At the beginning of March, Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly informed the cabinet that a review of Ireland’s abortion legislation had begun. During the 2018 referendum to repeal the eighth amendment, political parties’ respective stances on abortion were under sharp scrutiny from Yes and No campaigners alike. While every politician left of centre stated (and in some cases, overstated) their role in repeal during the last election campaign, with a review now underway, it becomes all the more clear that parties’ views on reproductive rights shouldn’t be ignored by virtue of the successful Yes vote. This in particular applies to Sinn Féin and the Green Party. The Greens, although currently the most progressive force in government, have taken a consistently more cautious approach to reproductive health when compared with smaller left parties. They supported abortion only in cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality in their 2016 manifesto, and harboured anti-choice public reps such as David Healy, which calls into question whether they are committed to retaining the right to choose, or whether their position is merely populism.
Although comprising the largest opposition party, Sinn Féin have repeatedly and disappointingly flip-flopped on the issue of abortion. While they supported repeal, the party boasted vocally anti-choice members such as Peadar Tobin, who has since left to found Aontú. Sinn Féin continue to try to balance appealing to their older, more traditional base, while retaining the vote of younger people who view the party as Ireland’s chance for a left government. Sinn Féin were recently criticised for hypocrisy following their abstention on a vote on a DUP bill that sought to outlaw abortion in cases on non-fatal foetal abnormality; this is a testament to how ideologically fluid they are beyond support for Irish unity, with their political malleability unfortunately extending to their attitude towards abortion.
“Fianna Fáil boasted a large number of TDs who not only opposed repeal, but voted against holding a referendum in the first place.”
While this position is disappointing from an organisation that presents itself as the party of change, it is Fianna Fáil’s attitude to abortion rights that is perhaps most concerning, given their position in government. Fianna Fáil boasted a large number of TDs who not only opposed repeal, but voted against holding a referendum in the first place. Fine Gael broadly speaking took a pragmatic approach during the referendum, only coming on board with repeal when it was clearer which direction public opinion was swinging in. While Fine Gael has, in recent years, rebranded their neoliberal economics with social liberalism, Fianna Fáil continues to appeal to their traditional voter base, largely by retaining their favour for social conservatism, although Micheál Martin grudgingly supported repeal. However, the dichotomy of reconciling social liberalism with economic conservatism becomes clear when one examines Fine Gael’s support for repeal against the backdrop of their commitment to reforming rather than ending Direct Provision. While on paper abortion is legal in Ireland, the current legislation falls short for those in institutionalised living; the weekly allowance for those in DP, combined with the rural location of many centres means that access to abortion clinics is severely hampered. The two civil war parties’ support for reproductive rights is confined not only to when it is popular, but for whom is deemed deserving of abortion care- ie Irish citizens. There was nothing in Fianna Fáil’s 2020 manifesto about abortion or even contraception, while Fine Gael committed to safe access zones, something they had already promised.
Abortion Rights Campaign (ARC) has outlined several means in which current legislation could improve for those experiencing a crisis pregnancy. This includes a repeal of the mandatory three day waiting period, and an end to bogus “crisis pregnancy” centres which attempt to scaremonger women with false information. Of course, while any major changes to Ireland’s abortion laws (which currently allow terminations up to twelve weeks for any reason, and up to 24 weeks where the life of the mother is at risk) may be unlikely upon review, it is worth noting that repeal was by no means the end of the struggle for reproductive justice. The introduction of safe access zones is among the ways that Ireland’s abortion laws have room for improvement. While safe access zone legislation was promised by Simon Harris in 2018, it has failed to materialise. Although public order laws are in place, these are not always enough to deter protestors. Following the decriminalisation of abortion in 2019, many Irish abortion providers saw protests outside clinics; post-pandemic these are likely to ramp up again. While anti-choice parties such as Aontú may have little support in the voting booth, the material impact protesting at abortion clinics can have on those trying to access basic healthcare should not be deemed permissible.
While who is in government for this review is of course important, the repeal referendum was also revealing about the impact political pressure can have on TDs. While some politicians such as Mattie McGrath or Ronan Mullen may be genuinely committed to preventing women from accessing abortion, many politicians are more concerned with saving their own political skins than sticking to their guns. Both Simon Harris and Leo Varadkar in earlier stages of their career described themselves as pro-life; while it is positive that people’s views evolve when presented with new information, it is difficult not to view this as a tactical decision, rather than an ideological principle. The stances of parties are important but not the be all and end all – repeal was steered by grassroots activists, and highlighted that many politicians are flexible when they feel their popularity may be on the line.
“The review offers a vital opportunity to expand and solidify support and care for those experiencing crisis pregnancy.”
The review of the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act offers an opportunity to further support those experiencing crisis pregnancy by providing safe access zones, a repeal of the three day waiting period, and improved abortion access in rural areas. It is also noteworthy that people are still forced to travel abroad for abortions due to the distinction between fatal and severe foetal abnormalities in Irish law, which requires that the death of the baby would occur within 28 days of birth for abortion to be permitted, even though this is impossible to anticipate. This review will see anti-choice activists rear their heads once again – the newly formed Oireachtas Life and Dignity Group will undoubtedly seek to amend the legislation come the summer. However, the review also offers a vital opportunity to expand and solidify support and care for those experiencing crisis pregnancy.