With Abortion being a key issue in both Dublin and Belfast, Rachel Watters examines Sinn Féin’s somewhat paradoxical approach to the issue, both North and South.
The Sinn Féin 2016 Assembly election manifesto, released this Wednesday, declared itself as a “statement of intent for an all-Ireland Republic built on the foundations of civil and religious liberty, social justice and equality for all citizens”.
Yet the approach taken by Sinn Féin on abortion reform at Stormont and in the Dáil presents a significant challenge to (a) the contention that Sinn Féin has consistent all-Ireland policy on social issues and (b) the idea that its anti-choice position on abortion reform will bring about social justice on reproductive rights in either jurisdiction.
According to its Assembly manifesto, Sinn Féin abortion policy is to allow a referendum on repealing the Eighth Amendment of the Irish Constitution and to introduce legislation to permit abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality and sexual crime. Motions to support access to abortion for fatal foetal abnormality and to campaign for a referendum on the Eighth Amendment were passed at the party’s 2015 Ard Fheis, while the sexual crime exception appears to be based upon Sinn Féin’s long-established support for legislating for the X case1. Of the 124 motions brought to the 2016 Ard Fheis last weekend, none addressed abortion reform – a departure from previous conferences, where a variety of pro-choice and anti-choice motions on abortion have been debated.
A partitionist approach to abortion reform
The principal inconsistency within Sinn Féin messaging on abortion is that the party is vocally in favour of repealing the Eighth Amendment in the Republic of Ireland, but equally passionate in promoting anti-choice sentiment in Northern Ireland.
Arguably it is possible, on a superficial level, to hold an internally consistent position in favour of repealing the Eighth Amendment and simultaneously oppose the introduction of abortion legislation which would grant women2 the right to choose. But to adopt such a position without enlightening the electorate as to why Sinn Féin is content to be rounded up to pro choice in Dublin while denouncing even the concept of the right to choose in Belfast, is disingenuous electoral opportunism, if not tacit partitionism.
On abortion, Sinn Féin has taken a cynical approach in adjusting its anti-choice stance to play to an ideologically diverse range of voters in two jurisdictions.
South of the border, Sinn Féin offers a socialist republican alternative to the Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil establishment and happily sits on the opposition benches of the Dáil. In professing to represent the interests of the young and the working class left, Sinn Féin has faced pressure to appear more liberal on abortion reform than its centre-right counterparts. The growing public consensus against the draconian effects of the Eighth Amendment left the party no option but to pledge to campaign in favour of its repeal in March 2015.
The pro-birth zealotry enshrined in Irish constitutional law by the Eighth Amendment3 works to the advantage of the anti-choice but pro-repeal Sinn Féin position: the #repealthe8th movement is a broad church to which pro-choice and anti-choice groups can both subscribe. Calling for repeal of the Eighth Amendment affords Sinn Féin the opportunity to win over voters for whom it is a red line issue, without proposing abortion reform to help women whose crisis pregnancies fall outside the rare and exceptional categories of fatal foetal abnormality and sexual crime.
Observers of the debate around the Eighth Amendment expect that the actual reckoning will happen post-repeal, when all parties in the Dáil will have to clarify the conditions under which they are willing to permit safe and legal abortion to become accessible in the Irish health service. It is likely that in the post-repeal period, Sinn Féin will once again be compelled to live up to its liberal image in the Republic and support an element of choice beyond the minimum standard for human rights compliance on abortion provision.4
Meanwhile at Stormont, Sinn Féin has a guaranteed place in the Executive by virtue of power sharing and relishes its establishment status. Fervent DUP and SDLP opposition to any kind of abortion reform allows Sinn Féin to rest on its minimum-human-rights-compliance laurels and see itself, in Martin McGuinness’ words, as the “most progressive” party in the Assembly. Given the consensus between the largest unionist and nationalist parties on opposing reproductive choice and the absence of an Eighth Amendment to rally against, Sinn Féin has little incentive to appear in any way liberal on abortion in order to win votes in Northern Ireland.
Socialist republicanism for some, conservative Catholicism for others
A number of Sinn Féin figures have cited Catholicism and its opposition to abortion as a significant point of reference on abortion reform: Peadar Toíbín defied the party whip in 2012 to vote against the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill in the Dáil, later explaining that he was “strongly convinced of the right to the life of the unborn”.
Martin McGuinness has repeatedly emphasised that his Catholicism allows him to support abortion to save the life of the pregnant woman, but not to support ‘abortion on demand’. (McGuinness has invoked the phrase ‘abortion on demand’ so frequently in recent weeks that it appears he’s trying to use it as a magic spell to ward off legitimate criticism of Sinn Féin’s current position on abortion reform.) At the Ard Fheis in Dublin last Saturday, the Deputy First Minister stated that the recent criminalisation of a 21 year old woman from County Down for procuring an abortion with abortion pills was “totally wrong”. Yet in an interview with BBC’s The View, he explained: “The last thing I would want to see is a situation where abortion on demand is available as a result of people accessing tablets on the internet…A mechanism must be found to stop that.” One has to wonder if McGuinness will ever come to accept that the only ‘mechanism to stop that’ would be legislating to decriminalise abortion and allow women to access the abortion pill legally in a local clinic?
“McGuinness has invoked the phrase ‘abortion on demand’ so frequently in recent weeks that it appears he’s trying to use it as a magic spell to ward off legitimate criticism of Sinn Féin’s current position on abortion reform”
The issue of abortion throws the ethical divide between the modern socialist republican and conservative Catholic republican camps in Sinn Féin into sharp relief. The youth wing of the party belongs in the former camp: Sinn Féin Republican Youth adopted pro-choice policy in March 2016. Sinn Féin’s conservative stance on abortion appears especially untenable when it claims solidarity with Podemos and Syriza, two parties of the European left that openly advocate for the right to choose. Sinn Féin’s invocation of the revolutionary spirit of Easter 1916 and the Proclamation also ring slightly hollow when one considers the party’s distinctly unrevolutionary stance on reproductive healthcare in 2016.
While Sinn Féin dithers between deference to its conservative Catholic wing and its socialist republican duty to legislate for the provision of safe abortion care in Ireland, thousands of women will continue to travel to England or buy Mifepristone and Misoprostol online to procure the abortion that Sinn Féin and other anti-choice parties have deemed them unqualified to receive.
For all its claims of compassion and willingness to legislate for exceptional cases, the fact remains that if the current Sinn Féin abortion policy were adopted in either jurisdiction, the vast majority of women needing an abortion across Ireland still wouldn’t be granted the right to access free, safe and legal abortion care in their local area. The women having self-induced abortions at home, or boarding the ferry back from a Liverpool abortion clinic while cramping and bleeding won’t be comforted by Sinn Féin’s ‘compassion’, or its exclusion of comprehensive reproductive rights from the social justice agenda.
1 Attorney General v X : the case involved a fourteen year old girl who had become pregnant as the result of statutory rape by a neighbour. The case established the right to an abortion if the life of the pregnant individual was at risk because of pregnancy, including the risk of suicide.
2 Where this article refers to women, I mean to include trans men, non-binary people and any person who can become pregnant.
3 The Eighth Amendment (Article 40.3.3) reads: “The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.”
4 The international human rights minimum standard for abortion provision requires that abortion be available in cases of rape, incest, serious risks to the health of the mother, or fatal foetal abnormality. (UN Human Rights Committee)