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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  • 241934 john brennan

    ‘Abortion statistics’ are widely available on the internet.
    In broad terms the current UK rate is running at 203, 000 per year. Since 1967 the total exceeds 8 millions – -or nearly double the population of Ireland. About 35% of woman having abortions, have had previous abortions. These are NHS statistics.

    In financial terms alone, the cost to the taxpayer/ national insurance payer is huge. Of course there are savings on family allowance payments and education etc – but with less young workers to support an aging population, there must be another raising of the pension age, with moves toward private, rather state pension schemed, privately funded health care for the elderly, introduction of euthanasia etc. Of course these are only sequential problems relating to unethical, quick-fit, short-term solutions.

    The whole bloody mess is avoidable – when society (governments) accepts that every human person has an inalienable right to life, from conception to natural death.

  • Comrade Stalin

    John,

    Quite ridiculous to suggest that abortion is the cause of an aging population – not when compared with the availability of cheap low-risk contraception and an increasingly well educated population.

    Society has changed a lot. Younger people tend to want to spend their 20s enjoying life, travelling, starting small businesses or doing other things that were not possible for their parents. It has changed in particular for women and they are no longer chained to this notion that they are supposed to sacrifice all that to provide the nation’s next generation.

    It is also ridiculous to suggest that if abortion were not legally and readily available women would simply choose to have the child. Prior to 1967, women sought illegal back street abortions; furthermore, botched abortions were among the single highest cause of death for women aged between something like 18 and 35. If, somehow, women in Ireland could be prevented from travelling to obtain an abortion we would see the return of these horrible statistics. We’d see a rise in the number of abandoned children and an explosion in the orphanages to care for them (which is exactly what happened in Romania under Ceausescu).

    This kind of lazy debate is the same sort of thinking that leads people to conclude that the welfare state causes unemployment by discouraging people to work. As with abortion laws, the welfare state was created to alleviate a situation which was far worse. And apart from the one or two countries in the West that govern in accordance to what they hear at their local pulpit, it is legal, readily available, and is very likely to remain so.

    Sinn Féin are to be applauded for their steps to take up this mantle. Their conference motion is far from radical; it merely introduces a conscience provision which allows elected representatives to decide their own policy, which is the stance taken by almost every single political party in Europe and the USA.

  • 241934 john brennan

    Comrade:
    ‘Sinn Féin are to be applauded for their steps to take up this mantle. Their conference motion is far from radical; it merely introduces a conscience provision which allows elected representatives to decide their own policy, which is the stance taken by almost every single political party in Europe and the USA’.

    A Sinn Fein individual conscience provision is to be applauded. The last vote by SF on this provision resulted in a collective 100% vote by Stormont MLA’s, reinforced with misuse of a Petition of Concern, opting for a completely unregulated abortion clinic in Belfast.

  • Comrade Stalin

    The last vote by SF on this provision resulted in a collective 100% vote by Stormont MLA’s,

    I doubt that party discipline was a major factor here.

    reinforced with misuse of a Petition of Concern, opting for a completely unregulated abortion clinic in Belfast.

    Ah, another person who wants to get the Health Minister off the hook of issuing guidelines for abortion in NI.

  • As expected, the Ard Chomhairle motion passed and the other two failed.

  • 241934 john brennan

    ‘As expected, the Ard Chomhairle motion passed and the other two failed’.

    What an odd situation!? A majority of Sinn Fein delegates democratically voted not to permit and an individual conscience vote against abortion -thereby choosing to put totalitarian rule above their own individual freedom of conscience.

    Is it any wonder that the Sinn Fein president can canonise as a ‘good republican, a person who laundered diesel, polluted the environment, defrauded Irish citizens by evading taxes etc. No crime at all involved, because some of the fraudulent, ill-gotten gains were denoted to ‘the cause’ ?

    From abortion to fuel laundering, all done for the good cause – the cause of Sinn Fein – my party, right or wrong!!

  • babyface finlayson

    Alan
    “”Sinn Fein is opposed to abortion, but supports termination in the case of rape, sexual abuse or where a woman’s life is in danger.”
    Do you see the this as a potential vote loser for Sinn Fein in either or both constituencies?
    While older voters will always hold to the party on the constitutional issue alone, will this be true for younger voters who may be swayed by issues like this?

  • Comrade Stalin

    John,

    thereby choosing to put totalitarian rule above their own individual freedom of conscience.

    By maintaining the status quo in their own party they are merely, and rather sadly, keeping the same totalitarian approach which applies to representatives in the DUP and SDLP.

  • Newman

    Whatever one’s views about abortion there has been a pretty broad consensus in most countries that it is a conscience issue which demands a free vote. The failure to grasp this reinforces the perception that Sinn Fein will not allow conscience to eclipse policy that is agreed and determined even on sensitive moral issues.The idea of them ever taking power in Ireland remains an appalling vista.