Women’s right to abortion: compromise is the losing option

by Anne McShane

The government hoped that the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Act 2013, which came into operation in January, would stifle the demand for change in favour of women’s rights. But the opposite has happened. There has been a new spate of protests over the first reported case under the new legislation. ‘Miss Y’, an asylum-seeker who arrived in Ireland early in the year, sought an abortion on the grounds that she was suicidal. Despite her clear desperation she was refused the procedure and forced to continue the pregnancy. Yet another victim of the misogyny embedded deep within the theocratic Catholic state and its institutions.

The 2013 act was reluctantly introduced by the government in response to immense pressure from the population. Opinion polls have consistently shown an overwhelming majority in favour of some abortion rights. One published in the Irish Times in June 2013 showed over 80% in favour where there is a risk to the health of the mother: ie, the British system. A similar number supported abortion on the grounds of rape, foetal abnormality and other difficult circumstances. Almost 40% supported the proposal that women should be able to access abortion on the grounds of choice. It was a population very clearly out of kilter with its government.

Suicidal

Clare Daly, then a Socialist Party TD, introduced a private members bill in November 2012 demanding legislative action for abortion. She argued that the government needed to implement the decision in the ‘X case’ – a leading high court judgment from 1992, which ruled that women should be allowed an abortion if their lives were at risk from suicide. She claimed that this was a way of getting the issue discussed for the first time by Leinster House; it was a step in the right direction. Certainly it did spur a major debate, with many women coming out for the first time to talk openly about their abortions. It coincided with outrage over

the death of Savita Halappanavar, a woman who died in October 2012 when she was refused a termination despite repeated requests.1 Angry demands for abortion rights came to the fore, as the nation was forced to confront the shameful way that women are treated within Irish society. The government, pushed into a corner, was forced to respond.

But, while comrade Daly has to be congratulated for spearheading the debate, her proposals were far too timid. Essentially her argument was that, while legislating to allow abortion in situations of suicide was hopelessly inadequate, it was at least a beginning. The ban on abortion could be undermined gradually. Her bill proposed that a woman requesting an abortion on the grounds of potential suicide be assessed by a medical practitioner and either a psychiatrist or a psychologist – or in an emergency by two medical practitioners – to determine if she was eligible. She also proposed the decriminalisation of abortion under Irish law.

The bill was defeated and the government pledged to put forward its own alternative. After an interminable ‘consultative process’ with ‘pro-life’ and pro-choice organisations, the end result was the 2013 Act. Under its provisions two psychiatrists and one medical practitioner are the arbiters of whether a woman is suicidal and if abortion is medically necessary to prevent that suicide. Their diagnosis must be “an opinion formed in good faith, which has regard to the need to preserve unborn human life as far as practicable”.2 The act also provided for prison sentences of up to 14 years for any person who acts to “intentionally destroy unborn human life”.

It is an incredibly draconian piece of legislation, which has made the situation even more dangerous for women. Criminal sanctions have been updated and potential prison sentences buttressed. No woman who had any other option would put herself through the ordeal of being examined and interviewed by such a three-person panel, with the very real prospect of a refusal. None but the most desperate and trapped: asylum-seekers, women with no money to travel, women who are too ill to leave.

Although Clare Daly and other leftwing TDs voted against the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill, they must examine their own role in the debacle. Their method was to go for the most ‘prudent’ option – and what was most in keeping with the views of the Labour Party. But not only did this deny women any right to choose: it allowed the government to manipulate the process and put forward something which sounded similar to the original private members bill – something which seemed like a step forward, but was in fact a defeat. The left TDs had put tactics before principle and lost.

The case of ‘Miss Y’ illustrates this concretely. She is an asylum-seeker who on arrival in Ireland discovered she was pregnant because of a rape in her own country. She was eight weeks pregnant at the time and made clear that she would take her own life if forced to carry the child of her rapist. No abortion was granted. At one stage she was advised of the costs of traveling to Britain – €1,600 – and in desperation made an attempt on her own life. On being admitted to hospital at 16 weeks, she began a hunger and thirst strike in protest at the refusal to provide a termination. The HSE, Ireland’s health service, then went to the high court and obtained an order to forcibly hydrate and feed her. When two psychiatrists finally agreed she was suicidal, she was told it was too late for an abortion to be carried out. ‘Miss Y’ was forced to continue the pregnancy to 24 weeks and a caesarean section was performed. In an interview with Kitty Holland of the Irish Times in August she said: “When I came to this country, I thought I could forget suffering”, but “the scar will never go away … I still suffer. I don’t know if what has happened is normal … I just want justice to be done. For me, this is injustice.”3

Yet another inquiry is pending, as the HSE prepares its report. Another inquiry to tell us what we know already – that women in Ireland have no rights over their own bodies. That even in the most desperate circumstances they are forced to see through the pregnancy against their will.

Compromise

A conference to launch a campaign to discuss the way forward for pro-choice activists was held in Dublin on September 6. The main focus was on our attitude to the Eighth Amendment – introduced into the constitution in 1983 to copper-bottom the state’s opposition to abortion. It lies at the heart of all debates, as it puts the life of the ‘unborn’ on an equal footing with that of a pregnant woman. This ban has led to the death of women who were refused terminations, to many thousands of women being forced to carry on with unwanted and unsafe pregnancies, and to thousands of others traveling every year to the UK, Holland and Spain for abortions.

From the beginning of the conference it was clear that the majority of platform speakers, as well as the majority of the 300 or so participants, wanted far more than just a simple repeal of the Eighth Amendment. Veronica O’Keane from Doctors for Choice was adamant that no girl or woman in Ireland today should be forced to continue with an unwanted pregnancy. She described how, because of restrictions in Britain’s national health service, Irish women carrying foetuses with fatal abnormalities are now on waiting lists for terminations in the UK. She described how women seeking abortion on the grounds of suicide will be interviewed by ‘pro-life’ psychiatrists who will never permit a termination. Abortion in her view should be provided in a similar way to other medical procedures and it should be private. Decisions on such matters should no longer be the property of politicians and the clergy.

The Irish state is, of course, well aware of the deep injustices being done. The aim of the Fine Gael/Labour government and their allies in Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin is to defend the continued legacy of holy Catholic Ireland, despite the clear wishes of the mass of the people for change. And they have strong support from the most reactionary within the medical establishment. Far from excluding themselves from the panels as ‘conscientious objectors’, these doctors willingly feign objectivity in order to deny women terminations.

Speaker after speaker both from the podium and the floor denounced the current situation and the travesty that has been brought about by the enactment of the 2013 act. There were arguments against creating categories of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ women, who are forced to prove themselves worthy of medical intervention. Anger and a sense of frustration were voiced in many contributions. As Melissa Halpin, councillor with People Before Profit (and member of the Socialist Workers Party), argued, “we need to stop trying to chip away at the constitution and deal it a body blow”. This defiant, militant attitude characterised the mood of the meeting, which seemed to be fully behind a campaign based on the demand for choice.

However, the afternoon session brought the far more conservative strategy of the organisers to the fore. The first hint was in the speech of Therese Cafferty, founding member of Action on X – the organisation which had supported Clare Daly’s private member’s bill. She argued for the “broadest possible campaign” to get rid of the constitutional ban on abortion and “then see what we get afterwards”. Comrade Daly herself echoed this sentiment and argued “we should not put barriers” in the way of involving as many people as possible. “Once we get it repealed, then we can deal with what comes after it.” She believed that all political parties could be persuaded to “adopt the slogan for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment before the next election and add it to their manifesto”. Initiating this campaign among TDs, she plans to table a motion early in 2015 for a referendum for repeal.

There had been no proposal to exclude anybody from the campaign – actually the pro-choice slogan is the only one that caters for all women. The strategy which focuses on the various ‘acceptable’ categories of women to be allowed abortion is the one which excludes. By insisting that the call for a woman’s right to choose should not be linked with the demand for repeal, the campaign leaders are making it clear that they are willing to compromise on this question. And this even before the battle has begun.

The problem with this is not only the lack of principle, but the fact that it will not work. By not including a woman’s right to choose as a central part of the campaign, we end up with politicians and doctors deciding. And in Ireland today this effectively means the preservation of the status quo. The government was able to take advantage of the reformism of the X campaign to narrow the parameters of discussion.

As Mary Favier of Doctors for Choice put it, “We need to argue for what we want”. It is interesting that Doctors for Choice, who have the practical experience of advising women seeking abortions, were amongst the strongest voices for their rights. They deal with women in all sorts of different situations who want and need abortions. It is not for anybody else to decide whether it is a valid reason or not. It must be up to the woman herself to make such key decisions about her own body.

Clear message

We have to take on the ‘pro-life’ campaign, the church and state with a clear message, using strong and principled arguments. However, it seems that comrade Daly and her supporters think they can avoid that head-on battle. But the pro-life campaign will not allow that to happen. Just as in the arguments around the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill, they will attack campaigners for supporting free abortion on demand. And we need to be able to answer with pride and explain the reasons why.

I made a proposal that we should add the slogan, ‘A woman’s right to choose’, to our material calling for repeal of the Eighth Amendment, but Marnie Holborrow of the SWP opposed me. She argued that, while her party was for full choice, we should not exclude (that word again) others who do not have the same view. As everyone who spoke at the conference was for choice, it was difficult to know who would be excluded. The answer appears to be mainstream organisations and the Labour Party.

Socialist Party members spoke militantly, but did not object to the narrow basis of the campaign. Unfortunately it seems that we will have about five different organisations who say they are for choice involved in a joint campaign which says nothing on that central question. At the very least we need a full debate and a proper conference with delegates and accountability. It is remarkable that a small group of individuals can assume the leadership and announce how it will all be run. All of us who want a properly run, democratic organisation must make our voices heard.

Any campaign to scrap the Eighth Amendment will not be held in a vacuum. Immediately campaigners will be asked what they propose to replace it. What will they reply? At the moment nobody knows.

Notes

1. ‘Scrap the eighth amendmentWeekly Worker November 22 2012.

2. www.irishstatutebook.ie/pdf/2013/en.act.2013.0035.pdf.

3. www.irishtimes.com/news/health/woman-in-abortion-case-tells-of-suicide-attempt-1.1901256.

The article above is taken from the September 18 issue of the British paper Weekly Worker

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Posted on September 19, 2014, in 21st century republicanism and socialism, Catholic church/church-state relations, Censorship, Democratic rights - general, Social conditions, Women, Women's rights. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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