In 2015 in Croke Park the Unite Ireland Policy Conference debated the issue of Repeal of the 8th amendment to Bunreacht na hÉireann. I was a proud Unite member that day, not only because of the outcome of the debate, but because we had it. As an observer it was a difficult debate to listen to in many ways. Feelings ran high. If you think of the most extreme views you can imagine on the issue, on both sides, or that you might see on social media or hear on your doorstep from canvassers, rest assured that they were expressed in Croke Park at that conference too.
The outcome was that Unite supports Repeal of the 8th Amendment, and will campaign for that in the upcoming referendum. We will do so as a founding member of the Trade Union Campaign to Repeal the 8th Amendment, as a member of the Coalition for Repeal, and also in our own right as a Union. Of course, that does not mean that every member of Unite supports that position, and people will of course vote freely in the referendum in accordance with their own views, but it does mean that the Union has a decided position following a decision of our elected delegates at the appropriate Conference.
The necessary debate that we will have as a nation in the coming months promises to be difficult, and there is little enough sign that it will be conducted in an appropriate manner, but to me the matter has crystalised around a number of points.
Firstly, we now have abortion in Ireland already and I think debating the issue in any other context is just not accurate. In addition to the thousands of women who travel abroad every year for an abortion, the arrival of the abortion pill, purchased online and taken at home unsupervised, is a reality that a modern country can no longer avoid. Whatever our views it is happening every day. So the question isn’t about whether we should have abortion in Ireland or not. The question is how we regulate it. From that starting point, my view is that regulating it by a constitutional provision that simply isn’t working is wrong and needs to be changed.
No woman of child bearing age here has ever had a say on this issue. I have two young daughters myself and I can imagine, I have imagined in my head, the conversations that might flow from a crisis pregnancy. I am not sure what outcome those conversations would lead to. How could I be? For it is clear that ultimately the decision is not one for me. I as a man will never have a crisis pregnancy, let alone be left with the trauma of having to cope with a pregnancy derived from a rape or incest, or be confronted with fatal foetal abnormality. And if I cannot make such a decision in a family case, am I really entitled to tell anyone else what decision they should make in those circumstances, whatever my views? I can’t see how that makes sense.
Much of the debate here will be about the circumstances under which abortion is limited or regulated should a referendum to repeal Article 40:3:3 be passed. The first point to be clear upon is that, if repeal is not passed, the debate on what follows is irrelevant. The status quo will pertain until the matter is addressed again. Will that prevent abortions? Of course not. It isn’t preventing them now, and it won’t prevent them then. It will however continue to push the issue underground, to export the problem, or to have it addressed through private unsupervised use of medications which can have serious side effects. The classic Irish head-in-the-sand approach to the issue would remain.
Recently, I learned that the Netherlands, where abortion is a right, has one of the lowest rates of abortion anywhere, with 8.6 abortions per 1000 pregnancies. I was interested to learn that most of these abortions were not teenage girls, but were women in the 25-30 age bracket, and that this liberal approach has somehow resulted in one of the lowest rates of abortion anywhere. For example, it’s less than half the rate of countries that do have restrictions such as the United Kingdom (17.5 per 1000), France (15 per 1000) or the United States (16 per thousand). And the Netherlands, with its combination of liberal abortion laws and really low rates of abortion, is not alone. Belgium, and Germany also have some of the lowest rates of abortion anywhere. And then there is Switzerland.
Swiss law changed in 2002 to allow abortion on request in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, a liberal approach accepted by 72 per cent of voters. This resulted in a rate of 6.8 per 1000 women of child bearing age by 2011. The average annual worldwide abortion rate is 28 per thousand women of childbearing age!
This low abortion rate in Switzerland (less than 25% of the world average) is directly linked to a low rate of unwanted pregnancy and this, in turn, is linked to extremely high levels of sex education, the availability of contraception and socio-economic factors. According to Rainer Kamber of the Swiss Association for Sexual and Reproductive Health ‘one of the most important risk factors is still a lower socioeconomic status’. This is interesting in the context of the findings of a recently published report conducted by Ulster University through a survey of 3000 members of Unite, Unison, Mandate, Communications Workers Union and GMB trade unions entitled ‘Abortion as a Workplace Issue’.
The report concludes by saying ‘What emerged clearly from the survey results and online discussion was that this is a crucial issue for contemporary society in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. As the trade union movement is the largest civil society organisation in Ireland, North and South, comprising over 700,000 individuals, 52% of whom are women, unions have a responsibility to help inform wider societal views on abortion, abortion access and legal reform’.
The best solution to this difficult issue seems to be to educate, support and above all else – and whatever their choices – TRUST WOMEN.