14 December 2020
“Get your rosaries off our ovaries,” chanted the women marching in support of the referendum that made abortion legal in Ireland in 2018. Two years later the 2020 election broke the century-long stranglehold on power of the two centre-right parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. They got fewer than half the votes even together.
Did the 2018 mass mobilisation against the anti-abortion law radicalise Irish politics and trigger that shift? Probably.
Another country where the Catholic Church has traditionally dominated politics, Poland, is now seeing a mass mobilisation too. Abortion on demand was legal in Poland under Communist rule, but since democracy came in 1989 the Catholic Church has been steadily pushing back abortion rights.
Soon after the Catholic-backed Law and Justice Party (PiS) won the 2015 election it tried to push a law through parliament banning abortions in cases of fetal abnormality, but the politicians retreated in the face of mass protests, particularly by women.
So the government tried a different approach. (Americans will recognise this strategy.) The PiS packed the constitutional court with party loyalists, and last October the court effectively banned almost all abortions. But the country exploded in protest.
Suddenly a lot of Poles are openly angry at the Catholic Church, although it is as closely linked with Poland’s identity and nationhood as it was with Ireland’s.
The late pope (and Saint) John Paul II is revered as the only Polish pope and a great national hero, but a statue of him near Warsaw recently had its hands daubed with red paint. Only 35% of Poles now have a positive view of the Catholic Church, and among the young it’s down to 9%. Will this end up reshaping Polish politics? Probably yes.
And in Argentina the lower house of Congress has just passed a government-backed bill to legalise abortion, currently considered a crime in almost all circumstances. Even women who had spontaneous miscarriages have been accused of abortion and jailed for homicide.
But tens of thousands of women came out in Buenos Aires last Friday to greet the passage of the legalisation of abortion: a local news website called it a ‘tsunami of joy’. They will be out again in strength later this month to ensure that the Senate passes the new law (which it probably will) – and that will unleash a wave of demands for similar reforms all over Latin America.
Most countries in Central and South America only allow abortion in cases of rape or risk to the mother’s life, thanks to the traditional power of the Catholic Church. Until now, only Cuba and Uruguay have allowed abortion on demand. But for the majority of Latin countries where most people are no longer rural peasants, the writing is now on the wall.
Which brings us, naturally, to the United States, where very few people think of themselves as peasants. The landscape is quite similar, with evangelical Christians even more militantly opposed to abortion than Catholics. Yet the abortion rate among Catholic women matches the national average, and even among evangelical women it is about half that.
Abortions in the United States are now at the lowest rate since the key Supreme Court decision that legalised abortion, Roe v. Wade, back in 1973, but that’s mainly due to better contraception. Nevertheless, almost a quarter of American women (23.7%) will get an abortion at some point in their lives, most when they are in their 20s.
A great many of these women have abortions because of their life circumstances: three-fifths of them already have at least one child, and half of them are living below the poverty line. All that would happen if abortion were made illegal is that the backstreet abortionists would reappear, and lots of women would die or end up maimed in some way.
Donald Trump is gone (sort of), but he has packed the US Supreme Court 6-3 with conservatives who are thought to be ‘pro-life’. If they decide to re-ban abortion, they will certainly unleash mass protests on a scale that the US has not seen before, just like in Ireland and Poland.
The ‘pro-life’ movement is noisy, but 80% of Americans support abortion rights. A ban in the US might even trigger a women’s general strike. The right is already radicalised in the United States, but the rest of the country is ripe for it too.
Abortion is currently an issue mainly in countries of Christian heritage, and in almost every one of them there’s a majority in favour of it among the younger population. What message does this have for right-wing governments that cling to power by waging ‘culture wars’ to cobble together narrow majorities?
Stay away from the abortion issue. It will explode in your faces.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 13. (“Suddenly…Ireland’s”; and “A great…way”)