We’re publishing something different this week. This is the first post in Pro-life Political Perspectives, an ongoing series in which people of various political positions make the case for how opposition to abortion fits into their political worldview. The views of the writers in this series are not those of the Minimise Project as a group: over time we hope to feature people writing from wildly different and even opposed political outlooks.

Today Máirtín, writing under a pseudonym, starts off the series with a long read written for the anniversary of James Connolly’s execution, in which he challenges narratives which claim that Connolly’s socialism is fundamentally in continuity with the modern pro-choice left.

The period of the third to the twelfth of May marks the 104th anniversary of the executions of the Easter Rising leaders. So much has been written about the sixteen men who met violent post-Rising deaths that it would be easy to think that everything about them and 1916 had been put to paper, discussed and explored exhaustively. It would also be reasonable to wonder how the Rising leaders hold any relevance for the Minimise Project’s objective to change minds about abortion.

There is certainly a worthwhile and extensive case to be made that the values and ideology that underpinned the Rising would fall on the side of opposition to abortion. However, the narrower purpose of this article is to highlight the use of imagery of the unborn human by one of the Rising’s leaders, James Connolly. In all that has been written about this prominent and influential revolutionary, there has been little, if any, discussion or acknowledgement of the explicit references to the unborn in his writings. It is an interesting, albeit small, feature of his work that has been overlooked.

Reclaiming the Starry Plough: The Sorry State of the Irish ‘Left’ Today

It is interesting to note both the literal and metaphorical uses of ‘unborn’ in James Connolly’s writings. Connolly remains Ireland’s most important socialist thinker and visionary. For some time now, the Starry Plough (the flag of Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army) has been wrapped around the pro-choice agenda by various individuals and organisations that style themselves as being on the left. Belief in abortion ‘rights’ has come to be a sort of article of faith, an orthodoxy, for all those who profess to be on or of the left. That development has not been near-sufficiently challenged by those on the left who subscribe to the view that the unborn human has a right to life, that protection of that right for the unborn is as important as the protection of that right for the born, and that protecting the right to life of the unborn, rather than subjecting it to relentless assaults, is much more in tune with the core of genuine left politics.

On the question of the unborn’s right to life, the majority of those who think of themselves as proponents of left politics have bought into a choice theory and ideology that fits much more neatly under an ideologically capitalist framework that pits person against person, relishes competition and subscribes to a survival-of-the-fittest/might-is-right outlook. The wider backdrop to this is indulgence in a harmful, materialistic celebrity culture imported from the US and built on self-worship slogans along bizarre taglines such as ‘live your best life’ and ‘you do you’. Those that pass for the left in Ireland (or what the media accepts and frames as being the authentic representatives of left-wing politics e.g.Trotskyite parties, Sinn Féin, Social Democrats, and even the Greens and Labour etc.) have bought into the politics of the supremacy of the individual above the most basic protections for an especially vulnerable section of humanity. That development cannot but be related to the proliferation of hyper-individualism ushered in by unprecedented neoliberalism. The left has found itself powerless in many ways against neoliberalism to the point that the values of neoliberalism have contaminated the left, so much so that it is often far from clear where the neoliberalism ends and the left begins. In this context, a questioning of the broad left’s incorrect position on the significant matter of unborn humans’ right to life is long overdue. As is often the case, the left has proven itself incapable of asking questions of its new-found orthodoxies.

The absence of internal intellectual and practical opposition to the Irish left’s near-total embrace of American-heavy identity politics and a twisted, debased form of feminism, one that clearly is much more content with the continuation of market capitalism than the prospect of fundamental and structural economic changes, has been farcical and tragic. Absence of coherent and thought-out debate based on scientifically and ideologically consistent arguments, as exemplified at the post-referendum 2018 Sinn Féin Ard Fheis, leaves one wondering whether much critical or reflective thinking or questioning actually happens on the left at all. It seems that it does not.

Other recent developments in Ireland, like the emergence of organisations like the Trotskyite-front group ROSA and shameless political ‘activists’, young and old, falling over themselves to take credit for an era of utter dehumanisation of a defenceless section of humanity so that they can claim the phantom accolade of being the ‘leftiest’, have been absurd and depressing.

With all that said, there is no better place to start in terms of much-needed critical thinking on the matter of the unborn in an Irish left context than with James Connolly whose anniversary occurs on 12 May.

The Irish Citizen Army’s Starry Plough flag, flown from the roof of the Imperial Hotel (now Clery’s) during the Rising. (Image source: Wikipedia)

The Unborn and the Connolly/Walker Dispute

Following his return from the US in 1910, Connolly took on the role of Belfast organiser for the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union. The following year Connolly was engaged in a bitter disagreement with anti-Home Rule trade unionists led by William Walker. In the midst of a serious dispute about the direction of socialism, its relationship with the struggle for national independence and the goal of unity of purpose among socialists in Ireland, Connolly applied a graphic metaphor to describe Walker’s efforts to stop the emergence of an Irish Labour Party, a project that Connolly was then determined to pursue. 

Walker, a unionist and an advocate of Irish trade unionism occupying a position under a British umbrella, specifically Britain’s Independent Labour Party (ILP), opposed Connolly’s efforts to develop a Labour Party that operated with an Irish lens on the world.

In a piece in the Scottish journal Forward, Connolly wrote, ‘The unborn Labour Party of Ireland was strangled in the womb by the hands of ILPers’. (‘Socialist Symposium on Internationalism, and Some Other Things’, Forward, 1 July 1911)

Connolly’s portrayal of the embryonic Irish Labour Party as something fragile, innocent and worth protecting, and his violent description of the attempts by Walker to kill it in the ‘womb’, are interesting. Connolly applied this image to give a very human and raw sense of the difficulties faced by the Irish socialist movement in relation to the position of anti-Home Rule trade unionists. Seeking to win support for his side of the debate, Connolly compared his plans for an Irish labour party with something that he assumed the public would naturally and instinctively identify and empathise with, namely an unborn child. It is pertinent to take note of Connolly’s words here for our own time when swathes of people parading under the banner of ‘the left’ consider as a left priority the denial of humanity to the unborn child, the same child that Connolly in his day had automatically assumed people would identify with in the face of violent demise in the womb.

It hardly needs to be said that Connolly’s tactic wouldn’t wash with the left in 2020. If Connolly were around to use the same metaphor today, by acknowledging the humanity of the unborn, he would be judged to be in serious breach of the new orthodoxy, find himself expelled from the Irish left, and the burden of proving that he is not far-right would be his. With one metaphor, the most influential Irish socialist thinker would likely be immediately and irrevocably deemed persona non grata by a wide spread of the Irish left.

The Cause of Labour = Cause of Ireland Abortion ‘Rights’; the Cause of Ireland Abortion ‘Rights’ = the Cause of Labour

As an aside, it is ironic that the Labour Party which Connolly sought to create, and which did manage to come into existence despite Walker’s opposition, has degenerated to the point that by the 2010s it was vocally campaigning for the destruction of the unborn child in the womb. In the 2010s, as a government party, it was also using state power to direct an austerity onslaught, unprecedented in the history of the Irish state, against the working class to make them pay for the failures of capital. Connolly wrote, ‘governments in capitalist society are but committees of the rich to manage the affairs of the capitalist class’. (‘The War Upon the German Nation’, Irish Worker, 29 August 1914) His own party certainly did its bit to prove that dictum.

It is an interesting correlation – the abandonment of left economics for right-wing economics, alongside an upsurge in promoting identity politics and social liberalism. As Labour moved further from Connolly’s politics grounded in socialist economics, the party embraced social liberalism to compensate for its growing hollowness, uselessness and even hostility to the working class. The upsurge in social liberalism practiced by Labour has gone hand in hand with an upsurge in neoliberalism practiced by Labour, as evidenced by its actions as a government party, such as its decision to privatise state entities like Aer Lingus and Alex White’s approval, as Minister for Energy and Natural Resources, of gas production by Shell at the Corrib site in 2015. So much for ‘our demands most moderate are, we only want the earth’. (James Connolly, ‘We only want the Earth’, Songs of Freedom, 1907)

Individuals like Ivana Bacik and Aodhán Ó Ríordáin have been to the fore in the Labour Party for some time now and there has been no counter-weight to their pro-choice extremism. Rather, the party’s younger members have all joined at a time when the party has built its identity in large part on ‘repealing the 8th’. The more they can shout about ‘repealing’, their thinking is, the more they can win over voters who like to think that they’re standing against the establishment, when really they’re upholding it. They seem to have forgotten that they do not have exclusive ownership rights over ‘repeal’.

Competitors in organisations that range from Fine Gael to the Trotskyite troika of Solidarity, People Before Profit and RISE (all rival fan clubs for the same player in another country’s century-old civil war) had already devoured any electoral credit from the now mainly wasted repeal carcass before Labour could get its snout in. (In Ireland, mention is often made of ‘civil war politics’, referring to the 1922-23 war, the origin of divisions between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. The same term, however, could be applied to describe goings-on between Trotskyite factions in Ireland which have a three-way split not on the question of the Irish civil war, not even on the question of the Russian civil war, but on how the agenda of one Russian civil war figure can be best pursued.) Labour’s return of six seats (down from seven) in the 2020 General Election points to a negative return on the party’s investment in repeal. But the party has gone so far now that it will struggle to be able or even want to meaningfully pivot its identity and myopic focus away from abortion ‘rights’ despite its ongoing electoral difficulties.

For new and even many old Labour ‘activists’, the cause of Labour is the cause of abortion ‘rights’, the cause of abortion ‘rights’ are the cause of Labour. Gone are the short-lived Connolly days when the cause of Labour was the cause of Ireland and vice-versa. (‘The Irish Flag’, The Workers’ Republic, 8 April 1916.) With that in mind, one could reasonably think that it would have been better for both the unborn child and the working class today if William Walker had indeed been fully successful in seeing off that party’s emergence. In fairness to Connolly, despite all his foresight and grasp of society and vested interests, even he could have hardly predicted just what a distorted and unprincipled mess Labour would become after his time.

The statue of James Connolly facing Liberty Hall, Dublin, bearing the inscription ‘The Cause of Labour is the Cause of Ireland; the Cause of Ireland is the Cause of Labour’. (Photo source: NewCarloso, Flickr)

The Unborn and Gunboat Diplomacy

The quote in this example of Connolly referring to the unborn in a literal sense comes from an article titled ‘Can Warfare be Civilised?’ in his own newspaper, The Worker, six months into World War I. I have included a substantial section of Connolly’s text because doing so is necessary to understand the context in which he mentions the unborn. Also, this quote as a whole should act as a reminder that systematic, structural and violent injustices in all their guises ought to be opposed; that violence against the unborn human is wrong because it is unjust and that unjust violence against and systematic oppression of born humans is also wrong. Our concern for a person’s human rights and dignity must not stop when they are born. Connolly’s recognition of a certain hypocrisy in the actions and attitudes of states, as featured in this quote, should remind us of the ills of possible hypocrisy in our own actions, attitudes and outlooks.

For generations the public of these islands have been reading of Great Britain sending punitive expeditions against native tribes in Africa, the islands of the ocean, or parts of Asia. It may be that some benighted native has stolen a cask of rum from the compound of a missionary, and thrown a stone at the holy man of God when the latter demanded the return of the cask in question. Immediately a British man-of-war is ordered to that coast, opens fire upon and destroys the whole town, indiscriminately massacring the majority of its inhabitants, women and old men, and babes yet unborn, all to punish one or two persons for a slight upon a British subject. That thousands of British subjects are subjected to worse slights at home every day of their lives is a matter of not enough consequence to move a policeman, let alone a battleship. Yet up and down the world the British fleet has gone carrying out such orders, and bombarding such undefended places without ever moving the inkslingers of the jingo press to protest.

James Connolly, ‘Can Warfare be Civilised?’, The Worker, 30 January 1915.

Here Connolly is speaking about ‘gun-boat diplomacy’, a tactic that first emerged in the 18th century for use by the navies of dominant states often to assert control over colonised peoples that had the audacity to ignore or push back on the diktats of imperial powers. It is important here to note Connolly’s depiction of ‘babes yet unborn’ alongside women and old men suffering in equal measure mercilessly from a barrage of naval artillery fire. It is clear from Connolly’s point of view that the ‘babes yet unborn’ were individual humans in their own right who suffered the same violent ends in a way no less objectionable than the born humans around them. It is evident that Connolly recognised the unborn’s inherent humanity and the equality between their right to life and yours, mine and his.

For Connolly, unlike the Supreme Court, the Unborn Human’s Rights go beyond the Right to Life

In 1897 Connolly, then the main organiser of the new Irish Socialist Republican Party, published a pamphlet titled Erin’s Hope: The Ends and the Means. It embarks on a whirlwind tour of Irish history as Connolly saw it and sets out his aim of an Irish socialist republic. In a section of the text dealing with the relationship between land and labour, Connolly wrote:

since the soil is so necessary to our existence the first care of every well-regulated community ought to be to preserve the use of that soil, and the right to freely share in its fruits, to every member of the community, present or prospective, born or unborn.

James Connolly, Erin’s Hope: The End and the Means, 1897

Connolly was and remains widely recognised for his grounded and thought-out radicalism. It is no surprise that we should find him calling for ‘a well-regulated community’ or natural resources to be put to use for the benefit of the whole community, but what he said here is quite remarkable, he went well beyond what would be expected of a socialist in the 1890s. That is, he supported a right for the unborn, as a prospective member of the community, to share in the fruits of natural resources. That is undoubtedly a radical position for our own time, whatever about 1897.

Connolly explicitly and deliberately set out his view that the unborn human has a right that goes beyond the right to life. The use of the words ‘prospective’ and ‘unborn’ required consideration on his part. Connolly did not accidentally write the unborn into this left-wing demand for society collectively to have a right to use and benefit from natural resources. Connolly stated without qualification that in his view the unborn human has a right to share in the fruits of the soil. It would therefore follow that he believed that the same unborn human has a right to life. What good or use would a right to a share in the fruits of the soil be if one did not first have a right to life?

Two years after the centenary of the Easter Rising and less than three months before the referendum on the 8th Amendment, the state’s Supreme Court overturned a High Court decision that had found that the unborn had constitutional rights apart from his/her right to life. With the High Court initially determining that the unborn, as referred to in the Irish Constitution, ought to be considered an ‘unborn child’ and therefore automatically be afforded the constitutional rights that are afforded to all children, the state, which surely ought to vindicate and safeguard rights, appealed Mr Justice Humphreys’ decision to the Supreme Court. This was a callous and calculated move by the state, fully realising that without the High Court’s judgement being overturned, the introduction of a state-sponsored abortion system would be hindered, even if the the plan to revoke explicit constitutional recognition of the unborn’s right to life came to pass.

That the Supreme Court determined that ‘unborn’ did not mean ‘unborn child’ and that the unborn was entitled to no rights other than the right to life, itself soon to be whisked away by an electorate idolising itself as a champion of compassion, would surely have astounded Connolly had he been around to bear witness to all this. It is worth considering the difficulties that the state and pro-abortion advocates would have faced had the Supreme Court indeed found that the unborn human was entitled to rights beyond the right to life. A scenario would have arisen where post-8th Amendment referendum efforts to enact sweeping abortion legislation would have met significant legal obstacles grounded in the court’s recognition of constitutional rights for the unborn other than their right to life. Alas, for many humans who have already had their own lives cut short with the backing of the state since the enactment of abortion legislation, and for the many more who will suffer the same fate in the future, the clarity of the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision added to the straightforwardness of legislating for their demise.

Connolly, a practical realist with plenty of justified cynicism towards the modus operandi of the powerful, would have seen through the word games that are needed to deem an unborn child not an unborn child in the eyes of the law. Had a hypothetical, authentic Connollyite court been in session to hear this case, it is beyond doubt, based on Connolly’s assertion of the unborn human’s right to share in the fruits of the soil, that it would have found in favour of the unborn human having rights beyond their right to life.

James Connolly with his wife Lillie and eldest daughters Mona and Nora, 1894. Mona died tragically in a fire before the family’s departure to New York ten years later.

Connolly’s Rebellion to Advance the Hopes of the UnbornIn an article titled ‘In the Gap of Danger’, which appeared in Connolly’s Workers’ Republic newspaper in January 1916, the Irish Citizen Army leader made clear indications that significant and ground-breaking events would occur in the near future. He was flagging the prospect of a rebellion just three months before he led the Citizen Army into the Easter Rising to defend the Irish Republic. Part of that article included the lines:

We know that the storms we have survived are as naught to those gathering to break upon our head, but we know that we must press forward, that we have in our keeping the hopes of all the children yet unborn, and that those hopes must be safeguarded and shepherded to fulfilment.

‘In the Gap of Danger’, The Workers’ Republic, 22 January 1916

Connolly here is clearly showing an arguably extreme commitment to ‘children yet unborn’ to the extent that he is willing to pursue insurrection and take on all the risks that that entails for, what he sees as, the safeguarding and fulfilment of the futures of others. ‘Children yet unborn’ could easily mean two things: either (a) pre-born humans who were indeed alive at the time and who would soon be born into a world embroiled in war, into a colony facing a bloody struggle for independence and, in Dublin’s case, into a city with unparalleled infant mortality rates in the British Empire, where the highest likely prospects for anyone born into the working class would be a life of daily struggle on grinding subsistence in dilapidated, overcrowded tenements, just as their parents had endured, and being subject to the demands of a rigid top-down, back-breaking economic structure; (b) future generations in a general sense, including our own and those who will come after us; or perhaps both (a) and (b). As mentioned earlier, the fact that Connolly had previously referred to the unborn in a way that could only be understood as the living, yet to be born human certainly means that at the very least we cannot but give credence to the idea that he is writing here once again of the literal human in foetus form.

Ultimately, whichever category of humans Connolly was referring to, in a sense his point remains the same; that is, it is desirable that all of us should be minded to make sacrifices to advance and safeguard, not only the hopes, but also the material realities of people who are not yet born and of people with whom we already share this earth, most of whom, in both categories, we will never meet.

Masthead of The Workers’ Republic, one week before the Easter Rising.

The 21st-century Irish Left’s Connolly Problem

There are enough writings by Connolly that would make uncomfortable reading for the modern Irish left. Connolly was a clear opponent of prostitution, going so far as to suggest that the suffering endured by prostitutes was on a par with the fate that befell those who died in the sinking of the Lusitania. He decried prostitution as ‘the first cause of disease and death to generations yet unborn’. (The Workers’ Republic, 29 May 1915)

Today sections of the Irish left increasingly valourise prostitution and seek recognition of ‘sex work’. In his James Connolly Reader, People Before Profit councillor Shaun Harkin tries to by-pass the issue of Connolly’s apparent socially conservative stance on particular matters. Councillor Harkin claims that Connolly was ‘unwilling or unable to challenge conservative positions on social issues such as divorce and prostitution’ because he was ‘overly sensitive to and deferential to religious opinion’. (Shaun Harkin, The James Connolly Reader, 2018) There are two problems with this claim.

First, rather than being simply unwilling to challenge what Harkin deems conservative positions, Connolly explicitly opposed prostitution, as seen in his Lusitania comparison. Connolly also used prostitution as a evocative negative metaphor several times. He characterised the typical member of the establishment press as a ‘prostitute pressman’ or ‘prostitute journalist’ (‘The Irish Flag’, The Workers’ Republic, 8 April 1916; ‘James Keir Hardie’, The Workers’ Republic, 2 October 1915); he described Redmond’s appeal to Irishmen to join the British Army as a ‘call to emulate in prostitution’ (‘What is a Free Nation’, The Workers’ Republic, 12 February 1916); he lamented the Home Rule Party’s ‘prostitution of every holy Irish tradition’ in order to boost Irish recruitment into the British Army. ‘The Irish Flag’, The Workers’ Republic, 8 April 1916.) It is not the case that Connolly was quiet on prostitution because of a fictional deference on his part to the Catholic Church. Connolly, bluntly put, opposed prostitution, and was not shy about it.

During his time in America (1903-1910), Connolly endured massive isolation in the Socialist Labour Party for his principled efforts to keep the party away from questions that he believed simply do not concern socialism, i.e. that do not concern the issue of public ownership and control of the economy. On the question of marriage and sex, Connolly recounted in a letter to the SLP’s paper how he ‘met in Indianapolis an esteemed comrade who almost lost his temper with me because I expressed my belief in monogamic marriage, and because I said, as I still hold, that the tendency of civilisation is towards its perfection and completion, instead of towards its destruction’. (James Connolly’s letter to the People newspaper titled ‘Wages, Marriage and the Church’, 1904) This significantly contributed to a dispute in the SLP between Connolly and the woke equivalent of his day. In the end, Daniel De Leon, the SLP’s leader who had once held Connolly’s views, sided with the ‘free-thinkers’ and Connolly in his own words was looked upon as an ‘incipient traitor’. (Correspondence between James Connolly and William O’Brien, NLI MS 13,906)

In his 1910 pamphlet, Labour, Religion and Nationality, Connolly wrote that ‘Divorce is one of those non-essential, non-fundamental points upon which Socialists may and do disagree’. (Labour, Religion and Nationality, 1910, Chapter 3) However, he viewed it as an ‘evil’ and pointed out that the most capitalist societies and classes had the highest divorce rates. (ibid) He attributed divorce to the ‘capitalist system whose morals and philosophy are based upon the idea of individualism, and the cash nexus as the sole bond in society’. (ibid) The point here is not to confuse the issue of abortion with the issues of marriage and divorce, but to show that Connolly held a position on marriage that was increasingly unpopular among the American left and he substantially risked his standing and prospects by swimming against the tide.

Constance Markievicz, a friend and comrade of Connolly, cited her opposition to the ‘love of competition [and] immorality and divorce laws of the English nation’ as part of her reasoning for opposing the 1921 Treaty. (Dáil Éireann Treaty debate, 3 January 1922) Markievicz was second in command of the Citizen Army’s St Stephen’s Green Garrison in 1916, a position she would never have held without James Connolly’s confidence in her. In fact, in the Citizen Army’s early days, founder-member Seán O’Casey sought the expulsion of Markievicz from the organisation mainly because of his dislike of her overt nationalism – another bugbear of the modern left. To O’Casey’s disgust, Connolly and the Army Council insisted on Markievicz remaining as a member. (R. M. Fox, The History of the Irish Citizen Army (1941; 2018), 73) As a result, O’Casey resigned from the organisation and harboured resentment towards Connolly and the Citizen Army for the rest of his life. He did not look favourably, to say the least, on the Rising. Interestingly, having emigrated to England in the 1920s, O’Casey adopted a pro-choice outlook on the abortion question. In 1930 he arranged an abortion for his wife who had become pregnant through an affair. (The New York Times, 3 July 1988, 7)

The point here is that the real Connolly and Markievicz, if analysed comprehensively, would make uncomfortable reading for both the modern Irish left, which likes to portray itself as inheritors of the Connollyite tradition, and official Ireland which has built its brand on being neoliberalism’s progressive little paradise. As far as the modern Irish left is concerned, because it is pro-choice, Connolly must be made to fit the pro-choice mould, or at least not be pro-life. As the modern Irish left is pro-divorce and much of it is pro-legalisation of prostitution, Connolly’s explicit opposition to the latter must be hurriedly brushed aside as must his opposition to the left elements in his day that sought to turn labour organisations into appendages of the sexual liberation movement. Therefore, it must be borne in mind that when Shaun Harkin writes about Connolly, he likely does so with the conscious or subconscious objective of shoehorning Connolly into a role that People Before Profit has prescribed for him i.e. James Connolly as designed by PBP.

Second, it is absurd to claim that Connolly curtailed or adjusted his political positions for the sake of the Catholic Church or any other religious body. One of Connolly’s masterpieces, the previously mentioned Labour, Nationality and Religion, was written for the purposes of directly confronting the anti-socialist Lenten sermons of Fr. Kane, a Jesuit priest in the Church of St. Francis Xavier. In the pamphlet, Connolly persistently highlighted harmful and hypocritical stances and actions taken by the Catholic Church and members of the clergy from medieval to contemporary times. That Connolly’s six-chapter work was undertaken in an era when working class people publicly challenging prominent figures in the Catholic Church was essentially unheard of undermines any argument that he was ‘overly deferential’ to the Church. It is worth reading (and is available here).

The notion that Connolly’s ‘conservative’ positions on some questions were due to his being ‘overly sensitive to religious opinion’ can be easily refuted. When Connolly first defended marriage as being between one man and one woman, he did so with little to gain. He was in America only mere months. He had no stable or secure employment. His wife and five children were on their way to join him. At that point, with his whole family uprooted and moving across the Atlantic, and with the ISRP in stagnation, the prospect of a return to Ireland seemed unlikely. It makes no sense that he would have jeopardised his standing within the SLP months after his arrival in America to appease religious institutions. It is possible to conclude with almost absolute certainty that Connolly believed what he wrote and wrote what he believed, as difficult as that might be for some to comprehend.

James Connolly addressing a crowd on May Day 1908, Union Square, New York. (Photo source: Library of Congress)

Chains and Fetters: Grasping at Straws for the Pro-Choice Connolly

Giving a talk on Connolly in 2018, Councillor Harkin asserted that on the basis of a line by Connolly on women in a 1915 pamphlet titled ‘The Re-Conquest of Ireland’, Connolly would likely have endorsed the Yes side of the 2018 abortion referendum. (Talk given in Edinburgh, October 2018) ‘None so fitted to break the chains as they who wear them, none so well equipped to decide what is a fetter,’ is the line that Harkin put forward as grounds for arguing that Connolly would be pro-choice. (Chapter 6, ‘Woman’, The Re-Conquest of Ireland, 1915) Interpreting that line as such means ignoring entirely the argument that abortion is exploitative of women. The reality of abortion is that it is an industry. A socialist of Connolly’s calibre would not have a hard time spotting that and understanding instantly from a socialist perspective that industry under capitalism always involves exploitation, often multiple layers of exploitation.

Using the chain and fetters line to deduce that Connolly would have supported abortion also ignores another point – there is no mutual exclusivity between advocating equality between the sexes and defending the unborn human’s right to life. One need not come at the expense of the other. Connolly, who clearly showed that he understood the unborn to be human and capable of being subject to unjustifiable suffering and a denial of rights, in all likelihood never thought that the life of a human would be categorised as a ‘fetter’ on another.

Writing in an age where women’s prospects were so substantially limited, where they could not vote, where they worried continuously about having enough income to feed their children and keep the rent paid, where the right to organise in the workplace was under sustained attack, where many women earned subsistence level wages or less, and where many women lived in fear of the alcoholism that consumed their husbands, it is unlikely that Connolly ever envisaged that the life of a vulnerable human could be considered a ‘fetter’ on a par with the aforementioned or indeed in standalone terms.

If Connolly was moved enough to voice opposition to imperial powers killing ‘babes yet unborn’ in retaliation for the insubordinate behaviour of colonies, surely he considered the unborn to have an inherent value? Surely he would have thought that they were not worthy of death or that they could not be categorised as just another ‘fetter’ along with an array of clear-cut economic and social ills? When Connolly wrote about ‘fetters’ he hardly sought to open up a free-for-all so that the life of another could be judged an impediment to one’s own advancement and therefore be legitimately eliminated – such an interpretation would, as pointed out at the beginning of this piece, fit much better under a capitalist, competition-driven, might-is-right lens on the world, not Connolly’s lens.

Therefore, if we know that Connolly was opposed to prostitution, looked on divorce as ‘evil’, supported monogamous marriage, was willing to be expelled from socialist organisations for taking these positions (and not because he was in any way deferential to Church figures), explicitly talked about the unborn and bestowed upon them rights to a share in natural resources, on balance, it is reasonable to think that Connolly would, on his own convictions, be on the unpopular, but principled pro-life side of the abortion question. Given that he didn’t share the modern left’s stance on prosititution or divorce (especially on the matter of support for divorce being made a pre-requisite for one to be considered a socialist), it is reasonable to think that he would not, at the very least, have shared the modern left’s rigid take-no-prisoners line on abortion.

The Irish Citizen Army outside Liberty Hall in 1916

Conclusion: Connolly’s Republic as a Beacon-Light for the Oppressed

All shades of the Irish left claim Connolly to have at least influenced their worldview and politics. Most elements of the left, including parties and trade unions, go further than that and promote their own organisations as a continuation of Connolly’s political mission, hailing Connolly as a hero, commemorating him annually at his grave in Arbour Hill and singling him out of all the 1916 leaders for particular homage. 

This article has highlighted five examples of Connolly referencing the unborn in his writings. We can see from what Connolly wrote that he saw ‘children yet unborn’ as human beings deserving of basic justice and protection. Indeed, it is clear that Connolly advocated for much more than what is typically considered the bare minimum of rights for the unborn, the right to life, the vindication of which, as we well know, is an uphill battle in itself.

Nearly all the self-proclaimed left organisations that claim to stand in the tradition of James Connolly have, to varying degrees, sought and celebrated the stripping of constitutional recognition for the right to life of the unborn in the twenty-six counties. They have loudly welcomed the introduction of an abortion regime that will, and has already begun to, systematically end the lives of thousands of unborn humans. Sinn Féin, which played a leading role in creating a new James Connolly visitor centre in Belfast (incidentally Sinn Féin councillor Séanna Walsh is the centre’s manager), actively sought for the British government to introduce abortion-on-demand in the six counties. In doing so, not only did that party betray a long-held position of opposition to the British Parliament’s claim to a right to make laws for a part of Ireland, it did so to legitimise, in British law, the ending of the lives of unborn, unwanted human beings in Ireland. It was those ‘children yet unborn’ whose hopes James Connolly set out to ‘safeguard and shepherd to fulfilment’ on an Easter Monday in Dublin in the face of the overwhelming imperial military might.

There is no contradiction between the politics of James Connolly and a belief in the right to life of unborn humans. This writer contends that they fit together as overlapping threads for a more just and desirable society. Instead, a contradiction lies sharply where one claims to espouse Connolly’s politics, but advocates against a recognition of the unborn as human and advocates against the unborn’s most basic right, the right to life. 

In 1897, the same year that he put forth his view that the unborn has a right to share in the fruits of natural resources, Connolly set out his vision for an Irish Republic. He envisaged the Republic to which he would devote his life as a ‘beacon-light to the oppressed’. If the Republic that Connolly sought is to someday be achieved, that most vulnerable group of humans that we know as the unborn must be welcomed into the warm embrace and shelter of the Republic’s beacon-light as ‘children of nation’ as much as you and I. A state that falls short of that mark is not the Republic that Connolly and his comrades proclaimed and fought for. A state that leaves the lives of human beings at the mercy of individuals’ choices, rather than ensuring basic protections for all, does not represent human progress, but rather human regression in the starkest terms.




Irish Worker
Shan Van Vocht
The Harp
The New York Times
The People
The Worker
The Workers’ Republic

James Connolly’s pamphlets:

Erin’s Hope: The End and the Means (1897)
Labour, Religion and Nationality (1910)
Songs of Freedom (1907)
The Re-conquest of Ireland (1915)

Dáil Éireann debates

National Library of Ireland William O’Brien Papers


Collins, Lorcan, 16 Lives: James Connolly (2012)
Greaves, C Desmond, The Life and Times of James Connolly (originally published: 1961; latest edition: 2018)
Nevin, Donal, James Connolly: A Full Life (2005)

Other Secondary Sources:

Fox, R. M., The History of the Irish Citizen Army (originally published: 1943; second edition reprinted: 2014)
Harkin, Shaun, The James Connolly Reader (2018)


Marxist Internet Archive, www.marxists.org