Irish Women in Struggle over Fertility Control
An Important Lesson for Women in Canada –“The struggle for choice, for change, has to continue”
By Carol-Anne Hudson
My arrival in Dublin early in the New Year coincided with the dissolution of the Irish parliament and call for a national election. Given the predominance of the Catholic Church across much of Ireland’s modern history, I was not surprised by the intensity of public debate surrounding one of the defining issues – abortion. However, I was completely confounded by the refusal of a vast majority of political candidates to give their views on the controversial subject.
Likewise, while speaking with a number of the pro-choice leaders about the issue, I was quite astonished to discover the level of influence that the struggle for women’s reproductive rights in Canada has had on women’s struggles for reproductive autonomy in Ireland. In particular, a group of Irish feminists replicated the Canadian Abortion Caravan of 1970 to publicize their demands that abortion be decriminalized and, more generally, the pro-choice movement has been making claims for liberalizing abortion in the context of constitutional rights. In effect, the history of Canadian women’s struggles for abortion on demand without restriction as to reason has been inspiring many Irish women in their protracted struggle over fertility control.
My analysis of the history and impact of weak political leadership, in essence political fence-sitting, on the lives of Irish women can be read elsewhere. What is examined here is the linkage between Canadian and Irish women’s struggles for reproductive rights, the relevance for renewing the women’s movement in Newfoundland and Labrador, and an important lesson for women across Canada: our struggles for choice and for change must continue.
Their Present: Irish Women in Collective Struggle
There is a battle being fought in the streets of Ireland between those who believe that free, safe and universal access to abortion is the right of every woman and those who believe that abortion is murder and should be illegal in all but the most serious life-threatening situation. The terrain on which this struggle is being played out is the 8th Amendment to the Constitution of the Republic of Ireland. The 8th Amendment is a pro-life clause which was inserted into the Constitution as a result of a 1983 referendum. The 8th acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and that the state is obligated to defend and vindicate that right.
In 1993, after a second failed referendum on the issue, the Supreme Court determined that the pro-life amendment also included the protection of the mother. That is, where there was serious threat (psychological or physical) to the well-being of the mother, termination of the unborn must be permitted. The ruling also included the right to travel overseas for an abortion and to access information for purposes of abortion, which had, to that point in time, been illegal in the Republic.In 2012, the struggle to repeal the 8th was reignited after the death of 28 year-old Dr. Savita Halappanavar. Experiencing a miscarriage, Halappanavar was refused an abortion on the grounds that the foetus had a heartbeat. Halappanavar miscarried but died within days of massive organ failure related to septicemia. Since Halappanavar’s unnecessary death, pro-choice forces have taken to the street in unprecedented numbers. For example, over 20,000 people participated in the 2014 March for Choice. The goal of these activists was twofold: to politicize abortion and to make ‘repeal the 8th’ a defining issue of the 2016 national election. To these ends, pro-choice activists mobilized public support through the use of a variety of spectacular, nation-wide actions.
Perhaps one of the most dramatic events occurred when a group of Irish feminists recreated the Canadian Abortion Caravan of 1970. During the fall of 2015, a group of women traveled by bus to major cities in the Republic. While on tour, the activists provided abortion information, connected women to abortion services, and advocated for distribution of the Abortion Pill. The Abortion Pill (mifepristone) also known as RU-486 (approved for use in Canada in 2015) is widely considered the ‘gold standard’ approach to fertility control during early stages of pregnancy. It is a safe process where the woman takes several pills within a period of 24 hours. The pills block the pregnancy hormone progesterone, and misoprostol – which contracts the uterus and relaxes the cervix, allowing the placenta and fetus to expel from the body.However, the Abortion Pill is illegal in the Republic. It is a crime to promote, sell, or use the product and anyone caught doing so risks a 14 year prison sentence. Nevertheless, the radical action proceeded and the authorities looked the other way.
The significance of this ‘turning a blind eye’ response by the Garda (police) cannot be overstated and is suggestive of broader social changes that have been transforming Ireland over the last decade. For example, in May 2015 62% voted YES for marriage equality. In numerous public opinion polls, conducted since the death of Halappanavar, more than 75% of Irish people support decriminalization of abortion; almost 50% support abortion on demand; 50% believe it is the woman’s right to choose; and, 85% are in favor of widening the grounds for abortion beyond life threatening situations.
Despite widespread public support for confronting the 8th Amendment, in the aftermath of a very difficult election where a government has yet to be formed, a Prime Minister yet to be selected, and pro-life forces appearing to gain a second wind from the electoral restoration of the socially conservative Fianna Fáil Party (tasked with trying to form a coalition government amongst left-wing parties), the issue of abortion looks to be far from decided. Given the strong possibility of another national election in the near future, which will further delay necessary political action on the controversial subject, I asked a woman affiliated with the National Women’s Council of Ireland what their ‘next step’ might be. A bit dazed from the disappointing electoral results she responded, “you’re lucky to be [a woman] in Canada.”
Our Past: Remembering Where We Came From
This seemingly innocuous comment got me thinking in two directions: first, that I am the beneficiary of a struggle for women’s equality and self-determination fought by the generation of women who came before me (that is, I’ve only ever known a life where I have full fertility control); and, second, Canadian women’s access to social equality and self-determination is more fragile than, perhaps, we might want to acknowledge.
On the first point, the history of women’s struggle for reproductive rights in the critical period between 1969 (when restrictions on abortion were inscribed in the Criminal Code) and 1998 (when the Supreme Court delivered the so-called Morgentaler decision which removed all restrictions on doctor’s performing abortions on the grounds that the restrictions limited women’s access to a medical procedure guaranteed by the ‘security of the person’ provisions of Section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms) has not been researched or recorded to the extent that, perhaps, it ought to have been or needs to be. There are few books, theses, or popular journal articles written on the topic and even fewer remembrances of this path changing struggle offered during historical celebrations such as International Women’s Day where we recall victories won by women who changed the course of our lives.
The struggle for fertility control in Canada was, largely, based on competing ideas about women’s bodies. Put simply, many in the pro-life camp believed (and continue to believe) that women’s bodies are primarily vessels for reproducing life – we are either mothers or potential mothers. Consequently, for many anti-abortion campaigners, the goal was/is to protect the fetus by highlighting the unity between the unborn and soon-to-be born child while deemphasizing the connection between the mother’s body and the fetus. In this sense, women required protection from themselves as they represent(ed) the greatest danger to the unborn. The ideal location for protecting the fetus from its mother, according to this camp, was and should be within the Criminal Code.
Countering this position were/are the pro-choice camp which argued, and continues to argue, that aside from the fact that only women are capable of giving birth, women (in the context of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms) are equal to men and therefore cannot be denied full participation in all aspects of society on the basis of biological difference. In other words, women cannot be denied control over their own reproductive systems which is a fundamental right to participating economically, socially, and politically in Canadian society.
The battle between opposing camps was long, difficult, and as recent history has shown, the 1988 victory was incomplete, contradictory, and fragile.
The Fragility of Past Victories
The battle for fertility control fought by the previous generation of Canadian feminists was long, hard, at times discouraging, and often at great personal costs. Janine Brodie, Shelley A.M. Gavigan, and Jane Jenson remind us of the tenuous legacy of this struggle. According to these feminists, the victory was incomplete in that, although section 251 of the Criminal Code criminalizing abortion was struck down in its entirety, reproductive rights were not entrenched in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Thus, leaving open the door to other legislative proposals which may ‘carve out’ special rights for the fetus in the future. The Morgentaler Decision was a contradictory victory from the point of view of many feminists who fought to ‘de-medicalize’ abortion. That is, to make the abortion issue one of rights and not a therapeutic matter, now find that the main source of protecting fertility rights is, in fact, the ‘universal right’ to health care. Lastly, the 1988 victory remains fragile because federal and provincial governments have continued to threaten women’s access to equality and self-determination through a variety of anti-feminist actions, most especially through defunding and budget cuts to women’s programmes and services.
On this last point, women across Canada have recently come face-to-face with the reality of just how fragile past victories can be.During the decade of Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, women’s access to equality and self-determination was severely rolled-back. While the list of Harper’s anti-feminist attacks is long, they include, among other things:
• Regressive tax schemes (e.g., income splitting that favours stay-at-home spouses);
• Changes to Employment Insurance (narrowing eligibility for workers in precarious low-wage service sectors which are predominated by women);
• Introduction of the Public Sector Equitable Compensation Act (which preserves the discriminatory practice of paying men more than women for equal work);
• Replacing the national day care program with a small monthly stipend that benefits stay-at-home moms;
• Eliminating funding to the Law Commission of Canada (which touches on questions of family structure);
• Reformed the Divorce Act (which puts women and children at risk of contact with abusive ex-partners or fathers);
• Cancelled the Court Challenges Program (which ensured disadvantaged women access to appeal legal injustices);
• Cut or eliminated funding to 43 women’s organization across Canada that advanced gender equality for Aboriginal, racialized, and immigrant women; and,
• Reduced the budget for the Status of Women by 40% as well as removing its mandate to advance gender equality.
• More specifically, in terms of fertility control and limiting women’s reproductive rights, Harper either cut or reduced funding to:
• Assisted Human Reproduction;
• Women’s Health Contribution Program; and,
• Introduced Bills C-484, C-537, and C-510 that sought to restrict access to abortion.
The spillover effects of these cuts has led to the closure of rape crisis shelters and women’s councils throughout the country as well as downstream funding cuts to numerous organizations across Canada dedicated to the advocacy of women’s (reproductive) rights and equality.
Regaining Lost Ground: The Women’s Movement in Newfoundland and Labrador
It is hard to imagine a place in Canada where the struggle for women’s reproductive rights, in particular, and equality, more generally, has been more difficult or has encountered more political, social, and economic obstacles than in Newfoundland and Labrador. Before the Morgentaler Decision, pressure from the Catholic Church on the provincial government made it almost impossible to secure a legal abortion in the province. In the two hospitals where Therapeutic Abortion Committees existed (women had to be evaluated by these committees in order to obtain an abortion), few requests were approved and for a time, due to religious backlash, there wasn’t a doctor anywhere in the province willing to provide the service.
It was also a time when women in Newfoundland lagged far behind women in the rest of Canada. Only 47% of women in Newfoundland were in the paid labour force (compared with 60% in the rest of Canada) and almost half of these women worked part-time jobs over fewer than 20 weeks a year. Those who worked full-time, full-year were segregated into a narrow range of ‘caring jobs’ with low pay, low skill requirements and a lack of opportunity for advancement. In addition, women in the paid labour force spent nearly three times as much daily time on unpaid work in the home as their husbands or partners (house cleaning, cooking, caring for children and elderly relatives). Poor women in Newfoundland were poorer and for longer periods than poor women elsewhere; women in Newfoundland had lower overall educational attainment; and, experienced higher levels of domestic violence than women in the rest of Canada.
During the following 15 years, women in Newfoundland began to make significant gains more generally despite the collapse of the fisheries, underrepresentation in the House Assembly, and poor job prospects, especially in rural areas. The Newfoundland women’s movement was critical to this change. Feminists led campaigns for equality and self-determination across all sectors and the results were encouraging. According to the 2006 census, in Newfoundland, more women than men had completed post-secondary degrees; women’s paid labour force participation increased to 56%; domestic violence was in decline; and, women were beginning to move out of poverty in significant numbers, especially lone mothers and elderly women.
Yet, in just a decade there are signs of serious ground being lost. According to a recent report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Newfoundland is now one of the worst places in Canada to be a woman. Women in St. John’s only make 79% of what their male peers make; only 50% of women hold full-time, full-year jobs; and, about 12% of women in the city live in poverty (the figure is somewhat higher in rural areas). At the time of the survey, there were no women on city council, domestic violence rates were trending upward, and the last provincial election resulted in only 10 women being elected to the House Assembly.
Conclusion: “The struggle for choice, for change, has to continue”
Much of the lost ground in feminist struggles for the advancement of women in Newfoundland, as elsewhere in Canada, has been the result of a severe lack of funding for women’s services and programs, especially those related to advocacy and fertility control. The Atlantic region now has the fewest number of abortion providers in the country with P.E.I having none. In Newfoundland, there exists only one free standing abortion clinic with no services at all in Labrador.
Perhaps the lesson to be discerned from the struggle in Ireland for women’s reproductive rights, now well into its 4th decade with little expectation of resolution for some years to come, is the importance of defending past gains without abandoning efforts to expand women’s right to self-determination and access to equality. This requires vigilance and determination. In more concrete terms, it requires of those women who have gone before to pass on their stories, to remind us of what worked and what didn’t and why, and to let their experiences provide a necessary link between past and future struggles.
Building and nurturing connections between and amongst women of different generations, different regions and countries, and different ethnic, religious, and racial backgrounds makes women’s movements everywhere stronger. It will be on the basis of the strength of our connections and shared history, whether across the province or across the ocean,that struggles for the betterment of all women’s lives will succeed.
Carol-Anne Hudson is a Ph.D. candidate in the Political Science Department at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. She specializes in comparative social policy with a particular focus on women, poverty reduction strategies, and living wages in the context of the changing political economy of the welfare state. Carol-Anne was awarded a 2016 Canada-Ireland University Foundation Dobbins Scholarship. She holds the award at the Geary Institute for Public Policy (University College Dublin) where she is researching social policy transfer between Ireland and Newfoundland and Labrador.
The reader may be interested in accounts by Judy Rebick, Ten Thousand Roses: The Making of a Feminist Revolution (2005) and a series of blogs for History Matters by ChristabelleSethna and Shannon Stettner (2015), available at: http://activehistory.ca/2015/05/the-women-are-coming-the-abortion-caravan-of-1970/
Janine Brodie, Shelley A.M. Gavigan, and Jane Jenson, The Politics of Abortion (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1992).
Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, The Past Five Years, 2006-2011 (2011).
Pat Armstrong and Hugh Armstrong, The Double Ghetto (Oxford: Oxford university Press, 1994).