Sinn Féin and abortion – two more motions challenging the party’s current stance

For the second year in a row, motions about abortion have been submitted to the ard fheis. The Ard Chomhairle has its own motion this year around legislating “to give effect to the 1992 judgement of the Supreme Court in the X Case”.

But the motion from headquarters is joined by two others that largely reflect last year’s unsuccessful attempts to liberalise the party’s standpoint on abortion. The simplest of the motions is adapted from last year’s unsuccessful “articulate, campaign and vote … according to conscience” motion, this time supported by five groups (up from two last year):

(212) That all Sinn Féin members be allowed to articulate and vote on the issue of abortion according to their conscience.

Another motion …

(211) … calls on the Irish Government to introduce legislation, without delay, which ensures pregnant women have the right to choose any and all medical treatment regardless of the circumstances. (Derry, Dublin)

The wording on a similar motion last year was stronger, supporting …

… the ethical view that a woman should have the legal right to elective abortion whatever the circumstances … we believe that a woman should ultimately have the right to make the decision where her health, physical or mental, and welfare are concerned.

Discipline and control are two words that apply to Sinn Féin more than any other political party operating on the island of Ireland. Members, particularly elected members and party activists, normally know where their boundaries lie: what topics are up for true debate and what topics are beyond examination.

As a party that normally prides itself on taking socially progressive stances on equality issues like gay marriage – and a party that is not afraid to distance itself from ‘establishment’ Catholic church teaching – Sinn Féin’s current position on abortion is a curious mix of dogma and expediency.

It’s as if the party believe that women cannot be trusted to make good decisions about their own bodies but instead need to have their options pre-filtered and constrained by a mainly male political establishment. Maybe that’s harsh? But the party’s existing policy must be increasingly at odds with the views of many of their younger supporters. The most common view I hear from voxpopped female students is that while they aren’t in favour of increasing the incidence of abortion, they are against women being denied the choice.

Searching for the ard fheis clár, I noticed a prominent link to Policies near the top of pages on Sinn Féin’s website. Clicking on Health I was able to read a comprehensive document … that was originally published in 2006. Amongst the 65 pages of the seven year old draft policy, I could find no mention of maternity, prenatal, postnatal, parent, mother, baby. Nor anything about abortion.

So perhaps abortion isn’t a policy. It’s a moral conviction that’s currently dressed up as a policy.

In his column in Wednesday’s Irish News, Brian Feeney described Sinn Féin as “tacking carefully and successfully according to the political wind”.

On the issue of abortion, Sinn Féin in the NI Assembly veered away from joining the cross-party coalition wanting to ban legal abortions in the Belfast Marie Stopes clinic and instead helped to fire the petition of concern flare that torpedoed the attempt to impose an unnecessary ban on a non-existent threat.

South of the border, the X Case and the more recent tragic circumstances around the death of Savita Halappanavar have left Sinn Féin trying to catch the breeze of the changing public mood. While their actual position may not yet have shifted away from allowing a women whose life may be in danger to seek a termination, the less-nuanced public perception is that they’ve already started to move their policy rudder.

The BBC’s Martina Purdy examined Sinn Féin’s approach to abortion in an online story and a piece on Good Morning Ulster this morning. Opinion amongst Sinn Féin TDs is not uniform.

When Sinn Fein pressed the issue in the Dail, the Irish parliament, last autumn, one of its TDs, Peadar Toibin, from Meath West, rebelled and refused to vote with his party. He was censured by Sinn Fein.

On the other hand

Sinn Fein Dublin TD Dessie Ellis has made no secret of his personal view that the party’s abortion policy doesn’t go far enough to allow for choice.

It’s not a comfortable topic of debate for Sinn Féin. But it’s one that a growing minority of party activists are willing to discuss and lobby to change. On the other hand, Dessie Ellis might be out flying his pro-choice kite with the party’s permission to assess the level of support for an eventual relaxation?

Sinn Féin’s difficulty is that their decision will be complicated by events in two jurisdictions. To keep the perception of all-island consistency, Sinn Féin have to keep a foot in both boats and try to steer them in the one direction while the undercurrent of subtly different public opinion shifts and events catch them unawares.

There is no doubt that the Ard Chomhairle motion will pass in Castlebar on Saturday evening and the other two motions will fail. Update – that’s exactly what happened. However some time in the next couple of years, events – rather than philosophy – will cause Sinn Féin to stop sailing into the wind and finally tack to set a new course.

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