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Left Archive Collection: Abortion and reproductive rights August 1, 2016

Posted by Aonrud ⚘ in Irish Left Online Document Archive.

We recently collated documents relating to abortion and reproductive rights in the archive into a new collection. The accompanying text is reposted below. You can view the list of documents in the collection on the Irish Left Archive website.

This collection presents some of the documents and articles in the archive relating to reproductive rights campaigns through the years. While abortion is often the most prominent of these issues, for much of the time period covered by the archive, access to contraception and information were equally salient.

It is not intended to provide a complete historical outline of reproductive rights issues in Ireland, but to highlight the coverage of these issues in the archive. Materials are grouped chronologically below, and direct links provided to the relevant page in the document PDF.


While this collection is limited to the current contents of the archive, it is worth drawing attention to two publications from feminist groups, despite our limited examples. The archive currently contains only a single issue of each, but the prominence of reproductive rights in the charters of both groups is noteworthy.

Banshee, from Irish Women United (IWU), includes the IWU charter from 1975, which includes a demand for:

Free Legal Contraception:

  1. State financed birth-control clinics
  2. The right [t]o a free, legal and safe abortion.

Banshee, No. 7, p. 16

The Belfast Women’s Collective (formed in 1977), similarly places access to contraception and abortion prominently in its aims, within a context of control of one’s own body and sexuality.

We are fighting for the right to control our own bodies … to determine our own sexuality and to control our own fertility through access to safe contraception and abortion facilities.

Women’s Action, Vol. 2, No. 3, p. 2

An article from Banshee is reproduced in The Bottom Dog from 1976 (see page 8) on a then proposed contraception bill, which provides some perspective on the reproductive rights context of the period. It points to the need for an integrated approach to reproductive rights, addressing not just the sale of medication, but information and education.

1980s and The Eighth Amendment

The early 1980s saw prominent anti- and pro-choice campaigns, leading to the 1983 referendum, which added a right to life of the unborn into the Irish constitution.

From 1980, an edition of Women’s View (published by Sinn Féin The Workers’ Party) notes the formation of the Women’s Right to Choose group in Dublin (Women’s View, No. 3. 1980. P. 5). It also includes a brief mention of the Northern Ireland Women’s Rights Movement’s opposition to a UK abortion amendment act proposed by John Corrie MP, which sought to restrict the 1967 Abortion Act (see p.4). A short article on enforced sterilisation of native American women also demonstrates the wider international context of reproductive rights campaigns (see p.26).

From 1981, Abortion: A Choice for Irish Women sets out the case in favour of abortion from the Irish Women’s Right to Choose Group. This document addresses the context and arguments around abortion in Ireland, but also takes a practical approach of explaining and demystifying abortion with an assessment of the risks and first-hand accounts. It also includes practical appendices on methods of contraception and relevant contacts.

Also from 1981, Abortion Ireland, a report from Sinn Féin’s Department of Women’s Affairs, seeks to present the causes and context which lead to a need for abortion, in light of Sinn Féin’s anti-abortion policy. It quotes Sinn Féin’s policy document, Women in the New Ireland, which states:

There is a need to face up to the problem of abortion no matter what individual opinions are. We do not judge women who have had abortion but recognise that it is an indictment of society that so many women should feel the need to avail of abortion. We are opposed to the attitudes and forces in society that impel women to have abortions. We are totally opposed to abortion. Abortion Ireland, p. 2

Gralton magazine, which was published from 1982-3, includes on-going coverage of the abortion issue. The second issue features a cover image of a pro-life march, and includes an article from Goretti Horgan for the Women’s Right to Choose Group on the upcoming abortion amendment (Gralton, No. 2, June/July 1982, p.12). Issue three includes another article from Horgan, “The Abortion Referendum: Where the Left stands”, as well as an anti-amendment campaign progress report from Mary Gordon (Gralton, No. 3, Aug/Sep 1982, p.4-5). Issues four and five also provide further coverage.

The archive also includes a number of other publications from the period which address the amendment. Issue 10 of Church and State, published by Athol Books, includes an editorial entitled “A Roman Catholic Amendment” (Church & State, No. 10, 1982, p.3). Socialist Republic, from People’s Democracy, includes an article on the anti-amendment campaign, “A Chance to Re-organise” (Socialist Republic, Vol. 6, No. 2, 1983, p.5). The League for a Socialist Republic’s publication, Workers’ Republic, also includes a short article, “Amendment Can Be Defeated” (Workers’ Republic, No. 96, 1983, p.2).

The X Case and subsequent referendums

The X case judgement in 1992, which led to the establishment of the right to abortion information and the right to travel in subsequent referendums, as well as attempts to roll back the judgement, brought the abortion issue back to prominence.

From 1992, a leaflet headlined “Before you make up your mind…” from the Socialist Workers’ Party sought to set out the case for abortion to school students to counter the expectation that the catholic anti-abortion movement (such as the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC)) would mobilise in schools.

Sinn Féin’s policy document (from circa 1994) calls on the government to properly legislate for the 1992 referendums, and states that the party “accepts the need for abortion where a woman’s life is at risk or in grave danger, and in cases of rape or child sexual abuse” (Sinn Féin policy document, c.1994. p. 14).

From the Socialist Party, “Women & Socialist Politics”, from 1998, sets out their pro-choice position and calls for provision of abortion at least under the limited circumstances permitted by the X case judgement. The archive contains a further article from 1998, published in Red Banner and written by Rosanna Flynn, entitled “It hasn’t gone away, you know: The fight for abortion rights” (Red Banner, No. 2, 1998, p.26).

Finally, the first edition of Spartacist Ireland from 2002 includes an article on abortion in the context of the defeat of the 25th amendment referendum which sought to roll back the X case judgement (Spartacist Ireland, No. 1, 2002, p.20).

Opposition to abortion

While the further left has generally taken a pro-choice position on access to abortion, the documents in the archive do also contain dissenting voices on the issue.

Sinn Féin’s opposition to abortion in 1981 has been noted above, as has their support for legislation for the X case and provision of abortion in limited cases in 1994. Internal dissent on the issue is evident in the Clár agus Rúin from their 1986 Ard Fheis (see the proposals under ‘Women’, p. 45), with varying emphases proposed from recognition of the necessity of abortion to outright opposition.

An edition of The Other View from 2000 provides an interesting contrast in two articles on abortion. Dawn Purvis surveys attitudes to abortion in Northern Ireland, noting the prominence of religious attitudes in determining the issue for many, and arguing that public attitudes demonstrate a majority in favour of abortion provision in at least some limited cases. Noting the lack of common ground when the issue is presented from contrasting religious and secular positions, The Other View also presents a pro-life argument, but from a secular, feminist position, from ‘Feminists for Life’.

Hopefully the documents included here provide a useful look at the issues of abortion and reproductive rights on the left in Ireland. We are conscious of gaps in our coverage, and the collection will be updated as relevant documents are added. As ever, if any readers have relevant materials they can provide for inclusion in the archive, we would be very grateful.


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