International Women’s Day 2015: The Continued Struggle for Reproductive Rights in Ireland
GLOBAL HEALTH WRITES
Citizen Journalist: Joanna Orr
Women, present and past, march in solidarity to celebrate (Inter) National Women’s Day.
International Women’s Day is celebrated on the 8th March each year, and provides a good opportunity to assess the state of women’s rights worldwide and at home. It is also a good place to explore the issues surrounding women’s access to health and reproductive and sexual rights as a health matter.
In Ireland, the 8th Amendment continues to be the largest obstacle for women’s access to equal and complete health care. The 8th Amendment equates the life of an embryo, or foetus, to that of the woman carrying it; essentially making it a constitutional ban on abortion. In practice, this means abortion is illegal under all circumstances, except when a woman’s life is in immediate and unquestionable danger. Even so, this exception continues to be contended and a complex issue in terms of access, as demonstrated by the case of Ms Y. A migrant rape victim, she qualified for a termination under the ‘Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act’, as she was at risk of suicide. The act includes the risk of suicide as a threat to the woman’s life, but, due to ambiguous guidelines, Ms Y was forcefully kept pregnant until her 25th week and then given a Caesarean section.
Considering the fact that a bill, which would allow women carrying an unviable foetus to have a legal termination, was defeated by an overwhelming majority (104 votes to 20) in February this year, it is important to question what exactly is stopping this vital progress of women’s right to health. Many of those voting against the bill alleged that the unconstitutionality of the bill held them back, rather than their personal feelings regarding the 8th amendment. Yet, not two months earlier in December, these same politicians refused to consider holding a referendum on this question.
Irish law makers know that abortion is a reality, and that an ‘abortion-free Ireland’ is a myth. Every year approximately 4,500 women travel to the UK to access safe abortions; which amounts to around twelve women a day. This number does not include the women who do not give Irish addresses, or those who travel to other EU countries such as the Netherlands. It also does not account for the women having illegal, unsafe and unregulated abortions outside of health facilities. These examples highlight the problems of access to reproductive health services. With abortion being outsourced to other countries, not only is it cruel to expect women to travel to exercise of their health rights and practice their reproductive choices, it is also impossible for many women. Women who are vulnerable by means of income, immigration status, age, or risk of intimate partner violence, may find themselves in desperate situations. In terms of abortion access, this is further complicated due to the procedure’s time-sensitive nature. Many Irish women who eventually manage to save enough for the trip abroad (€600 to €2,000 by some estimates) are then at greater risk of having a medically difficult second trimester or late term abortion. Given these circumstances, poor and immigrant women are disproportionally affected by this ban, and thus face discrimination in access to proper healthcare. The case of Ms Y is one such example.
While the impact of the 8th amendment on women’s access to abortion is undeniable, it also has an often unexamined knock-on effect on other areas of women’s reproductive rights. Maternal rights and maternal health care are directly affected by the 8th amendment, in particular, with regards to birth choices, informed consent and the ability to refuse tests or treatment. This constitutional disregard for women played out horrifically over Christmas (December 2014), where a family had to go to court to be able to take their clinically dead daughter off life support, as she was 18 weeks pregnant. Her foetus was considered to have no ‘genuine prospect’ of being born alive.
Because of the 8th amendment, Ireland is now one of the worst countries worldwide for abortion access, alongside countries such as El Salvador, Chile, Afghanistan and Somalia. El Salvador provides an example of what happens when women’s health is considered secondary to that of the foetus; 23 women are currently serving decades-long prison sentences for having miscarriages or abortions, and many women refuse to seek medical care for fear of accusations associated with endangering the foetus.
This isn’t merely a problem faced in the Global South. A steady roll-back of abortion rights in the US in the last few years has meant that women are increasingly finding it hard to access abortion services, and in some instances, even prosecuted for their choices. In the area of reproductive health, Ireland has not experienced a public health crisis as such due to the effect of the UK health care system acting as a safety valve. As long as we continue to put women on trial for their choices, we continue to impede their right to health.
The 8th amendment is a dangerous piece of legislation, which directly threatens the lives and dignity of women living in Ireland. It is important for all those concerned with access to health care to join the struggle to defeat this law. Important actions have been carried out by women and men in Ireland seeking to enact change. For instance, ‘The Coalition to Repeal the 8th’ has united a number of pro-choice groups, and in September 2014 held a conference in Dublin to discuss tactics and possible new legislation. Additionally, The Abortion Pill Train of October 2014 saw activist travelling to Belfast to collect safe abortion pills and highlights the injustice of having to travel for abortion access. These pills were obtained from Women On Web, an organization which ships safe pills for early abortion to countries which have restrictive abortion laws. These pills put healthcare back in women’s hands, by making the decision entirely their own, and providing a safe alternative where often there are none. The Republic of Ireland has been intercepting these pills in the post in the last few years, meaning that women who wish to obtain them now have to find other ways of having them delivered. Despite the fact that Misoprostol, medically used to induce abortion, start labour, and prevent post-partum haemorrhaging, is on the WHO list of essential medicine.
ROSA, Action for Choice and a number of other pro-choice organizations, have called a protest rally to celebrate International Women’s Day and to magnify the call for a referendum on the 8th amendment. It will be held on Saturday the 7th March at 1.30 at the Spire.
Unfortunately, the ban on abortion in Ireland continues because of cowardice and inaction from greater political establishments. Health is political, particularly when access to healthcare is compromised by political decisions. We must continue to press for abortion access which is free, safe and legal for all women in Ireland. Without this, women face further denial of human rights.
Joanna Orr is an active member of ROSA (for Reproductive rights, against Oppression, Sexism & Austerity) engaged in challenging the capitalist systems of oppression and inequality. She joins us as a contributor and citizen journalist with our Global Health Writes initiative.
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