodation. Considering that 50% of women in Ireland earn €20,000 or less per year the cost of an abortion is prohibitive for many working class women living in this country.
The fact that almost one quarter of people on direct incomes earned less than €10,000 in 2013, while one third of this group earned less than €15,000, and that women represent 60% of all those who are low paid, make it is clear that for many working class women and families whose young daughters do not wish to continue with their pregnancies abortion is not an option on financial grounds. The fact that 87% of single parents are women and that there is a well-recognised high correlation between one parent families and consistent poverty underlines the discriminatory nature of Ireland’s abortion legislation.
A recent ruling of the Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland was a further blow to women and their struggle for equality and reproductive rights in Northern Ireland. The decision that this was a matter for the Legislative Assembly and that “complex moral and religious questions” behind the issue should be determined by a legislature in a jurisdiction where it is clear that religious reaction trumps women’s rights and which at the time of writing cannot even agree to constitute itself, was a further attack on women.
In Northern Ireland the legislative and judicial routes to full reproductive rights for women has been blocked, reinforcing the fact that rights will ultimately only be won by struggle and agitation.
Current figures show that more than 700 women and girls from Northern Ireland travelled to England and Wales to terminate their pregnancies in 2016. This does not include those who travelled to Scotland or other European countries, or women who purchased abortion pills, because of their inability to travel.
It is a woman’s right to control her own body and to make her own reproductive choices. Women must be provided with free and safe abortion in their own country which, in turn, must include practical facilities to support women seeking an abortion and quality post-abortion care, enabling women to avail of free, full and safe access to abortion.
Anti- democratic forces have also sought to stigmatise and demonise women who choose to have, or who have had, abortions and who support the right to choose. These forces have subjected women to harassment and abuse. The reality confronted by women seeking to access an abortion where funds are not readily available, facing denunciation and abuse as they attempt to seek advice, travelling abroad at a difficult time in their lives, and being portrayed as “murderers” and “criminals” is a deliberate attack on women and the exercise of their rights. As socialists we assert a woman's right to have autonomy over her own body.