It is one of the ironies that afflicts the Irish State when it comes to its treatment of women that the last couple of weeks has seen its health services in the dock for its disregard for their health at the same time as the climax to the referendum on whether to repeal the amendment to the constitution that criminalises abortion.
The Health Services Executive (HSE) decided that it would not inform women that the cervical smear test that showed a negative result was wrong, and that they did in fact have cancer. At least 162 were not informed about their findings. Of those who could have had earlier intervention if the tests had not been false 18 have died.
Politicians are now declaring their shock, and sympathy with the women and their families, while they sit on top of a state with a long, long history of such secrecy and disregard for women’s rights. In fact, many are now defending this denial of rights through their support to retain the eighth amendment, which has led to women dying because of its elevation of the foetus over the woman who carries it.
The issue in both is about control. Do women have control over their own bodies?
In the case of the cervical smear scandal, it was the state and its medical professionals who decided that women would not know about the potential threat to their life. In the case of women who seek to control their own bodies through control of their womb, it is the state and its medical professionals who are held up as arbiters of the extent of this control, with some seeking to limit it altogether.
If tragedies alone led to change then fundamental change would have happened a long time ago, but it has taken the struggle of women and the revelation of the scandalous behaviour of the Catholic Church to bring about change.
The failures of the outsourced cervical screening service and the HSE were exposed not through any change of heart by the state, but by the bravery of one woman suffering from terminal cancer, who took a court case against the US testing company. In the case of the fight for abortion rights, it was not the X case or the death of Savita Halappanaver or any of the others that has made repeal of the eighth a possibility. These would have shocked and appalled and led to nothing but the next tragedy, were it not for the movement to demand the rights of women, led by women themselves.
A vital factor nevertheless has undoubtedly been the crushing of the reputation of the Catholic Church, whose moral authority has been fatally undermined for many because of the child abuse carried out by its priests and ‘holy’ orders; its actions to protect the abusers by moving them around the country so they could abuse again, and their failure to pay the minimal compensation to their victims that they campaigned shamelessly to reduce or avoid.
Yet still, despite this litany of infamy, they control the vast majority of primary schools and have massive influence over health service provision. They continue to do so because of a continuing alliance with the state.
On 25th there is a chance to continue the campaign to reverse this, and repeal the eighth amendment. Opinion polls show a reduced but still substantial lead in favour of repeal, with support for repeal highest among the young and urban population, especially in Dublin. Views on both sides appears to have strengthened, hardly surprising given the age-old tactics of the reactionary ‘pro-life’ campaign.
If repealed the Government has promised to legislate for limited abortion rights up to 12 weeks and the anti-abortion rights campaigners have claimed this will open up Ireland to UK-type abortion provision, including abortion of the disabled. Nothing they can do however will prevent UK abortions, including those of the thousands who travel from Ireland to have the procedure carried out. Not that it hasn’t been tried, but imprisoning 14 year old rape victims who become pregnant was not a popular policy.
The growth in support for women’s rights among the young and urban population testifies to a transition and transformation in views, also reflected in opinion polls. While 54% of respondents in the latest agreed with the statement that they have reservations about provision of abortion but feel the 12 weeks in proposed legislation is “reasonable compromise’; 62% also agreed that “the law in Ireland needs to recognise a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion.”
This movement for, and of, women to take control is reflected not just in the possibility of repeal but in the potential for a continuing movement to advance women’s rights and in the courage of some to express their support for abortion rights and opposition to the insults of its reactionary opponents.
Working class women will not gain control over their lives without a veritable social revolution that they can only achieve in unity with working class men, but such unity is impossible if women are unable to control their own bodies and own lives in the most basic of ways. For a socialist, these are aspects of a single struggle against oppression and for a new fee society in which everyone can flourish.