Unions & repealing the anti-abortion clause

When Emily O’Reilly, former Irish journalist and current European ombudsman, wrote her account ten years after the passing of the 1983 Irish anti-abortion referendum, her title was apt, calling it Masterminds of the Right. So too was the very first sentence: ‘This is the story of a very Irish coup’.

Prior to the coming together of this group of right-wing mainly upper middle class Roman Catholics, there had been very little public debate about abortion in the Irish Republic (or indeed in Northern Ireland, where the 1967 British Abortion Act did not operate). Contraception had been partially liberalized in 1979. Activist feminists and individual union members had broken the law by selling condoms openly for some years. Thousands of Irish women were being prescribed the Pill as a ‘period regulator’. Support for the campaign to legalise contraception was not widely supported in unions.

One union, the ITGWU (now SIPTU), debated and adopted a Working Women’s Charter. While progressive in content, male union leaders resisted the inclusion of a demand for free legal and safe contraception. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) adopted the Charter the following year with the thorny issue of reproductive rights still omitted. While individual women pushed the debate forward, their pressure was not based on an organic growth of feminist influence inside the unions. It would be almost a decade later before women-led structures would emerge fighting for resources to campaign and to organise women workers.

During this period, the authority of the Catholic Church was in steady decline, well before revelations of non-celibate activity and of clerical sex abuse emerged during the 1990s. It seemed as though a ‘liberal agenda’ was developing and that the traditional Irish conservative bulwark against change was losing its sway.

Right-wing Catholic conservatives decided on a pre-emptive strike. They saw that a feminist led group had organised to raise the issue of access to abortion and was helping women who wished to seek a termination of pregnancy in Britain. The writing was on the wall; abortion was the next big battle.

Those who opposed women’s autonomy concluded that a campaign of attrition against abortion, as had occurred on contraception, could see, eventually, the repeal of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. A pre-emptive strike was needed. If a prohibition on abortion were placed in the Constitution, it would prevent political action. So they thought and they were right, for a while. A group of concerned doctors and lawyers formed the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign (PLAC) in 1981 and prepared to meet the leaders of Irish political parties.

Party leaders were caught initially like rabbits in headlights. Leaders of the two largest parties, representing over 70% of the electorate, Garret Fitzgerald for Fine Gael and Charles Haughey for the larger Fianna Fail, agreed that abortion was a terrible thing and should be prohibited by the Constitution. While Fitzgerald and Fine Gael eventually opposed wording to which they initially agreed, Fitzgerald proclaimed himself 100% behind a ban on abortion in the Constitution.

The Irish Labour Party leader, Frank Cluskey, was non-committal at first when he met the PLAC delegation alongside Barry Desmond TD. This initially cautious stance of the small Irish Labour Party was mirrored by the then male dominated leadership of Irish unions, namely, ‘don’t stick your neck out’.

The Anglican Church of Ireland also expressed itself content initially with the referendum wording on ‘a right to life of the unborn’ and an equal ‘right to life of the mother’. The Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Victor Griffin, afterwards expressed dismay at the lack of church support for his stance against putting the measure into the Constitution.

The 1983 referendum began a debate on abortion with, at the start, a very small minority in favour of access to termination of pregnancy. The debate and the discussion changed abortion from an abstraction to something that appeared necessary in certain circumstances. The circumstances broadened as the debate continued. The wording put into the Constitution appeared to deny a right to termination in all circumstances.

In 1983, an ad hoc group of trade unionists to oppose the anti-abortion amendment was formed. They rested their case on the principle that ‘church and state should be separate’, and that a branch of religion should not have its particular core beliefs enshrined in the Constitution. There had been an attempt a couple of years earlier by SPUC (Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child) to tie the ITGU to an anti-choice position. Even though the debate was acrimonious, union leaders insisted the union would remain neutral. This was the context in which trade unionists sought to build support to resist the constitutional amendment. It was increasingly viewed as an attempt by the Catholic Church to enshrine its teachings in law. Resistance to this move emerged locally in unions. It was built around unofficial alliances between the emerging women-led structures inside unions and individual committed activists.

All the while the leadership of the anti-choice forces, though happy to have its propaganda reinforced weekly in then full churches, presented themselves as a secular crusade against the killing of babies in the womb. They kept quiet on their intention to thereafter progressively erode Irish access to abortion in Britain.

The trade unionists pointed out that putting something already illegal in the Constitution would make legislative change impossible. That was precisely PLAC’s intention. Alongside the Fianna Fail party, PLAC secured the support of seven members of Fine Gael (who eventually otherwise abstained) and five (of 13) Labour TDs. They then won the popular vote by a margin of 2 to 1. The anti-abortion amendment was carried.

Buoyed with victory, the long-term strategy of the right emerged. But these anti-abortion forces over-reached themselves, initially by using the courts to shut down student union advice booklets that included the option abortion in Britain, and then subsequently by trying to shut down family planning clinics accused of helping women leave the jurisdiction for a termination.

Books appearing to advocate abortion were banned. Magazines had their pages torn out, if advertised clinics in Britain offering abortion services. Again individual trade unionists formed a campaign to resist, and launched a Defend the Clinics campaign. In the aftermath of the defeat in 1983, their influence remained peripheral to the concerns of union leaders, but the alliances with women organising for resources in unions continued. They began to grow organically and developed union policy and action on women’s rights.

Public irritation with the actions and intentions of the political right reached a tipping point in 1992. The High Court denied 13-year-old pregnant rape victim a right to leave the jurisdiction for a termination. Mass protest greeted this decision, which closed the abortion back-door, the plane to Britain. A cartoon appeared, depicting a pregnant women standing in the middle of Ireland, surrounded by barbed wire.

On appeal to the Supreme Court, the Wisdom of Solomon decreed that as the 13-year-old threatened suicide if the pregnancy continued, both lives would be lost. Therefore, a termination was the lesser of two evils. The state attempted to reverse the decision, in a new referendum that also asked two further questions. These reflected the minimum required by public opinion. Did voters wish to allow information on abortion and did they wish to allow a right to travel for one? Voters said yes to information and travel and refused to outlaw suicide as a basis for a right to termination. Abortion had become legal, but not 100% legal: only if a pregnant woman wished otherwise to kill herself or leave the country to avail of the procedure.

The public mood had, nevertheless, changed decisively. It has continued to do so, refusing one more time to reverse the suicide clause. The Death of Savita Halapanaver in Galway on 12 October 2012, who was refused a termination, copper-fastened it. The excuse of so-called ‘pro-life’ spokespersons that this was merely the effect of ‘mismanagement of sepsis’ fell on stony ground. A comment on the refusal of termination by one nurse, ‘this is a Catholic country’, resonated negatively in the echo chamber of public opinion. If so, as far as most Irish Poles were concerned, it was not the type of Catholic country they wished to be part of.

The combination of the lived experience of Irish women since the opening up of access to abortion in Britain, and the outworking of draconian restrictions, brought issues of democracy and rights to the fore. This reality has permeated every part of Irish society. Unions today are not exempt from this influence and women are now in positions of leadership and influence throughout all levels of their unions. The first illustration of this was the decision by ICTU, first called for by its women leaders, to make a submission calling for repeal to a Citizen’s Assembly deliberating on abortion. Since then, together with progressive men, women trade unionists have been able to build inside unions a new and deeper awareness of the importance of choice for women.

There has been a qualitative change in the ability to push forward inside unions on the issue. There is no doubt also that the victory of the Love Equality campaign in the successful equal marriage referendum in 2016 laid a strong foundation for winning unions, union leaders, and their organisations to the side of the campaign for repeal of the 8th amendment.

Public declarations of support have been made, resources have been released, and special publications have been produced for workers. The importance of union support in getting the vote over the line has been recognised by the broad coalition now leading the’ Together for YES’ campaign.

The lessons of this fight will have been that women and progressive men have to both organise for power and influence across the entire labour movement, and organise coalitions of the willing to take forward the fight for human rights and human liberation.

Anne Speed is Head of Bargaining and Representation for UNISON Northern Ireland. She joined the ITGWU which became SIPTU in 1990 and rose through the ranks to become its first Head of Equality and Campaigning from 2005 to 2011. Anne holds a seat for UNISON on the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and also on the All-Ireland Executive of ICTU.

• On 25 May 2018, the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment won with two thirds of voters in the referendum supporting repeal on a two thirds turnout. The campaign won in every area except Donegal. The only age group to vote against were the over 65s.