In 2015 the south of Ireland became the first state in which the people voted for gay marriage. In a referendum in May that year a decisive majority voted in favour of the right of same-sex couples to marry.
The next big battle for social progress was inevitably going to be abortion, as the reactionaries had got in early, securing a victory in a 1983 referendum that added a ban on abortion to the constitution of the state (the 8th amendment).
On Friday this week (Irish time), voters in the south will go to the polls to vote on whether to repeal the 8th amendment,
Recently Philip Ferguson of Redline interviewed Cat Inglis, a long-time left-wing activist and a member of the socialist-republican organisation Éirígí about the issues.
Philip Ferguson: Could you tell us a bit about the role of religion, especially the Catholic Church as an institution, in the life of southern Irish society and in terms of the state, public services etc?
Cat Inglis: Since the inception of the state the church has had a firm grip on many aspects of Irish life, schools are still run mainly by the diocese and are mostly catholic although in recent years there has been an upsurge in educate together style model among others. Until about 20 years ago hospitals were run by sisters from various orders. Overall there was a large religous presence in daily life; in recent years it has been greatly reduced.
PF: How did the 8th amendment come about and what was its practical, legal effect?
CI: Abortion was already illegal in Ireland before the insertion of the 8th amendment. The Eighth Amendment of the Constitution Act 1983 amended the Constitution of Ireland by inserting a subsection recognising the equal right to life of the mother and the unborn. Abortion had been subject to criminal penalty in Ireland since 1861; the amendment ensured that legislation or judicial interpretation would be restricted to allowing abortion in circumstances where the life of a pregnant woman was at risk. It was approved by referendum on 7 September and signed into law on 7 October 1983; it essentially ensured that no woman could access abortion in any circumstances.
PF: Could you tell us about the effects of this on women and women’s rights?
CI: The ban has a huge effect on women’s lives. Women who need access to abortion services for many reasons, including fatal foetal abnormality, where the pregnancy may not be viable to term or where women who are pregnant and have a life-threathening disease are not able to access treatment therefore the life of the mother could be in danger to protect the “unborn child”.
In 2012 we had the case of Savita Halappanavar, where a septic infection meant the foetus could not survive and without the foetus being removed, there was every likelihood Savita would die – and yet the Catholic doctors in University Hospital Galway let her die rather than remove the foetus. The foetus, of course, miscarried and she died shortly afterwards of cardiac arrest brought on by the sepsis. This brought home graphically why we need change.
But that case was also just the tip of the iceberg – there’s a Facebook page called “In Her Shoes” where women who have been denied a choice tell their stories; it’s a harrowing read at times.
PF: It seems to me that the Church used to always win battles on social issues but in the past few decades they have lost battle after battle – the battle over the provision of abortion information after the ‘X’ case, the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the right of same-sex couples to marry. What’s changed in the past, say 25 years roughly? Why is the Church now losing?
CI: I don’t think the church is losing as much as people are changing. The Ireland of today is not the Ireland of 20/30 years ago where the morality of the masses was dictated by the church and its agents. I do believe the revelations concerning the church in the last 20 years including mother and baby homes, children sent abroad for adoption, sexual and other physical and mental abuse and many other issues has changed the perception people have of the church in general .
PF: How does the referendum system in Ireland work? How did the current referendum come about?
CI: The proposal to amend the Constitution must first be introduced in the Dublin parliament as a Bill, setting out the text of the proposed amendment. The Bill cannot contain any other proposals. If the Bill is passed by both the lower house and the Seanad (the Senate or upper house) it is then submitted to the people in a constitutional referendum, so that they can vote for or against it.
If the majority of the votes cast at the referendum are in favour of the change, the President signs the Bill into law and the Constitution is then amended.
If the majority of the votes cast at the referendum are not in favour of the change, the Bill is not signed into law and the Constitution is not amended
PF: Could you tell us the wording of the current referendum proposition and what a ‘Yes’ vote will mean? What would the next step be?
CI: The wording is, “Do you approve of the proposal to amend the Constitution contained in the undermentioned Bill
“Thirty-sixth Amendment of the Constitution Bill 2018.
If passed, the thirty-sixth amendment would delete the existing Article 40.3.3, which acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and the equal right to life of the mother, and replace it with a new Article 40.3.3 which would say: “Provision may be made by law for the regulation of termination of pregnancy.”
That is what will be on the ballot paper come Friday 25th May.
In other words, if there is a majorioty ‘Yes’ vote, the parliament would then be able to legislate. So a ‘Yes’ vote doesn’t guarantee the right to abortion, but it will be a major step forward for women in Ireland towards achieving bodily autonomy, personal choice and be in control of their own reproductive rights.
PF: Your party, Eirígí, has been energetically campaigning for a ‘Yes’ vote. Can you tell us what the party’s position is on abortion access and what it has been doing in the campaign? Also, what sort of response has both the party and the wider ‘Yes’ campaign been getting?
CI: Our position is that “Eirígí rejects sexism in all of its forms and reasserts its commitment to full equality for all, regardless of gender. Eirígí recognises the inherent right of all people to control their own bodies, including their reproductive organs and reproductive processes. Eirígí therefore supports the right to unimpeded access to legal, free and safe terminations of unwanted pregnancies.
“Pending the creation of an all-Ireland state, we call for the rapid introduction of legislation to allow for unimpeded access to legal, free and safe terminations in both the Twenty-Six and Six County states.”
Our activists are fully committed to the the repeal campaign and the Together For Yes campaign. We have been actively involved in our local communities, leafleting, stalls, posters, whatever it takes. This is a once in a generation chance to repeal an unjust part of the constitution and then move on to allow women the right to choose.
I would like to add to any of your readers who are able to vote in this referendum, to come out on May 25: Vote Tá, Vote Yes! Every vote is important. Thanks to RedLine for asking for my opinion/input; it’s much appreciated.
There are a series of articles on abortion rights in Ireland on The Irish Revolution site. See, for instance:
Redline ran several articles on the same-sex marriage referendum; for instance: