Workers Hammer No. 221

Winter 2012-2013


Ireland: outrage over death of woman denied abortion

For free abortion on demand!

The tragic death of Indian dentist Savita Halappanavar on 28 October 2012 in University Hospital Galway has forced the question of abortion rights once more onto the political agenda in Ireland. Savita, who was 17 weeks pregnant, was admitted to the hospital on 21 October and was found to be suffering a miscarriage. Despite the obvious potential of infection, the hospital refused her repeated requests for a termination because the foetal heartbeat was still detectable. Her husband Praveen was told a termination was not possible because “this is a Catholic country”. After days of agony, Savita died of septicaemia, a victim of the anti-woman policies of the Irish clericalist capitalist state.

Two weeks later, when the news of Savita’s death broke, there was an immediate mass outpouring of grief and rage. With only a few hours’ notice, over 2000 turned out for a protest at the Dail [parliament] on 14 November; more than 10,000 marched through Dublin city centre on 17 November and thousands more protested in Galway, Cork, Limerick and smaller towns across Ireland as well as internationally. While billed as vigils for Savita, the protests were expressions of deep-seated anger in a wide cross-section of Irish society, but especially young women, that despite the erosion of the church’s authority among the population over recent decades, the life of a pregnant woman is still worth less than a 17-week-old foetus.

Ireland has one of the most restrictive anti-abortion regimes in the world. Both North and South, abortion continues to be illegal under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, which prescribes penalties of up to life in prison for performing an abortion. Moreover, in the Irish Republic, the reactionary Eighth Amendment to the constitution was passed by referendum in 1983 to explicitly equate the value of the life of a pregnant woman with that of “the unborn”. In 1992, in what became known as the “X case”, the High Court barred a 14-year-old rape victim from leaving the country to obtain an abortion. Mass protests forced the Supreme Court to rule that “X” could travel abroad to terminate her pregnancy. Furthermore, the court ruled that a woman had a right to abortion in Ireland if there was a “real and substantial risk” to her life, including the risk of suicide. However, every Irish government in the ensuing 20 years has refused to legislate for even this most restricted abortion reform.

Subsequent to the “X case”, the right to travel abroad to obtain an abortion and the right to information about abortion were enshrined in the constitution through referendums (whereas two other amendments to eliminate the risk of suicide as a valid reason for abortion were rejected). Since that time, tens of thousands of women have travelled to Britain and elsewhere to terminate their pregnancies, in 2011 over 1000 from Northern Ireland and over 4000 from the South. Women are forced to come up with hundreds of pounds for the procedure, plus travel and accommodation and many immediately return home, where they lack medical support in the event of complications. In recent years, many women have opted instead to order abortion pills over the internet. This is a cheaper option, and for many immigrant women who are not allowed to travel, the only one. As safe as these pills are, the fact that women are compelled to take them without medical supervision puts them at risk. Despite this, the Irish ruling class and the church continue to reassure themselves that abortions don’t happen in “Catholic Ireland”.

In 2010, the European Court of Human Rights unanimously ruled that the Irish state was in violation of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. This ruling arose in the case of “C”, a Lithuanian national living in Ireland who had been treated for cancer and who became pregnant. Under Ireland’s draconian anti-abortion laws, no doctor was willing to make a determination as to whether her life would be at risk if she continued the pregnancy, so she was forced to travel to Britain for an abortion. In response to this ruling, rather than even clarifying when a woman would actually be entitled to an abortion, the Fine Gael/Labour coalition government convened an “expert group” to lay out the various options. In the wake of the protests over Savita Halappanavar’s death, the government finally published the long-delayed report and now promises to act on it early in 2013. But even this is too much for the church and right-wing elements of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail. Labour meanwhile has insisted that this will not be the seventh government to fail to legislate in line with the “X case” (though Labour were part of two of the previous six governments which failed to do so!). Their overwhelming priority, however, is to maintain the stability of the government, thus they have twice this year joined with Fine Gael and Fianna Fail in voting down a motion by members of the United Left Alliance for minimal abortion legislation.

The protests following Savita’s death revealed the depth of anger against the woman-hating Catholic church and the capitalist government which is slashing wages and health and education services in the service of the austerity demanded by the EU and IMF. Not only were people outraged by Savita’s death, but many insisted that women deserve much more than the “right” to abortion granted in the “X case” ruling, ie, only when their lives are in danger. Winning even the most minimal rights to abortion will require serious social struggle against the forces of anti-abortion reaction, including the clericalist state, the church and its shock troops in Youth Defence. While the scandal-ridden church hierarchy is today hated by wide swathes of society, it is not about to accept even the slightest reforms on the question of abortion. In an ominous expression of the strength of clericalist reaction, several thousand anti-abortion bigots, including no less than four bishops, mobilised outside the Dail on 4 December demanding that Fine Gael keep their “pro-life promise” and not pass any legislation legalising abortion, even in line with the “X case”.

Counterposed to the necessary struggle against such forces of reaction, the reformist Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party in Ireland channel abortion rights protests into the dead-end of looking to the bourgeois parliament for incremental reforms and constrain their demands to what is “possible” now. Thus the SWP addressed themselves to the government, headlining their leaflets “Legislate Now!”, even as they tried to cover their left flank by adding the call for “Free, Safe & Legal abortion” on the back. The Socialist Party, while stating “X is a start, but it's not enough”, pushes “a mass movement of ordinary working class and young people to force the political establishment to introduce pro-choice legislation”. This reformist approach helps to demobilise the abortion-rights protests, especially given the government’s promises that legislation would be forthcoming imminently. In contrast, our starting point is not what the capitalist state deems “practical” but what women need.

The Spartacist League/Britain produced the following leaflet on 16 November, headlined “For free abortion on demand!” The leaflet, which was distributed at protests in Dublin and London, was polarising. On seeing the headline people either refused to take it or were eager to get their hands on it, in some cases asking for more copies for their friends and families. It is through such interventions that we seek to win the most tenacious fighters for women’s rights to the programme of building a revolutionary vanguard party.

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The agonising death of Savita Halappanavar on 28 October, after being repeatedly denied an abortion, is the latest atrocity against women by the Irish clericalist state. It shows that, 20 years after Ireland was swept by mass protests over the “X case”, nothing fundamental has changed: a woman can not get an abortion to save her life. The barbaric treatment of the young Indian woman in hospital has caused widespread outrage and there is massive support for an end to Ireland’s virtual ban on abortion. Halappanavar’s mother bitterly condemned Ireland’s abortion laws, saying: “In an attempt to save a 4-month-old foetus they killed my 30-year-old daughter” (The Hindu, 15 November).

The question starkly posed today is how come, in the 21st century, a woman who was suffering a miscarriage was denied an abortion that could have prevented her death? Ireland is “a Catholic country”, the dying woman was told. Make no mistake: any effective fight for abortion rights necessarily means a hard-fought struggle against the full force of clerical reaction and against the capitalist state.

The mass protests in 1992 forced the Supreme Court to rule that the young woman known as “X” could go abroad for an abortion. At the time, the liberals and leftists who led the campaign lulled the mass movement into thinking that legislation for abortion rights would follow automatically. Such illusions in the Irish capitalist state were used to demobilise the struggle. We warned that:

“The women of Ireland and all those who favour abortion rights still face a bitter struggle for what is needed: free abortion and contraception on demand. It can rarely have been clearer that it will take working-class revolution to break the power of the church in society, and that the reformist parties of the Irish working class are utterly tied to the capitalist system of austerity, oppression and bigotry”.

Workers Hammer no 129, May/June 1992

The struggle for abortion rights, for the separation of church and state, as well as for decent healthcare and education provision, means a fight against the whole reactionary edifice of capitalism. It is in the direct interest of the working class — men and women — to take up the fight for free abortion on demand, as part of the struggle to free itself from capitalist austerity, exploitation and oppression. Irish society is no longer in thrall to the clergy, as it was for many decades. But the church maintains much control of education and healthcare — many hospitals abide by Catholic ethical codes. The right to an abortion should not be subject to the moral views of doctors or hospital management. For free abortion on demand! For free public healthcare for all! For separation of church and state!

Under capitalism, democratic rights are the product of social struggle and must constantly be defended against attack. In the 20 years since the “X case”, anti-abortion forces have relentlessly tried to reverse any opening for abortion rights that has been won, such as the right to information on abortion services and to travel abroad for an abortion. It is delusional to think that the capitalist parties Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, or for that matter Labour, a bourgeois-workers party, will mount a fundamental challenge to reactionary Catholic forces over abortion rights. Yet these are the parties that reformists are capitulating to, restricting their demands to calling for legislation conforming to the Supreme Court ruling in the “X case”. This boils down to calling for abortion to be legalised only in cases where the woman’s life is in danger. The call for “free abortion”, which the Socialist Workers Party tacked on to the end of a leaflet issued on 14 November, is merely a fig-leaf covering their prostration before the Irish state.

Labour Tanaiste [deputy prime minister] Eamon Gilmore has promised that the government will introduce guidelines stating when abortion is permitted. Of course Marxists defend any legal right to abortion, however limited, that might be achieved. Any legalisation of abortion would cause a rift within the government, with several Fine Gael TDs [MPs] insisting that no legislation be produced. A dividing line also runs through Sinn Fein, as Gerry Adams admitted, saying: “I realise there are strongly held opposing views, including within Sinn Fein and throughout society, on the issue of medical termination”. Adams concludes with the standard call for the government to provide legislation, no doubt assuming that such legislation will pander to the anti-abortion bigots, including those within his own party.

Clare Daly (formerly of the Socialist Party) and other TDs elected on the United Left Alliance ticket, put a motion in the Dail earlier this year, solely designed “to provide for termination of pregnancy where a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother exists” (Irish Times, 22 February). In the Dail debate following the death of Savita Halappanavar, seven “left” TDs — Patrick Nulty, Mick Wallace, Clare Daly, Joan Collins, Richard Boyd Barrett, Joe Higgins and Catherine Murphy — all pleaded with the Fine Gael-Labour coalition government to legislate “for abortion under the terms permitted by the Supreme Court ruling in the X case” (, 15 November).

Labour Party senator Ivana Bacik likewise demands legislation, to “save the lives of pregnant women” (Irish Times, 16 November). Bacik cites the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled in 2010 that Ireland must clarify the legal position on abortion. The government set up an “expert group” to produce recommendations on how to comply with the European Court ruling, but would prefer to postpone a decision as long as possible. Many today still look to the European Union to liberalise Ireland’s laws on abortion, and to permit gay marriage, etc. Such hopes are likely to be in vain. We oppose the European Union, an imperialist club that is dictating savage attacks on working people in Ireland, as well as in Greece, Spain and Portugal.

Limiting the demands for abortion rights to cases where the woman’s life is in danger is a betrayal of the basic needs of Irish women, thousands of whom are forced to travel to Britain every year for an abortion. To get an idea of what government legislation might look like, women in the South need only look across the border to Northern Ireland, where abortion is only available in cases where there is “a risk to the life of the woman or a risk of real and serious adverse effect to her physical and mental health on either a long-term or permanent basis”. Abortion in the North is regulated by criminal law, and is “punishable by a maximum sentence of life imprisonment” (Irish Times, 12 October).

The newly-opened Marie Stopes private clinic in Belfast, offering non-surgical abortions up to nine weeks, met with howls of protest from both Catholic and Protestant reactionaries. An article in the Irish Times (22 October) noted: “Last year only some 43 legal abortions were performed in the North while the Family Planning Association referred 40 women a week from there to British clinics for a private abortion. Like their Southern counterparts, the boat to Britain has been the only real option.” For the overwhelming majority of working-class and poor women, the “right” to have an abortion without the means to pay still leaves them without much “choice”. Women in Ireland, North and South, depend on the availability of abortion services in Britain, where abortion was legalised in 1967. However today the right to abortion in Britain has faced repeated threats, including an attempt to reduce the time limit of 24 weeks. Birth control and abortion remain restricted throughout the capitalist world by the state, by the institution of the family, and by organised religion, which all serve to enforce women’s oppression.

The fight for abortion rights must be linked to the struggle for women’s liberation through socialist revolution. As we noted in 1992, in opposition to liberals and reformists who trimmed their demands to what they thought was least likely to provoke reactionary forces: “This Gordian knot of bourgeois ‘constitutional’ legal wrangling can only be cut in a progressive sense by a tough, principled, iron-hard fight: not for this reform or that wording but for what is needed by women and the working class” (“For a working class-centred fight for free abortion on demand!” Workers Hammer no 129, May/June 1992). Socialist revolution will tear down the clericalist capitalist system in the South and that of the Loyalist masters in the North. The construction of a planned economy alone can provide quality healthcare and make abortion and contraception free and safe, on demand. Such a society would provide jobs for everyone, laying the material basis for the genuine liberation of women. We seek to build proletarian internationalist parties dedicated to the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism on both sides of the Irish border and both sides of the Irish Sea.