OVER TWENTY YEARS on from the X Case Ruling, the Oireachtas is currently holding a hearing on the introduction of life-saving abortion in Ireland. While this is a welcome step in the right direction, it is woefully overdue. It has long been time for the debate to move beyond this issue. We need to face up to the reality of abortion in this country, and we need to do so now.
First of all, let’s get one thing straight; Ireland’s laws against abortion do not prevent Irish abortion. Every year, over 5,000 women travel from this island to obtain the procedure in other countries, and many more order abortion pills online. This is a typical abortion rate, close to that of Britain. Let me say it again – we have a typical abortion rate. In reality, all that our abortion laws serve to do is make it very difficult for certain types of women to access the procedure.
Consider the difficulty for a working-class woman to gather at short notice the €500 – €2,500 that the travel and procedure costs. Or pause to imagine the situation for an asylum-seeking woman who faces an unwanted pregnancy in Ireland. She cannot leave the country, to do so would place her in huge danger. Yet raising another child in the system of direct provision is an incredibly difficult task. Think of the woman whose abusive spouse won’t let her out of his sight for a few hours, let alone overnight. For women who can afford it, the trip to England is an unfair inconvenience. For those who can’t, our laws have severe and irreparable consequences. These are the true results of the 8th Amendment to our Constitution, not a haven for foetal rights.
There are indeed things that have been proven to lower abortion rates; widely available and affordable contraception, early, factual and age-appropriate sex education, and providing real support for parents. The pro-choice movement strongly advocates all of these measures, while most anti-abortion groups ironically oppose at least two of them. It must be noted that all of those in Government who so adamantly defend the right to life of the unborn, were happy to vote through a €10 or more cut to child benefit and a host of other measures to cripple already struggling families. This hypocrisy reveals the true motivation behind most anti-abortion advocacy; a fearful opposition to the idea of women being in control of our own bodies, and our own sexuality.
Women are not incubators. Our status as human beings is not suddenly diminished when we become pregnant. So why should our rights to health, to bodily integrity, and to self-determination be suspended? Let’s be clear: childbirth is dangerous, far more so than abortion. A recent study published in Obstetrics and Gynaecology found that “the risk of death associated with childbirth is approximately 14 times higher than that with abortion”. So why should we compel a woman to suffer this risk to her life and health if she does not wish to? The truth is this situation is accepted because women are still treated as second-class citizens. The anti-abortion side largely represents those who seek to enforce the role of women as mothers, as bearers of children and little else. If we want to break this mould, the fight for reproductive rights is one of our key battlegrounds.
Many will argue that I am avoiding the issue that “abortion is murder”. When doing pro-choice stalls on the street, I often get asked how I would have felt if I had been aborted. I find this to be such a silly question; of course, I would have had no conscious knowledge of it whatsoever. I would never have “felt” anything. This is like asking me how I would feel if my parents hadn’t decided to have sex on that day at that exact time. Or if my father had never moved to America and so had never met my mother. Or any of the other infinite possibilities spanning centuries which could have resulted in me not being here to type this. The fact is, becoming a person is far less likely than winning the lottery. And it’s not up to women to make the odds a fraction better.
An Taoiseach Enda Kenny recently stated that, in legislating for the X Case, “it will be the duty of Government [...] to put in a clarification and restrictions that this does not in any way become abortion on demand or that abortion is seen as a form of contraception”. His comments are not only insulting, they are telling of his ignorance of the issue and his attitude towards women.
Let us examine that phrase: “abortion on demand”. What other medical procedure do we articulate in such a way? Do we refer to appendectomies on demand, root canals on demand? No. “Abortion on demand” is a phrase loaded with ulterior meaning – it tries to portray women who have abortions as frivolous young girls who treat the procedure like a trip to the dentist. The reality is that women have abortions for a host of different reasons, many of them quite difficult, and all of them valid. Very few women give no thought to the idea of having an abortion. A crisis pregnancy forces you to consider whether you want to have a child. Unless you’ve already worked that out in your head, it’s going to take some careful deliberation. In countries where abortion is legal, women don’t “demand” them; they request them. They make an appointment and discuss it with their doctor, like you would any medical procedure.
In the debates in the Oireachtas, the slogan “opening the floodgates to abortion on demand” is getting thrown around as a terrifying trump card. As if allowing this to happen would result in women getting pregnant just so that they can have an abortion. Mr. Kenny seems to think women will start foregoing contraception in favour of recurrent abortions. Dear Taoiseach: did you know that contraception can fail, that one in three women will be the victim of sexual assault in her lifetime, and that most women are only human and therefore sometimes make mistakes? The fact is, the vast bulk of women who have abortions are in their 20s and 30s, most of them already have at least one child, and they come from every conceivable background. In other words, they are your sisters, your daughters, your mothers, your friends. They are us, and we refuse to accept this stigma any longer.
We should not be afraid to guarantee access to free, safe and legal abortion for all women. We should be afraid of the consequences our current laws have on women. We should be terrified that the next Savita will happen while we sit around and debate whether a woman should be legally compelled to risk her life for a foetus. We need to start seeing abortion for what it is; a medical procedure, the merits of which should be discussed only between a woman and her doctor. And we need to stop letting men in the Church and the Dáil get away with acting like they know what’s best for women.
Simply put, women should have the ability to control their own bodies and they should be trusted to make the choices that are right for them. We need to approach this subject in a rational and empathetic manner, free from Catholic moralism or demeaning and disrespectful attitudes towards women. Savita Halappanavar’s death is the stark, gut-wrenching proof that this issue is urgent, and that our “Irish Solution” is shameful. Women in Ireland simply cannot afford to wait another 21 years for further action to be taken.
Sarah McCarthy is the spokesperson for Galway Pro-Choice.