Abortion Rights: What will repeal of the eighth mean for the North?

If a movement is built on clear, cross-community basis, all the political parties and Westminster can come under pressure to act on this issue and the right to choose can be won.

What would repeal mean for the north?

“If it (the eighth amendment) is lost, it will have a profound impact on Northern Ireland.” – it’s not often the Socialist Party finds itself agreeing with the DUP’s Jim Wells! However, on this count, the disgraced former health minister is right. The referendum in the South on 25th May on repealing the odious eighth amendment to the Irish constitution – which equates the life of a woman to the existence of a fetus – can have an important impact in the North and spur on the fight for the right to choose on this side of the border.

Wells is not alone in being nervous about this referendum. Independent republican Dr Anne McCloskey – who described young women in Derry as acting like “receptacles for semen” – has stated that it is a “major concern to those of us in the North who respect the constitutional protection which the eighth offers to preborn children.” One of the few things that brings sectarian politicians together is their common opposition to the right to choose.

Despite women in Britain having the right to choose for the last 50 years, the 1967 Abortion Act was never extended to Northern Ireland and all the main parties to this day oppose its extension. If abortion rights are won in the South, Northern Ireland will be increasingly isolated as one of the few places in Europe with a near blanket ban on abortion.

A recent report from the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) has said the our abortion laws constitute a “systematic violations of rights through being compelled to either travel outside Northern Ireland to procure a legal abortion or to carry their pregnancy to term”, with the chair of the committee going as far as to say “the situation in Northern Ireland constitutes violence against women that may amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”

The reality is that ordinary people are well ahead of their political representatives on this issue – for example, a recent Sky Data opinion poll showed 54% support unrestricted access to abortion up to 12 weeks into pregnancy, with only 30% opposed. A ‘Yes’ victory in the Southern referendum can give an impetus to a new movement here, particularly of women, LGBTQ+ and young people, to demand that we aren’t left behind.

Stormont parties under pressure

All the Stormont parties are responsible for this “systematic violation of rights” but now they are starting to feel the pressure. The Sky Data opinion poll for example showed that 50% of DUP voters and 52% of Sinn Féin voters support unrestricted access to abortion up to 12 weeks.

Jim Wells’ comment about tensions inside the DUP on the issue, saying that he is “like the embarrassing uncle”, is illustrative. The DUP has a strong fundamentalist wing. However, a section of its leadership are nervous about the growing gulf between their policies and their support base’s  views on social issues.

The SDLP – a party which has prided itself on its anti-choice position – has been forced to organise a special conference to discuss if their public representatives should be allowed to vote with their conscience when it comes to abortion. This is already the approach of the UUP and Alliance. In reality, this is a hypocritical cop out – the only conscience which should dictate whether or not an abortion can take place is the pregnant person.

Sinn Féin has also been forced to call a special conference to discuss the issue of allowing unrestricted access to abortion up to 12 weeks. Even after liberalising their abortion policy at the last Ard Fheis, they found themselves with a more conservative position than many Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael TDs. Despite facing opposition from anti-choicers in their ranks, it is likely Sinn Féin will be forced to shift their position to allow access up to12 weeks. Yet, Michelle O’Neil has also recently stated that Sinn Féin is “not in favour of abortions” and remains opposed to the extension of the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland, the most straightforward mechanism by which the right to choose could be won here. The party has been dragged along by the sea change in attitudes on this issue, rather than being an enthusiastic advocate of reproductive rights.

Learn the lessons from the South

The lesson of how abortion rights have been won and defended across the world is that a combative approach of mass mobilisation is necessary. In the South, the referendum was not handed down by the establishment – it was conceded under pressure from the major protests which have taken place since the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012, including the ‘Strike for Repeal’ movement which saw tens of thousands take to the streets on International Women’s Day last year.

As recently as 2013, the Dáil passed legislation that allowed for terminations only in very limited circumstances and which contained a 14-year prison sentence for anyone having or aiding an illegal abortion. Now, the Irish government is proposing unrestricted access to abortion up to 12 weeks. A key reason for this is the campaign of civil disobedience using abortion pills by ROSA and Women on Web. The abortion pill trains, buses and drones made a mockery of the law by aiding access to safe abortion, and illustrating that people were doing the same every day. As Dr Peter Boylan – former Master of the National Maternity Hospital – put it, “the genie is out of the bottle.” Conservative parties had to support access up to 12 weeks – the threshold under which the pills can safely be used – or face a backlash for continuing to criminalise large numbers of women.

Mass movement needed

Jeremy Corbyn’s support for extending the 1967 Act shows a concrete means by which abortion rights can be won. A Corbyn-led government should not wait for the support of right-wing, sectarian parties in Northern Ireland before extending abortion rights. Instead, it should be prepared to go over their heads. The more active and combative the movement in Northern Ireland is, the more likely Corby will feel pressure on this issue.

Young people and women have shown, particularly in the recent #IBelieveHer protests, that they are prepared to taken on sexism and are open to taking militant action. ROSA in the North will seek to replicate the campaign of civil disobedience that was so successful in the South. It is also important that trade unions take up this issue. A starting point would be to call a mass demonstration in the wake of the Southern referendum, as they did after the 2016 marriage equality victory in the South. This saw 20,000 take to the streets in Belfast and forced a number of MLAs to change their position on the issue, leading to the first majority vote for marriage equality at Stormont. If a movement is built on clear, cross-community basis, all the political parties and Westminster can come under pressure to act on this issue and the right to choose can be won.

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