The right to choose. Socialism and women's rights in Ireland

The right to choose. Socialism and women's rights in Ireland


Socialist Democracy, Ireland

The death of Sativa Halappanavar after having been refused an abortion sparked a storm of protest and a renewed discussion of woman's rights, occurring mainly within the ranks of United Left Alliance. The debate centred around a reformist perspective calling for legislation to rationalize and codify medical responsibility where a woman's life is at risk, opposed by the demand that we call for a women's right to choose. 

The reformist perspective was that politicians were under pressure and there was broad public support for limited reform. By joining in this call socialists could help win this reform and produce an environment conducive of further advances. 

The alternative view was that socialists were in principle in support of the right to choose and, that by striking when the iron is hot, they could swing popular opinion behind them. 

A sign of the coming demise of the ULA and its endemic electoralism and reformism came in a dishonest and mealy-mouthed ULA statement of December 16th. Listing a number of health issues it went on to say: 

“Many think that it should be up to a woman, in consultation with her doctor, to decide if she should continue with a pregnancy. We support all of these arguments – which give women the choice”. 

Health issues and consultations with doctors do not add up to the right to choose. The perspective that the ULA took was the reformist one. Events since then have shown how inadequate that perspective was. It fails to distinguish between public sentiment, mobilizations and the creation of a full-blown movement. It sees any reform as a permanent step forward, refusing to acknowledge that any rights under capitalism are subject to abolition as the needs of capital change. 

The initial mobilizations died away. The church, the virulent Catholic right-wing and forces within the governing Fine Gael party have all mobilized. Legislation will be brought forward but, rather than providing an environment for further advance, the discussion is about whether or not women should be allowed a "suicide clause" - that is whether the risk of suicide can be included as a threat to the life of the woman. 

The call for the right to choose has the advantage of bringing together the genuinely democratic forces in Irish society and giving them a programme around which they can unite. However this is not sufficient if it is linked to the idea that, if we strike while the iron is hot, we can win over public opinion. 

The feminist movement in Ireland has faced a strategic crisis for many years. In the '60s and '70s many feminists saw their movement as linked to the Republican and socialist movements. Their gradual decline saw a growth in belief in the modernisng influence of imperialism - especially that of Britain in the North and of Europe south of the border.   That belief has been eaten away as a modernizing facade has been replaced by an all-out assault designed to push workers' rights to the levels of the 19th Century. 

The decay of capitalism means that levels of democracy and of individual rights will constantly be eaten away and that democratic movements that operate only within the con-fines of capitalism are bound to be disappointed. 

The members of Socialist Democracy believe that socialists should stand foursquare behind the call for a woman's right to choose. We do not oppose partial reform, will gladly work with anyone fighting for this and will welcome any gains. 

For ourselves however, we consistently call for the right of women to choose and call for feminists to join in the fight for a socialist republic. We do this, not because it is a short cut to victory, but because without these principles the journey has not yet begun.