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Opinion: 'At the heart of Irish law is an inescapable fact... we are second class citizens'

Enshrined into law and sanctioned in social service provision is this attitude: women in Ireland are vessels to be filled and emptied at men’s discretion.

Image: LoloStock via Shutterstock

IT WAS ABUNDANTLY clear from Ireland’s responses during its periodic review before the UN regarding its obligations under the Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, that the nation faces many challenges in addressing its ‘legacy’ human rights abuses as well as its ongoing ones.

Having lived in Ireland for over a decade now, I feel I have learned a great deal about this nation, but I am also often reminded that there are things I will never quite understand. At times I don’t feel I can comment on the Irish experience, but when I found myself forced while resident here into seeking an ‘Irish solution to an Irish problem’, I felt I became uniquely positioned to speak out on how my own experiences tie in with the overall state of women’s rights in Ireland today.

In December 2011, we lost our much-wanted baby girl, Aoife, to a fatal foetal abnormality. Choosing to end the pregnancy early, we were denied medical services here. My journey since that loss has been both heartbreaking and healing, and attending the UN’s human rights review marks another point on that journey for me.

Ireland can’t pat itself on the back just yet

When arguments are put forth for the need for changes in relation to women’s rights, I have often heard it said that we must remember just how much Ireland has changed in this respect. As if to say, give us a break, we can only change so much so fast. But let’s face it. Ireland had so far to go in comparison with other democratic nations, that there is simply no time to stop and to pat itself on the back for allowing things like divorce (with serious restrictions) access to contraception, and – yes – legislating in limited circumstances to allow for abortion when a women’s life is a risk, albeit 20 years after the supreme court case paving the way to do so.

This month, I had the honour of attending Ireland’s review in Geneva, the findings of which were published last week. I was struck how much the current issues flow directly from the dark rivers of the ‘legacy’ ones. As regards women, at the heart of the Irish attitude is the inescapable fact that it has been enshrined into its laws, and sanctioned in its social service provision and practise that we are second class citizens; vessels to be filled and emptied at men’s discretion. The Magdalene Laundries, mother-and-baby homes, the barbaric practice of symphysiotomy, marital rape laws, unequal pay, high cost of child care, the lack of clear and accessible reproductive rights supports, the list could go on on. What becomes starkly clear is that Ireland urgently needs to face the fact that it continues to be decades behind in its laws and its attitudes towards women.

Lame excuses and shocking justifications

Yet at the review, there was the Irish Government offering up only lame excuses and justifications for ongoing practices, no accountability for ‘legacy’ ones, most shockingly, to me, regarding the women who suffered symphysiotomy. On the issue of access to abortion, the Government attempted to argue that Irish laws represented the ‘will of the people’ and as such its human rights obligations could not override this, citing article 25 of the Covenant itself.

To say the Committee were not impressed would be an understatement; I would say they were offended and possibly even shocked by this bizarre argument being put forward. Committee member Mr Shany requested the Irish Government should withdraw this argument, as it clearly could not be used to justify a government continuing to carry out human rights abuses. Later, when it was pointed out by the committee that the economic cost or immigration status of some women could pose a discriminating barrier to them accessing abortion services abroad, the Government’s response was that they had ‘no solution’ to this and appeared to be saying that as they had not been sued about this yet, they did not see it to be a problem.

Finally being taken seriously

For myself as an individual, and also as a member of TFMR Ireland, it was a very healing experience to be out of the climate of Irish politics; a land too often populated with excuses, avoidance of ‘sensitive issues,’ of feet dragging, offering only tea and sympathy and ultimately meaningless support behind closed doors. It was like a dream come true to visit this land where human rights were taken seriously and where countries were expected to make the changes required, to be serious about their commitment to human rights and the treaties governing them.

To hear the bewilderment in the committee members voices at the arguments offered up by the Irish delegation, I felt at last I was in a safe place where I did not have to justify my reasons for choosing to end early the pregnancy of my much-wanted baby girl when she was diagnosed with a fatal condition. I did not have to spell out the reasons why my husband and I should not have been told we would have to travel to another ‘jurisdiction’ should we make this decision.

The Irish Government needs to stop making excuses while women in this horrendous situation continue to contact us, week after week, unsure of where to go or who to turn to; in shock at the extent to which they are abandoned and stigmatised in the wake of the Irish Government’s ongoing excuse making. Enough is enough. If it takes a referendum, so be it. You are the legislators, you are the law makers, you have signed up to deal with these, the ‘sensitive’ issues, it your job.

I am tired of this sadness and anger that comes with answering phone calls and emails of distressed expectant parents in the same situation we faced two-and-half years ago and having so little to offer them other than emotional support. Change is beyond due, and I would say to this Government it is time to finally recognise that when it comes to human – and specifically women’s – rights obligations, you are out of excuses. It is time to act.

Amanda Mellet is a founding member of TFMR Ireland, a group formed in April 2012 to campaign for provision for the option of termination for medical reasons to be available in cases of a fatal foetal diagnosis.

Read: UN: Ireland must take action to decriminalise abortion

Opinion: A fatal foetal diagnosis is nobody’s fault – the deliberate lack of support by the State is.

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About the author:

Amanda Mellet

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