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Dublin: 4 °C Tuesday 12 November, 2019
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Opinion: A law that protects no one – the Eighth Amendment sees women as incubators

This case has sent a clear message to women in Ireland: if you are suicidal and need an abortion, it is highly unlikely that you will get one.

Stephanie Lord

THIS IS NOT the first tragic abortion case in Ireland and it certainly will not be the last while the Eighth Amendment remains in the Constitution. For many, it feels like groundhog day as people are asking once again “how could this be allowed to happen?” and pro-choice advocates will take to the streets to repeat “never again”  for the millionth time after another pregnant woman has been failed by the Irish maternity system. One could have been forgiven for thinking that a young, pregnant, suicidal rape victim who sought an abortion would be facilitated under the new Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act but the law here is framed in such a way as to remove any semblance of control over a pregnancy from the pregnant woman and put it straight in the hands of obstetricians and courts. This law, coupled with a mentality that sees women as nothing more than vessels, and bodily autonomy as gift to be bestowed upon the lucky from consultant obstetricians, ensured the teenager in question was refused the medical treatment she wanted.

The three-doctor panel decided that it would be better for her to be forced to wait to deliver her rapist’s baby at around 24 weeks by a major surgical procedure rather than giving her three tablets to induce a miscarriage at eight weeks when she first requested a termination. The UN Human Rights Committee has recently, not unreasonably, stated that the panel decision-making system for vulnerable women in these situations is a form of “mental torture“.

Pro-choice groups criticised the legislation during its passage through the Oireachtas because of the scope for delays and the risks this could pose to a woman. We do not know why the HSE felt it would be better to seek an hydration order from the Court when she went on hunger and liquid strike having been refused an abortion, rather than provide her with the care she sought and needed. Hunger strikes have a long and powerful history in Ireland. It is the very last, desperate resort, when a person has concluded that a slow death would be their best option in the circumstances that have presented themselves.

Three doctors said she was suicidal, but it appears that the obstetrician member of the panel decided that she should wait to deliver her rapist’s baby rather than provide her with a termination, and two court hearings supported this. She then consented to the performance of a caesarean section, quite possibly under the threat of a court order. Under the circumstances it could only be barely defined as “consent.” The Constitution of course, obliges medical practitioners to protect the life of the foetus “in so far as is practicable,” and now the women of Ireland are quite rightly asking, and have a right to know, the exact lengths the State believes such “practicability” covers.

Bishop of Elphin Kevin Doran condemned the actions last night, saying that a caesarean section in that manner was “unethical” and said on Newstalk “You are creating greater risks for the child by terminating pregnancy at an early stage”. His statements have clearly implied that the woman in question should have been compelled to continue her pregnancy to full term. Bishop Doran stopped short of stating what measures he felt should be taken in order to ensure this happened, but the implications of that mindset is horrifying particularly given the support he has from the Irish political establishment, even if it is completely out of step with the Irish public.

If this woman can be deemed suicidal by three separate doctors and still refused an abortion, then what use is a constitutional right to a termination where there is a risk to your life that includes suicide? The decision in this case has sent a clear message to those who may find themselves in that position; if you are suicidal and need an abortion, it is highly unlikely that you will get one. Your life will be protected in the strictest sense in that you will be kept alive, but you may be forced to carry to term a pregnancy you do not want. It is a savage excuse for healthcare.

It is less than two years since the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar who was refused an abortion she was constitutionally entitled to given the physical risk to her life. The woman at the centre of this week’s case was refused an abortion despite there being a risk to her life by way of suicide which doctors acknowledged was real. The Eighth Amendment has rendered women as incubators, and gutless politicians are happy to keep them that way. It is dangerous and unworkable law that must be repealed as a matter of urgency.

Stephanie Lord is a spokesperson for Choice Ireland and tweets at @stephie08.

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Stephanie Lord

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