In an ideal world, every conception would result in a healthy baby, born to parents who want them and are able to love them and provide them with all the emotional and financial support they need. That would be delightful. Sadly we don’t live in an ideal world. We live in a world of rape and incest and fatal foetal abnormalities, of broken condoms and missed pills and human error. And so we need abortion.
Bringing up a child isn’t easy and if a pregnant woman knows that having a child is not the right thing for her or her potential offspring, then she should be able to choose to end the pregnancy. We live at a time when safe, medical abortion is possible and it is shameful that the Irish government deny women that choice. I’m not the only one who thinks so. Amnesty International believes that reproductive rights are human rights. The United Nations’ Human Rights Treaty classifies a lack of access to abortion as torture. This is the country we’re living in – a supposedly civilised Western country that still tortures women. On Saturday we’ll be marching to end torture.
The first March for Choice was on a bright, cold day in 2012. I was back in Dublin after a year studying in Galway and settling back into the city again. I was excited. We’d got there early and were close enough to see and hear the speakers. The long train of people headed off in the sunshine, chanting and chatting. It felt good humoured, almost joyful. It felt like anything was possible, look at us – there’s so many of us, they can’t ignore us all, this is going to change things! It was a good day.
A few months later, in the kitchen making breakfast, I heard Savita Halappanavar’s story on the radio for the first time. I felt fuelled by rage as I power-walked into work that morning. How could such a thing be allowed to happen? There was a candle lit vigil held near the Dail that night and another March at the weekend. It felt like we were on the streets a lot that winter, standing in the cold with candles, chanting Never Again. I remember the cold damp coming up through my feet as we stood on Merrion Square and shouted at the Dail. It didn’t feel joyful. It felt angry and sad.
We kept shouting and kept shouting with a clear request – legislate for the 20-year-old X case. In this case a suicidal rape victim was granted an abortion because her life was at risk, but that precedent had not been put into law. The following August there were more protests outside the Dail as that piece of legislation was being debated. There was “Go Back to Craggy Island” chants and holy water thrown and the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill came into being.
Within the year we saw how inadequate and unfit for purpose this bill. Ms Y arrived in Ireland seeking asylum and discovered she was pregnant as a result of rape. The new Bill was supposed to protect women like her. It’s purpose was to allow a woman to obtain an abortion when her life is in danger, in the case of illness or as a risk of suicide. Like Savita before her, Ms Y asked for an abortion and was denied. At 26-weeks pregnant, she went on hunger strike and the State ended her pregnancy with a C-section.
A doctor who performs an illegal abortion is liable for 14 years in prison. That’s not an old leftover law from decades ago – it was introduced in 2013, tacked on to the end of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill. It replaced sections 58 and 59 of the 1861 Act which criminalised attempted or actual procurement of miscarriage, and assisting such procurement. Just before Christmas 2014, doctors were afraid to take a woman off life support because she was pregnant. It required a high court ruling to make the decision. Doctors are afraid of making a decision that puts them on the wrong side of the law, even when that decision is in the best interest of their patient.
The 8th Amendment states “The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.”
There are a lot of insulting things about women written into the Irish Constitution. There’s the whole, awful “women in the home” section of Article 41, but the 8th Amendment is the only part of it that is directly responsible for women dying. Putting the right to life of the unborn on equal (almost greater) footing as the woman carrying that potential life has caused women to die. That’s why we need to get rid of the 8th Amendment.
Politicians are now being called on to answer questions about abortion and repealing the 8th Amendment. They often dodge the question by saying they won’t get rid of it without a replacement. Here’s my suggestion for a replacement:
“The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn as long as the mother feels able to care for that life because really it’s her decision and the State trusts women to be able to make this decision for themselves.”
I think that would bring us a little bit closer to an ideal world.
You can sign the petition to Repeal the 8th here and sign up for the Abortion Rights Campaign. The 4th Annual March for Choice starts from the Garden of Remembrance at 1.30pm on Saturday 26th September.