|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Issue 220 July/August 2018
Northern Ireland abortion rights struggle
Five of the trade unions organising workers in Ireland commissioned a survey, Abortion as a Workplace Issue, in autumn 2016. At the time of its launch a year later it was clear that the grassroots movement for abortion rights was going to deliver a referendum in the south in 2018. The massive pro-choice vote (see article) has put the fight for abortion rights in Northern Ireland on the agenda.
There, the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 criminalises abortion. Section 58 of it criminalises a woman who has an abortion, Section 59 anyone who assists a woman to abort – with a maximum sentence of "penal servitude for life". In 1967, Northern Ireland’s parliament did not introduce the Abortion Act which legalised abortion in most circumstances. As a result, the law there has remained unchanged for over 70 years.
More than 900 women from Northern Ireland travelled to England for an abortion last year, according to UK Department of Health figures, with the highest rate among 20-24-year-olds. Many more make use of the ‘abortion pill’ which is readily available online. But now working-class and young people feel emboldened and are challenging the status quo.
The stated aims of the survey, produced by Unite, Unison, Mandate, GMB and the CWU, are to seek union members’ views on abortion, find out how it affects workers and "explore members’ views on legislative reform" – 3,180 completed the survey and 48 took part in the online discussion. Two-thirds were women aged 18 to over 65. The religious breakdown was 43% Catholic, 23% Protestant, 28% no religion, and 4% other. Two-thirds were from the North, one-third from the south of Ireland.
It showed support across all ages and genders, religious and geographic groups for major reform – 87% agreed "a woman should not be criminalised for having an abortion". Just over half thought that "abortion should be available when a woman asks for one". This backs the evidence of other polls. In June 2017, the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey reported that most respondents did not support criminalisation of abortion.
The issue of class was raised in terms of how working-class people have less ability to access abortions: "If you have money and means to travel without anybody taking note, then you can go to the UK and have an abortion and no one is any wiser – no embarrassment or public stigma. If you are in a low-paid job or unemployed you could end up trapped in an unwanted pregnancy or have to turn to friends, family, and money lenders for finance". The survey says, "time off after the abortion is a particular problem and one that warrants attention in terms of policy".
While it found "broad support for union involvement in lobbying for change and/or supporting individual members", there were mixed views on what form this should take and on whether it was always desirable. However, some admitted that just being asked the question led them to think about the trade unions in this way for the first time. The unions’ role was mainly seen as educational and in challenging stigma, facilitating discussion and offering support. These are all important but there is a much greater role that unions must play if abortion rights are to be won in Northern Ireland. That is to lead.
In a way the most important point is when the survey cites the size of the trade unions. It correctly states that, "with more than 700,000 members in over 40 affiliated unions, the trade union movement is Ireland’s largest civic society body". The 2015 report of the trade union certification officer showed unions in Northern Ireland with 242,988 members – around one-third of the workforce.
In 2011, when the public-sector unions went on strike against Tory pension attacks, it had the character of a general strike in Northern Ireland. These are powerful bodies with the potential to shift public opinion and lead the fight against austerity – which denies working-class women the right to choose when and whether they have children – but also to play the leading role in the formation of a political voice for the working class that could offer a cross-community socialist alternative to the sectarian parties.
This is crucial, especially given the political deadlock that exists. However, the survey falls short of recognising the role these working-class organisations must play, stating only that "unions have a responsibility to help inform wider societal views on abortion, abortion access and legal reform".
The widespread rejection of Northern Ireland’s reactionary abortion law by both sides of the sectarian divide, especially young people, offers an historic opportunity to undermine the sectarian division based on common struggle. The powerful response to the pioneering work of Socialist Party and ROSA (Socialist Feminist Movement) members in Northern Ireland gives a glimpse of this and of what could be achieved if the workers’ movement mounts a serious challenge. The strong mood for change needs to be turned into independent action and organisation.
Fifty years ago, inspired by the US civil rights movement, young working-class Catholics and Protestants took to the streets to fight repression and poverty. That movement showed every potential to bring the two communities together on issues that united the working class: the right to vote in local elections (then limited in Northern Ireland to property owners who paid rates), jobs, homes and an end to sectarianism.
However, mistakes made by the movement’s leaders allowed it to be channelled down sectarian roads. Instead of a united movement for rights it became to be seen by Protestant workers as a fight for Catholic rights. What followed were the ‘Troubles’. Especially in the era of Brexit this remains a clear and present danger, even to the fight for abortion rights, if the leadership gets into the hands of the sectarian parties.
Nipsa, Northern Ireland’s biggest union which organises public-sector workers, was not included in this survey. Socialist Party members are involved in the union’s leadership and Broad Left. Nipsa’s 2018 conference passed a motion that called on the General Council to facilitate demonstrations of trade unions and pro-choice campaigners. It also praised the work of ROSA which, on that very day, challenged Northern Ireland’s outdated abortion laws with its #Bus4Choice. Eleanor Crossey-Malone, ROSA spokesperson and Socialist Party member, was a guest speaker and received a standing ovation for her call for trade unionists and pro-choice activists to unite in a struggle for the right to choose.
The working class played a central role in defending the 1967 victory and fighting for reproductive rights from the start. The largest demo for a woman’s right to choose was organised by the TUC in 1980 against the Corrie bill, which aimed to amend the Abortion Act, further restricting women’s access.
The Nipsa motion points to the leadership role that the working class must play. The fight for abortion rights in Northern Ireland faces different and specific hurdles, including the national question. Only the working class can develop a programme and strategy that can maintain and build support on both sides of the sectarian divide.
Otherwise, especially in the context of the Brexit negotiations, there is the potential for the sectarian parties on both sides to attempt to use it for sectarian purposes. The trade unions need to call a mass conference of working-class and young people to discuss and plan an independent strategy for how to achieve a woman’s right to choose. This should include debating steps towards building a working-class political voice – anti-cuts, anti-sexist and anti-sectarian.
The Northern Ireland assembly is currently suspended, showing the inability of the sectarian parties to act on behalf of working-class people at the sharp end of capitalism’s inequality, austerity and exploitation. Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party – both of which have consistently opposed the right of women to choose – can use the issue of women’s bodily autonomy and any attempts to change the law to build their own sectarian bases, while defending the capitalist system and offering no solutions to the problems working-class people face. Without a cross-community political voice of its own, the working class will not have a say.