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Breda O’Brien, clickbait and being devoid of empathy

Breda O’Brien, clickbait and being devoid of empathy

Breda O’Brien has a regular, offensive clickbait column in the Irish Times where she gets paid actual money to peddle her narrow, bigoted view of the world that doesn’t tally in any way with actual evidence of what happens in real life. She goes to great lengths to portray women who’ve had abortions as being at best cold and indifferent about their experiences and at worst, callous, unless they are members of Women Hurt. For Breda, the only time it’s acceptable for a woman to talk about her experience of abortion, is if it is in the context of being a negative experience in your life. Ideally, the more torment connected to it, the better – because it will be the only time that your experience has any value at all. It doesn’t matter for her or even the Irish Times, that her stories are possibly not actually true, it just matters that some people will believe them. If you throw enough stones, eventually you’ll hit something.  Today’s offering is no different.

O’Brien opens today’s drivel by saying that Irish women talk about their abortions all the time with her. Maybe there are women who talk to O’Brien about their experiences but she is hardly the most likely of people you would confide in;

“Breda, you are a well known anti-abortion activist so I need to tell you, I was raped at 14 and had an abortion at 6 weeks.”

“That choice was morally wrong and is exactly the same as drowning a three year old child. ”

“Um, thanks Breda. I’m glad I got that off my chest by talking to you.”  

Given the exposure Tara Flynn and Roisin Ingle’s stories got in the Irish Times last week, it’s hard not to read O’Brien’s piece as a direct retaliation towards these courageous women. It’s basically an eight hundred word fuck-you to Roisin and Tara.

She also says that women have told her of going for post-abortion counselling in a pro-choice organisation only to be told, “you did what was right for you at the time. Put it behind you and move on.” But I find it a stretch that any pro-choice organisation would simply tell a woman “move on” after she said she found her experience difficult to deal with or that she had regrets. Because that is not how pro-choice people or organisations operate. That is a fiction. Unlike O’Brien, we recognise that women have different experiences while noting that the vast majority of women who have terminations do not regret them.

O’Brien says that these women feel dismissed and diminished, while not for a second noticing the irony that women who do *not* regret their decision are dismissed and diminished by O’Brien and her Iona cronies who are given a national media platform on which to do so. No person’s experience should be diminished, but the women who allegedly seek comfort from O’Brien should not be taken as representative of the sum total of women who have had terminations – just as the women who do not regret them are not the sum total, we merely note that they are the overwhelming majority. O’Brien goes to great lengths to couch her language in terms of pseudo comfort and “common humanity” and then denies to other women the capacity to make decisions for themselves believing that she knows better.

She  decries those of us who speak of cells and the right to choose and implies that we are the same as Roman men who left babies to die on the side of a hill as we dehumanise the “victim.” At no point does it register with her how she dehumanises women who make the decision to abort without regret; women who terminated because of the suffering that continuing the pregnancy might bring, or the risk to their health or wellbeing, or because they were in a violent relationship, or because they simply did not want to be pregnant.  If pro-choice feminists who advocate a woman’s right to choose are for O’Brien, like the Roman men who leave babies to die of exposure on the hillside then what does that make the women who actually choose to abort? This of course is the woman who is a spokesperson for the people that carry signs at their rallies saying “Abortion is Witchcraft” (forward to 2:52 of this video). Does that sound like empathy to you?  

Anti-choice ideology ignores that fact that legal and medical structures that deprive a woman of full control over her own reproductive system condemn women to being second class citizens. O’Brien attempts to portray herself as being understanding, attempting to make us believe she empathises with women in crisis pregnancies by saying if she had become pregnant as a teenager, she is “not sure what (she) would have done.” Perhaps that’s true. She wouldn’t be the first woman to be against abortion until faced with a crisis pregnancy and had she accessed a termination, she certainly wouldn’t even be the first anti-choice woman to terminate and subsequently stand outside that very same clinic and denounce the women who enter it.

But you are not empathising with a woman in a crisis pregnancy when you actively campaign in favour of laws that compel women to endure a forced pregnancy, a court ordered c-section, and then tell us that she should have been made to carry that pregnancy to term. Being empathetic does not mean heaping judgment on women who had abortions and telling them their decisions was morally wrong. Since when did empathy extend to stigmatising and criminalising women and advocating that they go to jail? You cannot attest to empathise with women in crisis pregnancies when you deny them a choice in their medical care that will literally result in their death.

O’Brien also carefully adds a sentence about Aylan Kurdi so that there is to be no misunderstanding as to where she stands –  comparing the drowned three year old to the terminated weeks old foetus. She could have written a column about how Europe should open its borders to the refugees, or about how Hungary is treating the thousands walking through their land, tired, cold, and hungry, searching for a better life. She could have even spoken about the reasons why women choose abortion and acknowledged that if you want less abortions, you need to make it easier for women to have children. That would be the logical thing, but this is not about logic, this is about curtailing women’s choices because Breda O’Brien views them as vessels and nothing more.

The majority of people in this state are pro-choice despite all of us of child-bearing age having never had our say on the Eighth Amendment. My own mother wasn’t even old enough to vote when the Eighth Amendment was passed. Prochoice activists acknowledge that abortion can often be a difficult decision for a woman. We also acknowledge that the decision to terminate can be a source of great relief to many. The difficulty for anti-choice activists is that they cannot contemplate, due to being completely devoid of empathy, why it would be a relief  for many women and why not every woman struggles with it, so in order for them to understand it they must portray these women as uncaring monsters like the Roman patriarchs or of course, witches.

Anti-choice activists do not understand, much less care, that when a woman is pregnant, she is more than a receptacle to carry a foetus to term, with thoughts, feelings, financial pressures and very often, other children to take care of. Just as it would be wrong for a woman to be compelled to terminate against her wishes, it is wrong to compel her to carry a pregnancy against her wishes. Women are more than the contents of their wombs and their existence has more reason than bearing children, and if we want to talk about moral value, then we must acknowledge that an embryo does not have the same moral value as a living, breathing woman who bears it, simply because it has the potential to become a human being. The inability to empathise at the very core of anti-choice beliefs is the reason why there is a woman on trial in Belfast for supplying her daughter with abortion pills, and it is the reason that a woman who has an illegal abortion in this state will get 14 years in prison. Reducing a woman’s humanity and placing it on a par with a week old embryo is not empathy, it is stomach-churning fanaticism. Perhaps had O’Brien actually been faced with a crisis teenage pregnancy, she may believe that had she taken certain decisions that she should have faced 14 years in prison, although at that time it would have been a life sentence (presumably for her own good), but that is not empathy.

Believing that because you never had an abortion that nobody else should have one either is about as far away from empathy as you can possibly get.



Whose country is it anyway?

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I’ve been thinking about a couple of comments that Marcus Ranum made on my last post (thanks for the food for thought, by the way!). Here’s the exchange:

Screen Shot 2015-01-06 at 11.19.25Now, obviously (especially since he actually said it in as many words) the suggestion wasn’t a serious one. It’s just an expression of frustration, and a legitimate one at that. I threaten to move to the far side of the Moon on a regular basis, right? It got me thinking, though.

Yes, women and people with uteri are second-class citizens in Ireland. We have a constitution that tells us that we have a special place within the home, shouldn’t be bothering our pretty little heads with economic labour, and are legally equivalent to a fertilised egg. I mean, technically you could even say that a male foetus has a higher status than a grown woman, since at least the foetus is expected to go get a job at some point in the future.

It’s grim.

Of course, women and the uterus-enabled aren’t the only ones living with second-class citizenship in this lovely country of ours. Trans people still can’t have their genders recognised, queer people are barred from equal marriage and can be legally discriminated against if we work in education, and let’s not even start on direct provision and arbitrary deportations of asylum seekers, or the abysmal way that the Travelling community are routinely dehumanised, or people on years-long waiting lists for public healthcare, or non-Catholic families being shoved down school waiting lists or.. oh, I could go on. You know I could go on. We have no shortage of second-class citizenship (or residency, or humanity) in this country.

Does being second-class citizens mean this space is less our home, though?

My answers, as ever, over at Consider the Tea Cosy

Irish women are now incubators. Even in death.

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Consent is not for Irish women: once a person in Ireland becomes pregnant, their right to refuse or to choose medical treatment is null and void. Self-determination is not for Irish women: once a person in Ireland becomes pregnant, they may no longer choose the direction of their lives within our borders, and if they do not have the right to leave their borders their lives become the property of our state. And as of today, even the right to be laid to rest after our deaths is not for any pregnant person in this country.

At first glance, it doesn’t seem that way. December 26th marked a High Court ruling on the case of a brain-dead woman who has been kept on life somatic support since her death on December 3rd. She has been kept breathing, despite the unanimous wishes of her partner and family, because at the time of her death she was ~14 weeks pregnant, and Ireland’s constitution demands that the right to life of a foetus must be protected. Because of this constitutional provision- which I’ll go into in more detail in a moment, don’t you worry- none of her doctors would allow her life support to be turned off. Her family- including her two young children- have been forced to watch as the condition of her still-breathing corpse deteriorated grotesquely, waiting for the High Court to deliberate and make its decision.

It’s a hell of a way to spend Christmas.

On the morning after, though, the High Court ruled in favour of the woman being taken off somatic support. At face value this is a positive thing. It allows the woman to finally have some kind of dignity in her death, and for her family to begin to grieve her and move on. They’re not stuck with grotesque daily updates on the deteriorating condition of her body and the foetus inside it.

It looks positive- in as much as you can use a word like that in a situation like this- unless you actually read the High Court ruling. When I say “then it becomes terrifying”, I want you to understand that I am not exaggerating for effect. The implications of this ruling are terrifying, and they are macabre, because although it provides for somatic support for this woman to be switched off, it also creates precedent for the corpses of pregnant people to be sustained in future. And within this, there is no consideration whatsoever given to the wishes of the person being used this way.

I said that consent is not for Irish women. With this ruling, neither consent nor the right to a dignified and final death are for any pregnant person in this country.

I guess it’s time to explain.

Continued at Consider the Tea Cosy

Thoughts on the High Court case

As the three High Court judges retire to consider their decision in the latest Irish abortion law tragedy/farce, I’ve been thinking about the options open to them and their implications for the future. As I see it, there are four possibilities:

1. They could uphold the right to life of the “unborn”, thus compelling the woman to be kept on life support until the foetus can either be induced or dies itself. This is the family’s nightmare scenario. Probability of appeal: certain.

2. They could find the 8th amendment applicable to situations of this type generally, but exclude its applicability to this case on the basis of the overwhelming medical evidence that the foetus will not survive anyway. This would have implications for future fatal foetal abnormality cases; essentially it would vindicate the argument that no referendum is needed to allow for abortions in cases where the foetus’s condition is “incompatible with life”. However, the question would then arise of exactly how incompatible it must be, and who gets to decide and how. We would likely be looking at the FFA version of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, for which there is likely to be just as much enthusiasm. Probably of appeal: fairly low, I would think.

3. They could find that the 8th amendment doesn’t apply at all, as it was strictly intended to prevent abortion. This argument was used in court by John Rogers SC, counsel for the women’s family, and is consistent with previous judgments such as Roche v Roche and O v Minister for Justice. Such a ruling would have implications for maternity care in Ireland, in particular the noxious National Consent Policy’s exclusion of pregnant women from the right of all other adults to autonomy in health care decisions, and the threatened use of court-ordered Caesarean sections. For this reason I would imagine the probability of an appeal would be fairly high.

4. Lastly, they could sidestep all the difficult issues above and simply rule that in all the circumstances of this particular case, it would create an injustice to force the woman to continue on life support. This is probably the best option for the family; there is virtually no chance of an appeal, and it would allow the Court to have regard to the woman’s own right to dignity rather than making that conditional on the prospects for foetal survival. Unfortunately, it would also mean that the underlying issues remain unsettled. And if there’s one thing that’s become increasingly apparent, from Savita to Ms Y to now, it’s that there really is no such thing as a “uniquely difficult” case. We are far from seeing the last “tragedy” of a woman whose pregnancy tests the 8th amendment in ways its supporters would have deemed too fanciful to rate as valid arguments against it.

The cowardice of most of our political parties to deal with this issue is something that simply can no longer be tolerated. And it is not simply the politicians who I am addressing that to. It’s time for us as voters to make this a red-line issue, to let our elected reps and candidates know that a preference from us depends on their support for repeal, and to stick to that pledge regardless of partisan or personal loyalty. Because if we vote back in another government that refuses to be the one to hold a referendum, every one who does so will be complicit in what’s been happening in that hospital since December 3rd.

Note: This post was written on an iPad Mini thousands of miles away from Ireland; please excuse lack of links and possible missed details.

A duty to reproduce: Modern Ireland is a sci-fi dystopia for women

In an episode of Battlestar Galactica called “The Farm”, Starbuck gets shot during a raid on Caprica and loses consciousness. She wakes up in a hospital, where it turns out that the cylons have a lot of human women hooked up to “baby-machines”, because they can’t reproduce themselves, so they’re trying to reproduce with humans. The human women are used as incubators and the cylons are of the view that they have a duty to reproduce. The cylon doctor tells Starbuck how women of reproductive age are very “precious commodities.” The agency of the individual does not matter – they are merely vessels. Vessels do not need to consent. The women hooked up to machines for the sole purpose of reproduction are, in this case, science fiction, and it’s pretty grim.

As I type this, there is a woman who is clinically brain dead but being kept alive on life support against her family’s wishes solely due to the fact that she is pregnant. The trauma that her family is going through now does not bear thinking about. I have lost a close family member in terrible circumstances, but I cannot imagine what it must be like to endure the heart-breaking pain of deciding to switch off a life-support machine. The trauma of it is surely enormous.

A next of kin is generally legally entitled to make a decision regarding treatment where a person can no longer consent. This family has concluded that the best course of action for this woman would be to withdraw life support. The medical staff cannot grant this request due to the constitutional right to life of the unborn: the right of an early stage foetus to be gestated potentially supersedes a woman’s right to dignity in death.

The state and the law of Ireland views women as vessels. In Ireland, once we are pregnant, we are no longer agents of ourselves. We do not get to decide whether we should or should not remain pregnant. Our thoughts, our feelings, our mental health does not matter. Our ability to parent does not matter. Our poverty does not matter. Our right to die a natural death does not matter. Our dignity does not matter. Our physical health does not matter, because you must be at risk of death to have an abortion. This is the outworking of the 8th Amendment. The state is unapologetic in this. The only time in which a pregnancy may be ended lawfully through termination is when there is a risk to a pregnant person’s life. The life of the foetus is what matters: continuing the pregnancy at all costs is what matters. If a pregnant woman is deemed to be suicidal, and like Ms. Y, wants an abortion, the pregnancy will be ended not through termination, but by an early caesarean once it is viable. To the state, ultimately, we are simply wombs with irrelevant thoughts attached.

The woman on life support in Mullingar, due to being clinically brain dead after suffering brain trauma, is being treated as an incubator for her foetus. There are people arguing for her to be kept alive for months so that her foetus may be born, and then turn the life support off – for them, she serves no purpose beyond this pregnancy. Her family now intend going to court to ask, in the name of compassion and human dignity, that her life support machine be switched off. There is no predicting what the courts will decide.

Will Article 40.3.3’s requirement to vindicate “the right to life of the unborn” in so far as is practicable require doctors to keep a clinically dead woman alive artificially in order to incubate it until it can be delivered? It is the crux of the case. It isn’t clear what stage the pregnancy is at (Reports have varied from 16 weeks to 20 weeks, with Joan Burton stating during Leader’s Questions today that it is at a “relatively early” stage), but while the 8th Amendment remains on the books every single case that presents such as this one will mean a trip to the courts for a family, because there will never be a clarity on what is practicable and what isn’t. Is one week practicable or twenty? You cannot legislate for every potential case.

We do not need another inquiry and report to tell us that the 8th Amendment still leaves medical practitioners with a lack of clarity as to what to do in these situations, or to tell us there is lack of clarity on whether it’s the pregnant woman’s rights or that of the foetus that will prevail. Leaving a pregnant woman hooked up to a machine for the sole purpose of incubating a pregnancy for possibly twenty weeks, in the absence of her next of kin’s consent where she has no capacity, does not uphold her dignity. It does not uphold her right to die a natural death. It does not allow for her family to consent when she cannot. It is inhumane, but her womb is a “precious commodity.” They wouldn’t do it to a dog.

This is the constitutional law, and while the law is designed to treat women as vessels we will always have the hard cases that fall outside of the scope of legislation. We will have more women in desperate situations. More Savita’s, Ms. Y’s. More A’s, B’s and C’s. More Ms. D’s. More Ms. X’s, and more women hooked up to machines because the state does not afford them or their next of kin the capacity to consent for themselves because their wombs are too precious a commodity to risk allowing them control over. This isn’t science fiction, for women, modern Ireland is dystopia enough, and there is no need for machine overlords, while catholic conservative values dominate policy on this issue.




(Hoping that) Women Hurt: regret as a tool of advocacy

Two weeks ago, Irish parliamentarians were invited to a presentation on the subject of “abortion regret”. While the invitation didn’t explicitly advocate for the continued illegality of abortion, no one could fail to recognise its underlying agenda: firstly because it came from Senator Rónán Mullen, who’s barely known for anything else, and secondly because the featured speaker, Julia Holcomb, is a spokesperson for Silent No More, a self-described “project of Priests for Life and Anglicans for Life”. Holcomb was there not only to share her own unhappy story, but to convince Irish politicians of the need to maintain our near-absolute ban on abortion, in an attempt to prevent others from experiencing the same regret.

This campaign is one example of what Yale Law Professor Reva Siegel calls “woman-protective anti-abortion argument” – a strategic shift away from the foetus fetishism that has traditionally defined the right-to-life movement, to centring the pregnant woman in its message by portraying abortion as contrary to her best interests. We’ve seen this in Ireland before, with billboard campaigns by Youth Defence (“abortion tears her life apart”) and Women Hurt, a sort of home-grown version of Silent No More.

At the same time, we’re seeing the emergence of a new anti-sex work campaign led by women who describe themselves as “survivors of prostitution”. Like Julia Holcomb, they have the patronage of people whose stance is an ideological one, unrelated to any regret a woman who had that experience might feel. Her trauma is incidental to these people, and instrumentalised by them, but it’s no doubt very real to her and she has every entitlement to share it.

Regret can be a useful element in a cautionary tale, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with suggesting that a woman think carefully about how she might feel about a decision later on. But as an argument for prohibitory legislation, it’s extremely problematic. And I’m not just talking about the logical inconsistency of banning some things that women might regret but not others (marriage, tattoos, Tequila shots); or banning things that some women might regret but not others; or banning things that women do when they’re illegal anyway (the women of Women Hurt all evaded the prohibition by going to England; many self-described survivors of prostitution worked in a criminalised setting). The idea that regret is, in and of itself, a reason to legally constrain women’s actions is conceptually flawed, paternalistic and degrading. It’s grounded in age-old sexist nonsense about women needing choices to be made for us, as unreasonable, feeble-minded creatures who need protection from the dangers we pose to ourselves. If “to err is human”, what does that say about people who can’t be allowed to err?

There’s another thing that bothers me about it, and that’s how the traumatised-woman-as-poster-girl creates a need for more traumatised women. The women who don’t regret their abortion or sex work threaten to undermine the effectiveness, as an advocacy tool, of those who do; thus, they must be silenced, discredited, or worse still, recruited. I say “worse still” because recruiting them often involves persuading them that they were traumatised all along and didn’t know it. Real-life examples are the woman who speaks unapologetically about her abortion and is invited to receive “counselling” from an anti-abortion agency, the sex worker who takes advantage of “exiting” services when she decides it’s time to move on and finds herself subjected to re-education programmes that recast her experience as abusive when she didn’t see it that way.

Advocates of these methods insist that the woman has merely been in denial, that they’re helping her come to terms with her hidden trauma in order to heal her. But there’s something deeply troubling about taking a person who’s at ease with her past and turning her into a victim. It would be bad enough if this were done in the genuine albeit misguided belief that it would ultimately help her, but it isn’t. It’s done to advance an agenda, and that’s unconscionable.

The bottom line is this. When someone says they don’t regret their abortion or their sex work, or anything else that some people find traumatising, then, absent real (and individualised) evidence to the contrary, there’s really only one acceptable response. It’s along the lines of “That’s great, I’m glad that you’re OK with your experience.” Anything else amounts to wishing trauma on someone – and it’s a short hop from there to thinking they deserve trauma for making a choice you disapprove of. It’s a hateful, nasty, punitive approach, and it’s incompatible with any genuine concern for the welfare of the women in question.




Abortion in Medieval Ireland

Originally posted on Perceptions of Pregnancy:

The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog, like the Researchers’ Network, aims to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and to facilitate an international and interdisciplinary conversation on pregnancy and its associated bodily and emotional experiences from the medieval to the modern. Today’s post is contributed by Gillian Kenny, a Research Associate at the Centre for Gender and Women’s Studies at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland.

Abortion (or the lack of it) is back in the news in Ireland again following reports that a woman who claimed to be suicidal was denied an abortion and instead gave birth by caesarean at 25 weeks. The roots of lay and clerical anti-abortionism in Ireland would appear to be a modern phenomenon as medieval sources indicate a country in which abortion could be seen as a less severe offence by clerics, for example, than bearing an unwanted child or committing ‘fornication’.[1] In the middle ages women commonly underwent abortions…

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