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Category Archives: Abortion

(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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To them, we are nothing but vessels

A young non-Irish woman with limited English and precarious residency status, discovered she was eight weeks pregnant as a result of what the Sunday Times have reported as a “traumatic rape.” Due to her legal status in Ireland she could not freely travel abroad in order to access an abortion so immediately applied to have a termination in Ireland under the new legislation, stating that she was suicidal at the prospect of carrying the foetus to term. Like Savita Halappanavar and Bimbo Onanuga, she is another woman from outside of Ireland who has been completely failed by the Irish medical system.

Three doctors declared that the woman was suicidal under the panel formed under the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act in January. The legislation states that medical practitioners may authorise an abortion where “there is a real and substantial risk of loss of the pregnant woman’s life from a physical illness or by way of suicide” but they must have “regard to the need to preserve unborn human life as far as practicable.” The Act does not set out timelines during which decisions should be made by these panels, or when abortions should be performed if granted under this law. To insert a timeline in that law, giving the applicant some clarity, would have been too generous a gift for the women of Ireland by the Irish government. The panel of three doctors said that despite the fact she was suicidal, it would be better to wait until the foetus was viable for delivery instead of performing an abortion. She went on hunger and liquid strike in response. People do not enter in to hunger strike lightly; It is a last resort attempt by people seeking redress when the politics of despair have left them with nothing else to fight with but their own bodies.

The HSE in turn, sought an emergency order at the High Court on the 2nd of August which would allow it to forcibly hydrate the woman on the grounds that they wanted to protect her life and the life of the foetus which she did not wish to carry. It further sought orders that would allow them to carry out other procedures related to her pregnancy. The woman was represented by her lawyers, and the foetus was also represented by its own legal team. The Irish courts have already stated that it is a medical practitioner who is entitled to make decisions concerning the pregnancy, and not the woman herself. The law goes far beyond preventing a pregnant woman from having an abortion in circumstances where her life is not at risk. The Irish law is designed so that a person who is pregnant no longer has any say over what happens their body whether it concerns continuing the pregnancy itself, the location in which you wish to give birth or whether you will hydrate yourself or not.

Last month in Geneva, the chair of the UN Human Rights Committee said that Irish law on abortion treats women as a “vessel and nothing more.” Once you are pregnant in Ireland, you become property of the state and your own wishes are irrelevant.

On the 3rd of August, this young, suicidal rape victim, having gone through two court hearings seeking an abortion and an unknown number of medical interrogations by a panel of three doctors, underwent a caesarean section in an Irish hospital at approximately 24-26 weeks gestation. Preserving human life as far as practicable in their eyes required performing a c-section on a woman while she was around six months pregnant, despite the fact that she had been raped, was suicidal, had gone on hunger and thirst strike and had asked for an abortion repeatedly from eight weeks on.

The implications of this are horrifying. It has sent a clear message to women in Ireland that if you are suicidal and seek an abortion which you are constitutionally entitled to, you run the risk of medical practitioners compelling you to wait until the foetus is viable and then having a c-section forcibly performed on you. This woman was in a very vulnerable position given the multiple traumas she had endured. It is the stuff of nightmares. There are other women who are suicidal as a result of pregnancy and access abortion services because they have the means and support to travel. Some contact Women on Web and some contract the Abortion Support Network. Some will borrow money from friends. Those who don’t have internet or phone access to make appointments or ability to leave the country, or money to pay, and will take other steps. Some will borrow from money-lenders, others might throw themselves down stairs. But those who are pregnant and suicidal will not go to these panels, the risk is too great.

We do not know the full facts of this particular case because the media are restricted from reporting in full. However, we do know that the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act has not resolved the issue of not being able to access an abortion even if you are suicidal in Ireland. Three doctors said this woman was suicidal, but apparently this was not the right kind of suicidal for the purposes of the Act, and because a c-section was available then she could have that instead of a lawful termination.

It begs the question of what type of ‘suicidal’ will allow you to have a legal abortion in this jurisdiction and as long as the Eighth Amendment remains in the Constitution, there will be women travelling, dying and undergoing forced c-sections for want of an abortion within Ireland. There is no clarity as to what the scope of “practicable” actions are in order to prevent a woman from having an abortion under the cloak of “protecting the life of the unborn.”

Years ago, I had a conversation on facebook with someone who was anti-choice and was quite forthright in his views that women should be prevented from having abortions at all costs, even if they were suicidal and it required locking them up in specially designed pregnancy gulags under 24 hour suicide watch. It is a frightening vista but not totally unrealistic. Those on the anti-choice side will of course say the term “gulag” is hysterical, but if you were a pregnant suicidal rape victim, who wanted an abortion, and was in hospital on a court-ordered drip having an effectively forced c-section under threat of a court order, faced with the prospect of a 14 year jail sentence if you induce your own miscarriage, it just might feel pretty gulag-esque. You just might even etch “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum” on a wall.

To them, we are nothing but vessels.

Repeal the 8th.

Men of the Left think they’re different: Abortion and the Anti-Austerity Alliance

The amazing women’s rights and anti-capitalist activist Selma James spoke at the Anarchist Bookfair in Dublin this weekend. Bualadh bos to the WSM for getting her over. She gave inspiring talks on a range of issues, and during her contribution on Care, Social Reproduction and Austerity the conversation flowed towards the reality of activism that women’s issues are often side-lined by the left and seen as not important enough to pay attention to or campaign on.

Selma’s comment that “Men of the left think they’re different because they’re of the left, but they’re not was met with a lot of women nodding their heads in agreement in the audience, and a couple of men shifting in their seats looking a little uncomfortable. Presumably some of them were thinking the usual Not all men are like that though!” that women on the left are compelled to listen to whenever any kind of discussion emerges on sexism on the left and what to do about it. The women activists gave each other knowing looks. It’s ridiculous that this is still something women on the left have to deal with, but we do, and the results of that mind-set range from the irritating to the absolute enraging.

One such example of more enraging is the emergence that the Socialist Party front group Anti-Austerity Alliance’s election candidate in Tullamore, Mr. Thomas Carty is completely and absolutely anti-choice on the issue of abortion. It’s unclear how forcing a woman to bring to term a pregnancy against her will is in line with an anti-austerity agenda so the AAA have some questions to answer.

Of course, this isn’t a new thing. The Socialist Party have in the past courted a candidate in Omagh, Johnny McLaughlin, who turned out to be anti-choice in a most hysterical manner, so they should be aware of the ramifications of this.

There are a few potential scenarios at play here:

a)    The AAA sat down and asked Mr. Carty what his position was on abortion, and he lied and said he was pro-choice ( which is unlikely considering his anti-choice views are plastered all over facebook).

b)    The AAA sat down and asked Mr. Carty what his position was on abortion and he said he was anti-choice and they viewed it as not being all that important because electoral opportunism requires bums on seats.

c)    Nobody in the AAA asked what his view was on it because the idea that 4,500 women spending up to £2,000 each every year travelling for a medical procedure overseas never entered their heads as being relevant to an anti-austerity programme.

It’s more likely that this is incompetence rather than conspiracy, and option C would probably be the bookie’s favourite.

And if that is the case it’s more than fair to ask why did nobody in the AAA think that this was a relevant question? There are more anti-choice candidates than Thomas Carty in the AAA ranks, so now that it’s been raised what will they do about it? It would be difficult to see them retaining a candidate who had been vocally racist in the past so why is supporting an anti-woman policy being treated differently? And Mr. Carty’s belief that a position as a ‘Boob Adjuster’ would be the best job ever (what? And not an AAA councillor leading the r-r-r-revolution? Shock indeed.) which is probably quite telling of his views on women hasn’t even been touched upon.

This kind of attitude is something that you would expect from political organisations of the right. It is not unreasonable to expect more from those who not only style themselves as the vanguard of the left, but as advocates for women.

Two fairly prominent members of the Socialist Party in Dublin were asked what the story with this was earlier on today in a facebook thread. At the time of writing, this legitimate question has been met with silence.

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When Peter Hadden of the Socialist Party was questioned on the Johnny McLaughlin debacle twelve years ago he replied;

“Abortion, while an important issue, is not a make or break question for our party.”

This attitude hasn’t changed and for many on the left, something that affects more than 50% of the population’s right to do what they want with their own bodies isn’t a make or break issue. You could be forgiven for asking what impact a policy has to have before it becomes a make or break issue. Perhaps something that affected a few more men?

Selma was right, men on the left think they are different, but they’re really not.

 

 

Edit to update at 20.46: A member of the SP who may or may not be a party spokesperson commented on the facebook thread mentioned above to state that Thomas Carty was never ratified as an AAA candidate saying that,”The fact stands that at the national meeting on Sunday in which his candidacy was being decided upon, that the national AAA meeting did not endorse his candidature for the reasons outlined. So no, he was never officially ratified as an AAA candidate. Incidentally, I am not an activist within the AAA myself. It’s an entity that’s broader than the Socialist Party, with two of the seven members of its steering committee, I think, being Socialist Party activists.” 

Thomas Carty was listed as an AAA candidate on the official AAA website up to this afternoon but has since been removed. No official statement from the AAA has been issued as yet.  

Edit to update 15th April: The AAA issued a statement late last night saying : 

STATEMENT FROM THE STEERING GROUP OF THE ANTI-AUSTERITY ALLIANCE RE. THOMAS CARTY

14 April 2014

The national Steering Group of the Anti-Austerity Alliance would like to clarify that Thomas Carty, Tullamore, is not endorsed as an AAA candidate. 

The Steering Group unanimously agreed today that Thomas has attitudes which wouldn’t be compatible with being a candidate for the AAA. The AAA is a progressive organisation which fights for the rights of both women and men; rejects divisions based on gender; and takes equal treatment of women seriously.

Thomas was put forward as a candidate by a grouping in Tullamore very recently and had not previously attended national AAA meetings. When issues were brought to the attention of the national AAA meeting yesterday, they were investigated by the steering group who unanimously agree that Thomas should not be endorsed as a candidate.

From the seven members of the steering group, Anti Austerity Alliance.

Still doesn’t explain how he ended up on their official website before that and with lovely funky AAA graphics all over his social media accounts with his face on them. Oh well. 

One week on from telling my story @Ireland.

Wendy Lyon:

Last week, Janet Ní Shuilleabháin became the first Irish woman to draw world attention to Ireland’s draconian abortion laws without having to die or go to the High Court to do it. While her story has been picked up by Al Jazeera, the BBC, and media in France and Sweden, the Irish media are still pretending it never happened. Here she reflects on her unpremeditated decision to go public with her abortion story – one of over 150,000 since Ireland passed a referendum outlawing abortion in nearly all circumstances. We are very grateful to Janet for helping to break the silence.

Originally posted on Activism and Agitation:

This time last week I was curating the @Ireland account. It is a twitter account which changes curator each week. I had applied for the account before Christmas and was chosen for the week of February the 10th to the 17th. The plan was to talk about the things which I am passionate about, to get people to talk about their passions to talk about love spells, our Irish God of Love. I am a pretty diverse person, so I knew I would have a lot to talk about.

My first tweet on the Monday morning was “Hello World”, delighted me to do as it’s a old coding joke. My bio on the account read “pagan, feminist, activist, gamer, geek, and a parent with two teenagers.” From Monday morning up until early Thursday afternoon I hadn’t tweeted anything which was pro choice or Abortion Rights Campaign related. Then I RT…

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Labour’s proposed abortion referendum: Not good enough

Posted on

It’s being reported today that the Labour Party plan to fight the next election on the promise of a referendum to allow abortion in cases of rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality. Bearing in mind that this is merely a Sunday newspaper report and (to my knowledge) Labour themselves have not confirmed it, here are all the reasons why I would strenuously oppose this move.

It would retain the constitutional anti-choice position as the default position. If this referendum passed, Irish residents would still have to get someone’s approval to have a right to abortion in their own country.  This is unacceptable, particularly coming from a party which paints itself as “pro-choice”.

It would enshrine into (constitutional) law the notion of pregnancy as punishment for sex. Feminists should absolutely reject any distinction in law between a pregnancy resulting from consensual sex and a pregnancy resulting from forced sex. To allow it is to acquiesce to the identification of women’s sexuality with reproduction, and the misogynist trope that choosing abortion is “avoiding responsibility for actions”. It reflects the odious idea that there are innocent Madonnas who can’t be blamed for having sex, and whores who deserve what they get.

It would be a nightmare in practice. You think it was difficult legislating for a “real and substantial risk to life”? Just wait until the troglodytes that write Irish legislation get to decide how to determine whether a rape happened.  As long as Article 40.3.3 remains in place – and by the looks of things, it will – you can be certain the “rape exception” will require a very high burden of proof, and that will inevitably involve a humiliating, (re-)traumatising inquisition. Who would go through that when they could just go to England – or the internet – instead?

It will still exclude the vast majority of crisis pregnancies. While accurate statistics will be impossible to come by as long as we have to go abroad or self-administer our abortions, it’s probably safe to say that relatively few take place because of any of the current or proposed “exceptions”. Most fall into the category that pollsters are now describing as “when the woman believes it’s in her best interest”: a broad category that can cover anything from financial woes, to interference with studies, to domestic problems, to simply not feeling ready to have a child, etc. These are normal reasons and they are valid ones, and they will still be excluded under this proposal – leaving the majority of those who have abortions to remain stigmatised and perhaps criminalised under the law.

It would eliminate the most persuasive argument for repealing Article 40.3.3. We don’t have a pro-choice majority in this country yet, and we may not for a while – but we do have a majority opposed to the strict parameters of Article 40.3.3 (at least, according to every single opinion poll in the past ten years not commissioned by the anti-choice movement). Those parameters could be a strong reason for people to support its repeal even if they aren’t fully on board with the right to choose. To widen the parameters through amendments that carve out exceptions would be to remove the incentive for people who aren’t pro-choice to support repeal. The end result would be a “compromise” that would effectively kill off any hope of actually getting rid of 40.3.3 and establishing a right to abortion in Ireland.

I am aware that a “repeal the 8th” campaign is unlikely to succeed without a guarantee by government that restrictive legislation would follow. And this legislation would have all the same problems I’ve outlined above – which might seem to undermine my whole argument. But restrictive legislation is much easier to deal with than a restrictive constitutional provision. It would be subject to constitutional challenge, and vulnerable to European pressure if the EU and ECtHR come to recognise abortion as a fundamental right (which I believe they eventually will). It could, of course, also be overturned by a progressive future government, though I may be overly optimistic about the possibility of us ever getting that.

I’ve mainly addressed the rape exception here, and I know not all these arguments apply to fatal foetal abnormalities. If the referendum proposal was limited to that I would find it more difficult to argue against (though some of my objections would still hold). I’m also aware that X legislation could equally be opposed on some of the grounds above, but X deals with life-and-death circumstances. I think it’s reasonable to put aside principled and tactical objections to incrementalism where the alternative is that a person actually dies.

And after the farce that the X legislation turned out to be, one thing should be obvious to everyone who supports abortion rights: we will never get anything meaningful as long as 40.3.3 remains. Our legislators will always feel the need to err on the side of protecting the foetus – so even if additional exceptions are carved out, the barriers to availing of them will be prohibitively high to many of those they’re intended to cover. And we’ll be left with a Constitution that further reinforces a value judgment as to who “deserves” an abortion, and less hope than ever of any real change.

The only tenable solution is repeal. We should not stand for anything less.

Anti-choice spinning of California’s 1967 abortion law

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We’ve heard a lot lately from anti-choice campaigners about California’s 1967 Therapeutic Abortion Act. It’s being cited to support the argument that legislating for the X case – to allow abortion where a pregnant woman’s life is at risk, including by suicide – will inevitably open the floodgates and effectively allow abortion on demand.

One example is this Tweet from the Pro-Life Campaign’s Cora Sherlock:

Subsequently, an email circulated to Oireachtas members by a group of anti-choice politicians (parts of which were published in this Irish Independent article) claimed that the California law

was enacted in 1967 on the strict grounds of ‘where the mother was a danger to herself’

And then on the Vincent Browne show the other night, Dr Patricia Casey said that under the law, the woman had to be “certifiable”.

Three different claims about the California law. All wrong.

The actual text of the law was found in §25951 of the California Health and Safety Code. It allowed abortion where a committee, established by the hospital performing the abortion and consisting of at least two licensed physicians and surgeons (or at least three after the 13th week of pregnancy), found that there was

a substantial risk that continuance of the pregnancy would gravely impair the physical or mental health of the mother

“Mental health”, meanwhile, was defined in §25954 as

mental illness to the extent that the woman is dangerous to herself or to the person or property of others or is in need of supervision or restraint

Right away, we see that the text is logically problematic – how on earth can “mental health” be defined as “mental illness”? – but we don’t need to spend time on that. The more important thing is what the legislators intended in this requirement. Clearly Cora Sherlock got it wrong, because there’s no need that the woman actually be at risk of suicide, and the Oireachtas group also got it wrong, because the element of danger to herself is only one of the possible criteria under the law.

Dr Casey is closest to the truth, but even she is not quite correct. The text is based on an old standard under which a person could be deemed “certifiable” (a term I find a bit offensive, personally, but we’ll put that aside for now) but there is a crucially important difference. The old standard – which was found in §5550 of California’s Welfare and Institutions Code – allowed for involuntary commitment where a person was

dangerous to themselves or to the person or property of others, and are in need of supervision, treatment, care or restraint

What’s changed there is that the “and” was replaced by “or” for the abortion law. To be committed, a person had to be both dangerous and in need of supervision or restraint; to be allowed an abortion on mental health grounds, either was sufficient. So clearly, a lesser threat to mental health was required than that the woman would need to be institutionalised.

Still, it is a fairly high standard, and the anti-choicers are right when they say it was given a much broader interpretation in practice.  But it still doesn’t follow that the Irish law would do the same thing. For one thing, any way you look at it, “dangerous to herself or to the person or property of others or … in need of supervision or restraint” lends itself to a much looser interpretation than “at real or substantial risk of suicide”. (In fact, the California law was struck down as unconstitutionally vague in 1972 – two months before Roe v Wade – precisely because it had proven impossible for doctors to agree on what these criteria meant.)

For another thing, the California law operated in California. California isn’t Ireland, and it always took a more permissive attitude toward abortion. Even before the 1967 Act, it wasn’t actually difficult to get an abortion there – though the standard of care varied widely depending on the quality of provider the woman could afford. Women didn’t need to travel for abortion as they do in Ireland, where doctors are simply not willing to breach the law. It’s unlikely to the point of absurdity that the flexible interpretation applied by California doctors will be repeated here.

A comparable situation is the way that abortion laws are interpreted in Britain and Poland. On paper, the two countries have a pretty similar regime: both allow abortions in case of fatal foetal abnormality or risk to life or health. In practice, however, they couldn’t be more differently applied: Britain, as we all know, is more or less effectively abortion on demand, while Poland is regularly hauled before the European Court of Human Rights for denying even crystal-clearly legal abortions (and in the most appalling circumstances too; the latest example, P and S v Poland, reads like something Franz Kafka might have written with Margaret Atwood). Cultural views, and the constitutional context, have a huge impact on how liberally abortion laws are interpreted – and Ireland is far closer to Poland than Britain in this respect.

The increasing calls of the Irish pro-choice movement to repeal the 8th Amendment are a reflection of this. If legislating for X really would “open the floodgates” and allow abortion on demand, there’d be no need to amend the Constitution. When the legislation gets through eventually, and it will, we will see how little impact it really has on the abortion rate in Ireland. And then we can get on with campaigning for real change.

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