I would like to preface this piece by stating that I am a proud Irish citizen. Yet while there is much I love about my country, there remain certain aspects I find intolerable. The State policy on abortion is one such aspect.
Almost two years ago, Ireland’s abortion laws were the source of widespread criticism (from Belle Jar amongst others) following the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar when she was denied a termination. The case prompted the formation of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013 which allegedly permits abortion in cases where a woman’s life was at risk – including the risk of suicide. The latest disturbing case of a suicidal rape victim forced to undergo a caesarean birth shows this legislation up for what it really is; a meaningless gesture, which continues to demean and control women in Ireland.
The facts of the case in question make for distressing reading; a young migrant woman – raped in her home country by one of the men involved in murdering her loved ones – came to Ireland in search of a better life. The revelation that she had become pregnant by her rapist is too excruciating for those of us who have not experienced it to fully understand. For reasons that are – to most – quite understandable, the woman asserted that she could not go through with the pregnancy, but was informed that travelling to the UK (her only option at this point) would prove near impossible given her lack of funding and status as a migrant. As a result, she became increasingly distressed – even attempting to take her own life – and was deemed at risk of suicide by a mental health professional.
At this point, the woman should have had access to an abortion under the 2013 Act; yet by the time she was assessed, the pregnancy was deemed to be at too advanced a stage and she was forced against her wishes to give birth via caesarean section. Her interview with a leading Irish newspaper provides a particularly harrowing account of the ordeal.
Clearly, the implementation of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act appears considerably flawed; denying this individual the help she so badly needed. Yet its technical failings pale to insignificance when viewed through the lens of Ireland’s overall stance on abortion. The case in question – albeit extreme – highlights a culture of victim-blaming and slut-shaming that typifies Irish policy on reproductive issues. Forcing someone to continue with a pregnancy that was the result of rape is – however unintended – sending out the message that the victim is somehow at fault. It is punishing individuals who have had the misfortune to be targeted. This is not an isolated view; the UN took a similar position in their assertion that the Irish State treats rape victims as “a vessel and nothing more”. The current situation is the latest in a long line of State-sanctioned injustices against women. It was not so long ago that women who fell pregnant outside of marriage were sent to church-run laundries as a warped form of atonement for their supposed sins.
As with most issues, the problems arising from the restrictive legislation disproportionately affect those from minority ethnic and lower socio-economic backgrounds. Like the young woman at the heart of the present scandal, these individuals do not have the means to simply hop on a plane to England; nor should they (or any other woman for that matter) have to; for any reason.
The only way of preventing future catastrophes – like Savita and the case outlined above – is to initiate a real change and make safe and legal abortion available to all. Alterations to the existing legislation, which are at best minute and at worst practically non-existent, aren’t going to cut it anymore. Nor is the tired excuse that the people have already had their say; the last referendum on the subject was over 20 years ago. Times change, people grow up. Divorce was illegal back then too. So (shocking as it may seem) was homosexuality. There are a growing number of people calling for decisions around abortion to be placed in the hands of those who know best; the women whose bodies and lives are affected. Let’s hope that the Irish Government step up to the plate and give us that choice.