September 2015        

Trade Union Campaign to Repeal the 8th Amendment

Therese Caherty

Abortion is a work-place, equality and human rights issue. Since its formation in September 2014 the Trade Union Campaign to Repeal the 8th Amendment has argued that this is the case.
     Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution of Ireland equates the life of a pregnant woman with that of an embryo or foetus. Abortion is prohibited in all cases, except when doctors believe the woman’s life is at risk. The ban extends to cases of rape, incest, and fatal foetal abnormality.
     But criminalisation has not stopped abortion: instead it has forced women and girls to travel abroad—or to look for abortion pills on the internet, with all the attendant dangers. For those on low incomes there is great hardship: abortions are expensive; getting time off work is difficult. The situation is worse for migrant women, because they cannot travel abroad. Look at the recent treatment of Ms Y, a young migrant rape victim denied access to abortion and then compelled to have a Caesarean section.
     And, thanks to the amendment, we have an unequal health system: once a woman or girl becomes pregnant she has only a qualified right to care. The distinction between a pregnant woman’s life and her health—made possible by the Eighth Amendment—is dangerous for women and has created an impossible situation for doctors and nurses. Their care for patients is limited by a constitutional provision and its possible interpretation. Its chilling effect can prevent doctors from acting in a pregnant patient’s best interests.
     Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution has been criticised repeatedly by international human rights organisations as a violation of women’s right to bodily integrity. The recent case of a brain-dead woman whose body was used to incubate a foetus illustrates the invasive and destructive reach of the Eighth Amendment in the medical sphere. Amid appalling violations of the woman’s dignity and rights, her family had to go to court before a medical decision to remove life support could be effected.
     In relation to reproductive rights, the issues facing women in Ireland, North and South, are similar. Earlier this year the Trade Union Campaign to Repeal the 8th Amendment welcomed the ICTU’s response to Northern Ireland’s public consultation on the criminal law on abortion. We particularly welcomed the statement by Congress that “barriers to reproductive rights are barriers to full social, economic, political and work-place equality” and that “restrictive abortion practices and barriers to access to safe abortion to the full extent of the law are gender-discriminatory, denying women and girls treatment only they need.”
     And we argued that, just as “legislative change is essential to end the daily attack on women’s reproductive rights in Northern Ireland,” the repeal of the Eighth Amendment is equally and urgently needed.
     In 1983 Congress opposed the Eighth Amendment, stating that “the rigidity and inflexibility of constitutional directives on social and moral issues was inappropriate in a democracy.” We contend that all the arguments put forward to the consultation in Northern Ireland apply equally to the Eighth Amendment. On that basis our campaign has asked Congress to call for a referendum seeking its repeal without delay.
     For the past year, many of our supporters have succeeded in having motions on repeal passed at branches and annual conferences. Trades councils have come on board. Several youth councils and committees have signed up. But, despite the ground gained, many unions continue to resist our call, urging us instead to concentrate on the “real” stuff of union work: employment issues.
     It’s fair to say that we have our work cut out for us. But there is reason to believe that, as with opinion polls, support in our movement is beginning to turn our way.
     We must mobilise at the grass-roots level, where trade union members have the potential to make a huge difference. We could put women and their rights, as opposed to conservative lobbying groups, at the centre of the debate. For this reason we are asking unions, their members and trades councils to work with us to secure a referendum to remove Article 40.3.3 from the Constitution.
     Activists can put our sample motion (below) to their branches, industrial and trades councils. We’re also happy to come to branches or work-places to explain our work and its progress. If you would like to register your support, log on to our Facebook page and fill in the Google form you will find there. (Your information will be used only for e-mail updates relating to the Trade Union Campaign to Repeal the 8th Amendment.)
     We are affiliated to the Coalition to Repeal the 8th and are supported by Mandate, Unite, CWU and ICTU youth committees, and Dublin, Bray and Waterford Trades Councils. We can be contacted at or at 086 0704036.

Draft trade union motion

This branch calls for the immediate repeal of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.
     The branch demands that a referendum be held on this issue without delay.
     The branch calls on the Government to put a proposal to the Dáil to amend the Constitution to remove the Eighth Amendment and to hold the referendum on this issue without further delay.
     The branch calls on the Executive of this union to campaign for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.

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