Abortion is a Workplace Issue

“The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.”

Article 40.3.3 (8th Amendment)

Ireland’s constitutional ban on abortion is a human rights, equality and workplace issue. While the Trade Union Campaign to Repeal the 8th deals with all these issues, in this instance we focus on the last, abortion as a workplace issue.

During our campaigning in the workplace, we’ve found confusion about Article 40.3.3 and what it means. Many union members at branch level don’t realise that its repeal is needed before we can begin to provide for abortion in cases of fatal foetal anomaly and rape, for instance. Future TUCR8A material will carry the wording of the 8th Amendment and state this fact explicitly.

We are founded on the belief that without access to reproductive rights, women are denied full social, economic, political and workplace equality. Legal restrictions on abortion and lack of access to safe procedures deny women and girls medical treatment only they need.

Just as the ICTU has argued that “legislative change is essential to put an end to the daily attack on women’s reproductive rights in Northern Ireland”, so too it recognises that repeal of the 8th Amendment to the Irish Constitution is equally and urgently needed to make sure women and girls in Ireland have control over their own fertility.

The trade union movement is the Republic’s largest civic society grouping. It has around 800,000 members, over half of whom are women. On the face of it this looks good for achieving gender equality. But:

  • Historical pay differentials haven’t gone away: EU Commission calculations show we get almost 14% less than male counterparts
  • While this gap narrows further down the employment ladder, the NERI Institute finds women are more likely than men to be low paid, with one in three at risk
  • Of the 75,000 employees working for the minimum wage, almost two-thirds are women, most in their 20s and 30s and many working in the services and retail sectors.

Overall, 50 per cent of women earn €20,000 or less a year, putting the cost of an abortion abroad at around a tenth of their annual income.

Furthermore, it is well documented that women shoulder the burden of care work in our society. Their unpaid workload is far higher than men’s, and adds up to an extra month of work per year. Many have no incomes because of this and therefore no access to money. More than 40 years after the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement made it a core demand, state childcare is still an aspiration. Creche and after-school facilities can cost the equivalent of, or more than, a living wage with the OECD putting the cost of motherhood in Ireland at one of the highest in the EU.

Almost a third of Family Income Supplement beneficiaries are women. When it comes to the 92,326 people drawing the One-Parent Family Payment, that figure is 98 per cent.

If women suffer deprivation, so will their dependants. According to Barnardos, one in nine children (aged up to 17) live in consistent poverty. That’s about 132,000 kids living in families with incomes below 60% of the national average who can go a full day and night without a proper meal. Nearly three in five (59%) of lone parent households with one or more children have endured this hardship.

Control of their own fertility is crucial for all women but particularly for those living on low or welfare-dependent incomes.

Which brings us back to Article 40.3.3. While the ban on abortion doesn’t discriminate – no women or girl in Ireland can have one here – its effects are clearly disproportionate. For the least well off, getting abortion pills on the internet may be the only option. Criminalisation and the risk of 14 years in prison mean these women are unlikely to seek medical after-care.

The timeframe is also crucial. Taking leave at short notice may be difficult and can raise awkward questions. Having to travel inevitably delays the abortion, leading to more complicated procedures. Women living in rural or remote areas with limited access to information and local transport encounter a similar version of these difficulties.

For those seeking asylum here whose right to travel is restricted and whose income is negligible, the experience is worse still. For the undocumented, it is intolerable.

Inbuilt inequality

Our two-tier health system has an inbuilt inequality: the more money you have, the better the service you receive. Alongside that, there is another gendered inequality at work: when a woman or girl is pregnant, she has only a qualified right to care. The distinction between a pregnant woman’s life and her health enshrined in the 8th Amendment is unsafe for women and girls. Doctors and nurses, another cohort of workers for whom the abortion ban creates problems, are in an impossible situation: care for patients is limited by constitutional provision and its possible interpretation.  This has a “chilling effect” and can prevent doctors from acting in the best interests of their patients when they are pregnant.

Article 40.3.3 has been criticised repeatedly by international human rights organisations as a violation of women’s right to bodily integrity and many have recommended its repeal.

Working together

Within the trade union movement, we see evidence of resistance to taking on the fight for full reproductive rights in Ireland. This stems largely from fears that the issue will divide and weaken unions. We believe this is misguided, particularly given our experience at delegate conferences where support for our campaign is strong. Nevertheless, there is work to be done, by all trade unionists and not just within TUCR8A. All repeal supporters can make a difference by using our model motion to raise the issue at branch level. Or contacting us to find like-minded comrades with whom they can build solid backing for repeal within their branch or the wider union.

It is imperative that the message coming from the rank and file is one of steadfast commitment to repealing Article 40.3.3.

In 1983 the ICTU opposed the 8th Amendment stating that “the rigidity and inflexibility of constitutional directives on social and moral issues was inappropriate in a democracy”. It has recently reaffirmed this position.  We live in a State where the law puts women’s health and lives at risk, criminalises them and drives them out of the country for safe and legal abortions that they should be able to have here. The existence of Article 40.3.3 creates hardship and more poverty for those already experiencing income inequality.

Trade unionists must play their part in ensuring its deletion from the Constitution becomes a reality sooner rather than later.