With an anti-choice DUP Bill to be voted upon at Stormont next week, Sinn Fein have once again come under scrutiny for their position on the issue.
The Bill would restrict access to abortion in cases of severe foetal abnormality. Terminations in these cases were permitted under the legislation from Westminster, following years of criticism that Stormont’s abortion policy interfered with basic human rights.
CEDAW, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, found women in the North were subjected to ‘grave and systemic violations of rights’ because they were compelled to travel or carry pregnancies to full term, highlighting cases of severe and fatal foetal abnormality in particular.
The DUP Bill would maintain these grave violations of rights. And like the DUP, Sinn Féin told the Stormont Assembly they do not support abortion in the case of severe foetal abnormality.
In fact, when the DUP brought a motion to Stormont in 2020 calling for the Westminster abortion laws to be totally rejected, Sinn Féin amended it to reject: ‘…the specific legislative provision which goes beyond fatal foetal abnormalities to include non-fatal disabilities…’
Sinn Féin’s Emma Sheerin, who proposed the amendment, said, “Sinn Féin do not believe that a non-fatal foetal abnormality is an appropriate criterion for an abortion.”
This was met with an outpouring of anger. Cases of severe foetal anomaly can be some of the most tragic reasons for a termination. Often discovered late on in a pregnancy which is loved and wanted, pregnant people are forced to make an incredibly difficult choice.
Many need time to come to terms with their new reality, and the difference between a severe foetal abnormality and a fatal foetal abnormality can be difficult to diagnose. This extra time is permitted in the Westminster law but the DUP want to strip it away, essentially making access to termination in these cases impossible.
Women would be forced to continue to get on boats to England. Stormont would continue to export grief. Those experiencing the tragedy will be forced to organise travel arrangements for a casket rather than dealing with their grief in their own home, with proper support.
These kinds of details are gut wrenching and difficult to hear, but due to the brave women who have shared their stories in the face of this cruelty, we know these details are a reality.
The Sinn Féin amendment in 2020 did more than send a wave of anger across Ireland; it also signalled the point at which the party would back restrictions on abortion through Stormont.
The DUP took the Sinn Féin amendment and turned it into the anti-choice Bill which will be debated again next week. This is indisputably the case, since the official explanatory memorandum for the Bill reads:
“On 2 June 2020, the Assembly held a debate about the nature of the Regulations in cases of abortion on the grounds of disability. There was majority support for rejecting the inclusion of abortion on the grounds of non-fatal disabilities.”
When the Bill first reached Stormont, Sinn Féin abstained and the outrage grew.
Where was the Sinn Féin who promised to stand for ‘cearta na mban’? After Repeal in the South, we were promised Sinn Féin had finally shifted its position on abortion. Wasn’t it Mary Lou and Michelle O’Neill who snatched headlines with a hoisted placard reading ‘The North is Next’?
Put simply, Sinn Féin is not a pro-choice party North or South. They aren’t adopting a partitionist position by refusing to vote against the DUP Bill. The DUP Bill is in line with the Sinn Féin policy passed at their Ard Fheis in 2018, which says they’re only happy to allow women an abortion in very limited circumstances.
So why did Sinn Féin choose to abstain on a Bill which is in line with their policy and which was shaped by their own amendment?
I think we can safely say this is down to the power of the outrage. Headlines splashed across newspapers reported the betrayal of women by Sinn Féin. Activists across Ireland decried their decision.
It wasn’t just the vote, it was the manner in which Sinn Féin conducted the debate.
The language used by Emma Sheerin and all other Sinn Féin MLAs was laden with phrases like ‘supporting women’, ‘the need for modern healthcare provision’ and ‘proper, safe, legal services for anyone in crisis’. Women felt entirely gaslit.
Here were politicians who had promised to stand for our rights, acting against our interests, all while stealing the language of our movement.
It would be incredibly unpopular for Sinn Féin to vote for a DUP Bill which restricts abortion, even if it is their party policy. Thus, the party found itself in need of an excuse to allow them to abstain on the Bill.
They came up with this: This Bill is a DUP stunt.
They postulated that because Westminster had promised to intervene and deliver the full law changes promised in 2019, the DUP Bill wouldn’t make much of a difference. And where there was dead silence from many in Sinn Féin on the Bill, this line was suddenly repeated ad nauseum.
Yes – the line from Sinn Féin really was that we should sit back, abstain, and wait for the Tories to step in to protect women’s rights.
Naturally this did little to quell the anger and more recent decisions by the Sinn Féin Stormont operation have only angered activists further.
In a tweet yesterday, Michelle O’Neill announced she had submitted an amendment to the DUP anti-choice Bill:
‘It’s now over a year since the law changed to legalise abortion. Yet women are still denied services by the blockers in the UUP & DUP. This is totally unacceptable. I’ve tabled an amendment to DUP Abortion Bill in the Assembly. Services must be delivered without any further delay.’
The amendment wouldn’t deliver services any sooner. It wouldn’t prevent ‘blockers’ in the DUP or UUP from restricting abortion. The gaslighting continued. It was later found that the amendment wasn’t even competent.
In what we can only presume was a stunt to save face ahead of the next vote on the anti-choice Bill, O’Neill’s efforts have spectacularly backfired as anger intensifies and further attention is drawn to how they will vote next week.
It also begs the question, were there an attempt to expand abortion access beyond their policy in the South would they vote for it? Abstain? Call an emergency Ard Fheis as they did in 2018?
And therein lies the fallacy of the Sinn Féin policy on abortion: it does only enough to appease pro-choice voters and disquieters in their ranks, while maintaining many of the limitations which keep anti-choicers comfortable. In both regards, they are rapidly becoming exposed.
As Eamonn McCann once put it: “when it comes to abortion Sinn Féin have been impaled on the fence for so long they could be torn neatly in half along the perforations”.
This is the reason why Sinn Féin representatives are slow to dispel the myth that they have a partitionist position on abortion; why they use our language while voting against our rights; why they are probably quite content on some level to be seen as more pro-choice in the South, where they hope to rely on the votes of young people to get into the next government.
It does Sinn Féin a favour to go along with this misconception and the left should be clear that while their position is better than some other parties, they are not pro-choice, North or South.
What all of this proves beyond anything else is that the fight is not won.
The legislation we have in the South isn’t good enough and the government’s recent announcements on the Repeal Review are a disgraceful attempt to hold back progress. Meanwhile, services remain inaccessible for many in the North.
Activism, pressure, and the movements on the streets are what delivered any progress that has been made.
The latest proof of this? Michelle O’Neill submitted a motion just hours ago, calling for the services legislated for at Westminster to be implemented. This is the very definition of feeling the heat of having your feet held to the fire.
So we cannot rely on politicians to deliver our rights – not in Stormont, the Dáil, and not the Tories in Westminster! We have proven that our movement is powerful enough to deliver the change we need and it will require the same kind of action again. This time, we go for all out choice.