20 years of inaction after the x-case - Action on X launched


20 years ago this month details emerged of the X-case, when the Irish state injuncted a pregnant 14 year old who had been raped to prevent her traveling of England for an abortion. The x-case was the culmination of a decade of fundamentalist anti-choice hysteria that had flowed from the 1983 referendum designed to make it impossible to ever legalize abortion again in Ireland.

(Pic: Press launch - taken by RAG)

The fundamentalists had miscalculated and the horrific details of the x-case finally unleashed popular anger against the 'Irish solution to an Irish problem' that had existed where thousands of women travelled every year to England for abortions. Over the previous decade SPUC had managed to build on their 1983 victory to get books & magazines removed from libraries, or even prevented entering the country, if they happened to contain the phone numbers of clinics in Britain. They had targeted student union leaders whose unions had continued to publish referral numbers in the health section of student guide books. And now it appeared they were going to be able to ban women from even traveling.

The forces actively opposing SPUC before the x-case were tiny, perhaps as few as 30 people regularly defied the law and distributed information on the streets in addition to the women of the Women's Information Network (WIN) who maintained an advice and referral service at 6794700. I still remember this number 20 years later because we used to as a chant, as in '6794 700, women have the right to know'. But when news of the x-case broke, and we were doing our routine abortion information leafleting at the GPO, it became almost instantly obvious that something had changed. Normally, as with most street leafletting, most people would politely ignore you, perhaps taking a leaflet, perhaps not. That Saturday it seems that every 3rd or 4th person stopped to tell us how angry they were. In the pub after the leafleting the decision to call a sequence of demonstrations the following week was easy to make.

Laws & Protest
The reversal of the court decision today is almost always treated as a matter of decisions being made by opinion markers and judges but that is not how it felt at the time. The demonstrations of that week were not only large (over a 1,000 turned out at the first lunchtime protest) they were also militant. Garda barriers were pushed aside as people charged through to get near the Dail and as often as not the chants that were heard were for a 'right to choose' something that previously only a tiny minority would proclaim out loud. For tactical reasons many of the previous 'pro-choice' campaigns had actually tried to silence openly pro-choice voices, something we opposed. When WSM produced leaflets with 'Women have the right to choose' as a headline slogan for the X-Case march I literally had people queing to take bundles off me to distribute themselves, something I've never seen before or since. We've argued since about how many people actually turned out for the large demonstration the following Saturday, after which the Supreme Court overturned the injunction, but it was somewhere between 10 and 15,000.

The anniversary coverage is odd because there is no discussion of the role ordinary people played through those demonstrations in forcing a reversal of the injunction preventing X traveling. Instead snippets of the footage of demonstrations has been used as a backdrop while various academics, politicians and the occasional journalist talk about how difficult it all was for then Taoiseach Albert Reynolds, or how 'controversial' the topic of abortion was. Scenes of protest are in fact very often used to bolster the mainstream political narrative of there being 'extremist head cases' on each side of 'the argument'. Apparently we are to believe it is these extremists who hold up the possibility of the reasonable politicians making progress.

The end of clerical power
The other view, the one I would argue, is that the x-case mobilizations began the transformation of Ireland from a place where everyone feared the parish priest and where the catholic church had an informal veto over social policy to one where politicians, lawyers & journalists finally realised that that day was over and that there was now popular support - in fact popular demand for transformation. Everyone knew of the abuse of children by religious institutions, everyone knew about the priests who lectured on morality but had children by their housekeepers, everyone knew but in the words of Christy Moore's song about Anne Lovett 'Everybody knew, no body said.'

Once the priests were exposed and the stories about the abuse started to be published the moral authority that had allowed the church to instruct people how to vote in referendum's was kicked away. In 1995 when the bishops dared to try to agaon lecture people about morals before the second Divorce referendum we were able to cover Dublin with posters of father Brendan Smyth who had been convicted of child abuse in response. True, the referendum only narrowly passed, but its passage confirmed the collapse in church power that was underway and that if anything escalated in its aftermath.

These changes forced politicians to make many changes to Irish law and transformed social attitudes in Ireland. But abortion remains the issue the politicians are terrified of touching. With the exception of Sinn Fein every significant political party has been in government in the years since the x-case and everyone of them have failed to legislate for the very limited access to abortion the Supreme count judgement created. Labour, Fine Gael, Fianna Fail, and the Greens have all had the opportunity and all have failed. Twice instead they have tried to overturn the x-case judgment through new anti-choice referendum (1992 & 2002) and twice they have failed.

Hold on to your seats
The calculation being made by all parties has been that while a large minority are now pro choice and a large majority support legislation for the x-case those groups are not going to vote for parties on that issue. The safety valve of abortion in England or the Netherlands available to most (but not all) women ensures that. Travel isn't available for Asylum Seekers (but then they don't have a vote) and poverty makes it hard for some women to travel in time.  On the other hand the well funded if shrinking minority who are against choice in all cases may well decide their votes on the issue of access to abortion alone. Safer then to say nothing and be slightly more sure of holding onto your seat at the next election. Sinn Fein and the ULA have followed the same strategy in elections so far although to be fair to the then recently formed ULA this was probably a product of them not prioritizing reaching agreement on the issue as now they are sponsoring a private members designed to legislate for X.

Since 1992, far from politicians taking any sort of lead, we have seen a succession of groups, mostly based in either Dublin or Cork, which have campaigned for abortion rights via street protests, lobbying and the media. These have included the Dublin Abortion Information Campaign (which organised the x case march and some of the other protests that week), Repeal the 8th Amendment, Dublin Abortion Rights Group, Alliance for a No Vote, Cork Pro-Choice Group, Doctors for Choice and Choice Ireland.  Quite often the far left, in particular anarchists, have formed significant parts of these campaigns.

Launch of Action on X
Today saw the launch of another of these initiatives under the title of 'Action on X'. One thing that is immediately obvious from the launch is that changing social attitudes now mean its possible to bring more of the mainstream on board from the start. Action on X launched based on "50 groups, TDs, academics, and NGOs [who] have called on the government to legislate for the X case." The launch even included 4TD's, two of whom come from one of the governing parties (the Labour Party). The main anti-choice group, Youth Defense are visibly flustered, the night before the Action on Choice press conference they posted "Right now, there's a HUGE push to see abortion legalised in Ireland. People, please stand WITH us" to their Facebook page.

Action on X are having what I suspect will be a very well attended public meeting at 7pm in the Gresham Hotel on 21 February at which yet another TD will speak in support. It appears that 20 years on Youth Defense's worst fears may be correct and we are getting near the point that abortion may be legislated for under the very limited grounds allowed in the x-case.  But this is a reason for mobilization, rather than complacency, as we can be certain the anti-choice bigots will be mobilizing, and we know that the political parties (who will have to introduce such legislation) have been too afraid of their seats to do so for two decades. We also know that the popular mobilizations of 1992 were the force which gave the same politicians the 'courage' to finally address some of the less 'controversial' social issues including the ban on divorce.

We also need to remember that the x-case judgement is very limited, allowing for abortion only where there is a threat to the women's life. True, the fact that this includes a threat of suicide might mean that the right legislation allows any women willing to present herself as suicidal (to whatever 'experts' the government agrees will stand in judgement of her) access to abortion. But this is another Irish solution to and Irish problem, why should we accept a system where women are required to go through difficult and humiliating hoops in order to access a standard medical procedure? The end result will be yet another set up where women's control of their bodies is taken away and handed to an expert panel to determine.

Legislation for abortion under the x-case will be a significant step but also a very limited one. How significant a step and whether the next step, for a women herself to freely make the decision without the intervention of 'experts' will happen quickly or require decades more will be determined by the struggles that happen in the next months or year around legislation for X. Labour & Fine Gael want to escape by once more kicking the issue of legislation to an ' expert committee' (that word again) who will no doubt be given the nod and the wink not to report back this side of the next election.

Will you let them get away with that?  

WORDS: Andrew Flood

Read more about the x-case including several articles written in 1992 & 1993