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Monthly Archives: March 2013

The Logistics of Arranging Abortions

The thing about being a pro-choice activist is that perhaps unsurprisingly, people want to talk to me about abortion. A lot. People will tell me their own abortion stories or ones they’ve heard. I’ve had people who are just barely friends of friends tell me stories of how they’ve travelled on their own with barely enough money to have an abortion in an English clinic.

Sometimes I will be the only person that they will ever tell in their whole lives that they had an abortion.

They place their trust in me because they think I am the only person they can tell without being judged for their decision, and even then they’re never quite sure, but maybe it just felt good to tell someone. I feel sad that they couldn’t tell their Mam or their sister or husband, and sad they had to go through that. And I never tell anyone.

Sometimes though, someone will come to me in crisis and ask for advice on how to arrange their abortion because they don’t know how to navigate such things. How would they? It’s not something that people have an emergency plan for. An escape route as such. They don’t teach you that in school. There’s no organisation out there that you can ring and say, “Hey. I’m in Ireland. I’m in a crisis pregnancy situation, please make the requisite arrangements for me, you can start with getting me the days off work and booking my flights.”

“Crisis” never seems an adequate word to describe these situations that women find themselves in. Sometimes it’s utter terror and sheer undiluted panic.

There’s always a lot of talk about abortion as an abstract concept unconnected to real women but merely represented by letters of the alphabet, X, C, D, A, B, C. But fifteen women leave Ireland every day to have abortions in England. These women are your mothers, your aunts, your sisters, your daughters, your friends, your girlfriends and your wives. They have names, and feelings and the awful experience of having had to work out the logistics of travelling overseas to have an expensive medical procedure they should be able to get in their own local clinic for free.

If you are asked for advice, whether you’re an activist or their friend, you might have to ask them some questions. They are the questions that people don’t think of. They are the things that are irrelevant to those who make the decisions around the provision of women’s medical treatments in Ireland. They are the logistics of arranging abortions.

Do you have the internet? If you have, do you know how to delete your browser history so that your violent partner doesn’t know what you’re up to? Can you go to an internet café where nobody knows you? Bring tissues just in case. Do you know the number of the local women’s refuge?

Have you been to the doctor? How far along are you? Do you know the further along you are, the more expensive an abortion is? Can you get a loan from a Credit Union? Or will you go to a money lender? Do you have anything you can sell to raise the money? Can you lie to your parents or friends to borrow money? Can you max your credit card? Do you even have a credit card? Are there any bills that you can get away with not paying this month? Have you gone through all your old coats and looked down the back of the sofa? How long will it take for you to get €1,000 together? Can you get an extra €20 off the Community Welfare Officer? Can you not buy coal for the next few weeks? Are you on the dole? Can you use your savings? Can you defer your year at college and save the money for your Master’s Degree again? Is it Christmastime? Can you return any gifts for a refund or sell them for cash?

Women with money have options, women with nothing have babies.

Do you have travel documents? A passport is €80 and Ryanair will only let you travel with a passport. Can you get a Driver’s Licence? You’ve lost it? Aer Lingus will let you travel on a work ID. Your work ID doesn’t have a photo on it? You’ll need a passport then.

Are you an Asylum Seeker? Ok, then you need to get travel documents that will allow you to re-enter the state. Who is your solicitor? Is he or she pro choice? How much does he or she charge to help you with this?

How are you fixed for time? Can you only travel on a Sunday because that’s the only day you can “disappear” for where people won’t ask questions? Ok, but you know that it will be tough to get an appointment because there are less than a handful of clinics that will open on a Sunday? Most are closed Sundays. Many are closed on Saturdays. But you better have a fall-back plan because some of the clinics that open on certain days can’t do certain procedures. Do you have a fall back plan? Can you go home to Ireland and come back on Friday? Are you in the middle of your Leaving Cert.? Do you have to wait until after your exams to travel? Will that be more or less stressful?

How do you know that the clinic you’re looking at is actually a clinic and not a rogue crisis pregnancy agency?

Have you been able to figure out how to transfer money from Euros to Pounds without someone noticing on the bank statement?

Have you managed to get the day off work? Will you be calling in sick? Do you need two days off? Do you have any annual leave days left?

Do you live near the airport? Can you take a taxi to the airport? Don’t forget, the taxi driver will make idle chit-chat and ask you where you’re going once he hears ‘airport’. Don’t panic, he doesn’t know it’s for an abortion. Tell him you’re visiting an Aunt.

Or are you from down the country? Can you take a night bus and sleep in the airport to get the 7 am flight? Have you remembered your passport?

Did you manage to get someone to mind your kids? Or are you going on your own because your partner is watching them? Do you still have a partner? Is he supportive of your decision or, when you showed him the results of the pregnancy test did he walk out the door?

Or do you live in Shannon or Knock where there is only one flight out per day and due to the time of that flight, you have to stay overnight two days? Can you tell your partner you’re going to a hen weekend or something? Or a work conference? Or will you tell the truth?

How is your health in general? Have you told your GP? It’s not ectopic? Is your BMI ok? Because if it’s really high, the clinic could send you home from England without having an abortion because that procedure is only done in some places. Can you come back again next Friday? I know that means more flights, more days off work, and now you’re over 14 weeks which makes it more expensive but this is what we’re dealing with.

Do you definitely know how far along you are? Sometimes a woman can end up at a clinic and realise that she’s a little further along than she thought because she couldn’t get the money together and only a few clinics go past 18 weeks. As different doctors have different specialities, some doctors only provide treatment to 12 weeks.

Is this a pregnancy you wanted but you’ve been told that the foetus won’t survive to birth? Do you have a health condition that means you have to have an abortion? Is it something to do with blood clots because pregnancy increases the risk of blood clots so maybe you should get the ferry instead of the plane, and I know it’s a five hour train journey when you get there but there isn’t any other option I’m afraid.

Do you know how to get from the airport to the abortion clinic? Some clinics have a free taxi service but most don’t. Some provide pick up service but after the appointment you’re on your own. Have you checked the bus times?

I know you’ll be gasping for a cup of tea after sleeping in the airport but remember you can only have water just in case an anaesthetic is needed and you can’t eat. Or smoke, but what’s there to be nervous about, right? It’ll all be over soon.

Don’t worry, you’ll be ok, you shouldn’t have had to go through this but there are people working to change this awful, awful situation. I promise you.

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Don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t listen – Joan Smith on the Swedish sex trade law

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Yesterday, the Independent ran this article by Joan Smith about Sweden’s sex trade law. Joan Smith is, in her own words, a “feminist author and columnist” and the essence of her article was that the law criminalising clients is an unqualified success.

This is despite the fact that she seemingly didn’t speak to a single member of the group most affected by the law, by which I mean Swedish sex workers. Her investigative method was to “jump in a squad car with local police” as they tailed working women around the streets of Stockholm, and then to uncritically report what those police told her.

Jem over at It’s Just A Hobby has already passionately conveyed her feelings about sex workers being ignored in this way. Please go and read her post and come back here when you’re done. If you only have time to read hers or mine, read hers. It’s more important.

For those of you who made it back here, I just want to add a couple things. The refusal to listen to sex workers’ voices isn’t only offensive, insulting and pretty much without parallel (would Smith “investigate” the results of a law on domestic violence without speaking to women who’d experienced it? Would she take police at face value that they had improved their handling of rape cases without asking rape victims if they agreed?), it’s also bad policy. It means she isn’t – can’t be – getting the full picture. She isn’t even asking all the relevant questions.

Just to give a few examples from that piece:

“The woman, who hasn’t broken any law, is offered help from social services if she wants to leave prostitution. Otherwise, she’s allowed to go.”

Did she accept the help? If not, why not? Has she accepted the help before? If so, why is she still on the streets? Now that she’s lost the income from that client, how will she compensate for it?

“[The national rapporteur on trafficking in human beings] talks about why women end up in prostitution, citing research that shows a history of childhood sexual abuse, compounded by problems with drugs and alcohol.”

Does that narrative accurately describe you?  Were there different or other factors that brought you where you are [and that Sweden will need to address if it wants to get you out of the sex industry and prevent others like you from entering]?

“Where 70 or 80 women used to sell sex outdoors, these days it’s between five and 10 in winter, 25 in summer.”

What happened to the missing women? Did they just go indoors? Did they leave Sweden (perhaps to work in a country where the clients aren’t as well-behaved as the cop claims the Swedish clients are)? Did they find “straight” jobs, or did they have to turn to other less desirable ways of earning income? Are they all even still alive?

“Before 1999, most women in street prostitution in Stockholm were Swedish. Now they’re from the Baltic states or Africa, and have sold sex in other countries as well.”

Why did they come to Sweden? Was the sex trade law itself the draw, or did they come for different reasons but find themselves unable to get any other work? Why aren’t they availing of that “help from social services”?

“They tell Haggstrom’s officers they’re much more likely to be subjected to violence in countries where prostitution has been legalised.”

Do they really?

“one of the criticisms of the law was that it would make prostitution more dangerous. All the Swedish police officers I spoke to insisted this was a myth”

Is it really a myth? Or are sex workers just less likely to report violence to police officers, now that they depend on income from a criminalised source?

“”If a sex buyer can find a prostituted woman in a hotel or apartment, the police can do it,” Haggstrom observes sardonically.”

Is this really true? Or do the police simply not know when they haven’t found a sex worker whom a buyer has found?

“40 women, mostly from Romania, had sufficient confidence in the Swedish criminal justice system to testify against the men exploiting them”

How many women in the sex trade didn’t have sufficient confidence in the criminal justice system to testify?

“In a brightly lit street, Haggstrom points out a couple of Romanian women who work as prostitutes.”

Once again, why are they selling sex in Sweden? Why haven’t they availed of the social services? Why isn’t the Swedish law “working” for them?

My last question there is a key one. Reading this article, I was struck by the number of references in it to women still in the sex trade. The Baltic and African women. The Romanians on the street. The 40 Romanians who testified in last year’s trafficking trials. The woman of undisclosed nationality whose income source was arrested at the start of the article. Even if you buy the Swedish claims that their numbers have dropped precipitously – and remember, those claims relate only to street prostitution, which was only a tiny part of the industry to begin with – there’s obviously still a Swedish sex trade. And the women (and men) working in it are actual human beings who presumably have views on the law and what its consequences have been for them. One would think that those consequences would be at least as important, to a feminist like Joan Smith, as the crude number count. Which in any case clearly excludes these women from the “success” narrative, a fact I’d expect her to also deem worthy of exploration.

But Smith didn’t just consider it irrelevant to ask these women what the law has meant (and hasn’t meant) to them. She also refused to engage with the many sex workers who tweeted her to point out this omission, the sole exception being her dismissive response to Jem. She allowed police officers – people who see it as their mission to drive sex workers out of business, people who have a long history of using sex workers for their own ends in all sorts of nefarious ways (yes, even in post-criminalisation Sweden) to define their experiences for them.

I have a few words for that type of reporting. “Feminist” isn’t one of them.

Leo Varadkar’s World; Where men are men and women are grateful

Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar, in a shining example of how to make friends and influence people, excelled himself with his comments indicating that some women may have to give up their jobs in order to avail of the new personal insolvency service.  The TD’s comments were picked up in The Irish Examiner;

I know one or two women who probably don’t make very much money at all from working, but they do it to keep their position on the career ladder, if you like, and that is a legitimate thing to do.

“But if you can’t pay your mortgage as a result, or buy your groceries as a result, then that is something that needs to be taken into account in any insolvency arrangement.

“Nobody is asking anybody to give up their jobs. What is going to happen is that people are going to come forward, they are going to say ‘I can’t pay my debts, I can’t pay my mortgage’, and in that case, the insolvency practitioner will go through with them why they can’t pay their bills, and obviously a creditor is not going to agree to a writedown unless that has been gone through and they can work out what is the most they can pay.”

We all know two income families where there are women working, and realistically they might be just about breaking even due to the cost of childcare. The outrageous cost of childcare is due to the fact that the Government have failed utterly in ensuring a state childcare system that is affordable and accessible for women or dare I say it, state-funded through an equitable taxation system and free to avail of.

Parents do not enjoy paying out the price of a mortgage to have someone mind their children, but they do it because they have to. They think “My child will be in school when they’re 4 or 5, this is hard but it’s only for a few years.” Working mothers will often add on a bit to the end of that sentence, “…this is hard but it’s only for a few years, and at least I’ll still have my job at the end.”

The implication of Varadkar’s comments are clearly that women in those situations where it may be a short-term cost to work should give up their jobs in order to avail of the personal insolvency arrangements. There is no other way of interpreting it.

And make no mistake about it he means women and women only should give up their jobs. Women for the most part earn less than men and it is they who should sacrifice their careers in order to save the family home. If they don’t do this, they can’t partake in the system and if the bank succeeds in having the home repossessed, well it’s Mammy’s fault because that selfish bitch wouldn’t give up her job. Dear Women, Leo Varadkar wants you to pull your socks up and get on with the hoovering because you have no business in trying to make your way in the workplace. That’s man stuff.

The problem with the new personal insolvency arrangements is that they’re wholly inadequate to deal with the level of distressed mortgages and personal indebtedness across the state anyway, so the number of people who will enter them will be limited to say the least. Most women and working mothers who are in debt now, are going to carry on being in debt and no amount of Varadkar’s nauseatingly nonsensical comments will change that.

But in Deputy Leo Varadkar’s world, women after giving up their engagement ring and then sacrificing their jobs because of childcare costs will enter an arrangement with the bank in which they’ll rearrange their debts and mortgage payments. Their children will go to school eventually and they’ll be told to go back to work. Except now there are no jobs so they’ll be dependent on their partner (if they still have a job) or social welfare payments or the kindness of St. Vincent de Paul, because if there’s one thing that Varadkar obviously doesn’t understand, it’s the difficulty that exists for women in attempting to re-enter the workplace after a prolonged absence. The Government is too busy bailing out banks instead of setting about creating jobs, or heaven forbid, doing a fundamental overhaul of how society is structured.

What this demonstrates is how women and women-focused issues are deemed completely irrelevant to the discourse around indebtedness, employment, and even motherhood in Ireland. Who cares if the childcare cost is arguably temporary and leaving her job contains a risk that may result in not getting another job a few years down the road? Who cares that nobody wants to acknowledge that childrearing is a form of labour? Who cares that women are expected to be responsible for childrearing, housework and labour outside of the home? Who cares that it costs up to €2,000 a month to put two children in a crèche? Certainly not the good and the great of Fine Gael.

Nevertheless the focus on women becomes very important when it comes to laying the blame at someone’s door. Just like working class single Mams have been demonised for having children and blamed for their lot of poverty since time began, indebted Mams will now be demonised for not giving up their jobs and sacrificing the family home, or alternatively giving up their job and then being unemployed when their children go to school. Realistically, who is going to stay working when the roof over their head is at risk? One would suspect it’s very few.

For women it’s a lose-lose situation. This is part of a strategy designed to make women work within the home for free to enable men to work outside it for payment. For a State that supposedly extols motherhood and deplores the fact that the reason most Irish women have abortions is because they do not have the financial means to raise children, it’s a particularly peculiar way to act.

Leo Varadkar’s attitude is like something out of an episode of Mad Men, envisioning a world where men are men and women are grateful, but perhaps the women of Dublin West won’t be so grateful at the polling stations during the next general election and if the men had any sense they won’t be so grateful either.

Why childbirth should be on the feminist agenda in Ireland

Guest post by Sylda Dwyer

The day before Mother’s Day in an emergency Saturday sitting, a High Court judge was asked to compel a pregnant woman to undergo a Caesarean section. According to an affidavit presented in court, Waterford Regional Hospital believed that because the woman was 13 days overdue by their calculations, had a scar on her uterus from a previous C-section and the position of the baby’s head was high, a Caesarean was required. As the woman was refusing to consent to the procedure, the hospital sought an order to enforce the C-section immediately.

The judge heard evidence from the locum consultant obstetrician attending the woman and one other consultant obstetrician from the same hospital who gave his evidence over the phone. No independent or third party opinions were heard. The woman was represented in court by a solicitor paid for by the hospital. Her voice – undisputedly the most important in this potentially precedent-setting case – was absent. We do not know her reasoning for refusing the section except that it was not on religious grounds as the judge sought clarification on this.

We do know the following:

– she believed the hospital had miscalculated her due date and was in fact due on 18 March

– her husband was overseas and therefore unable to support her

– she has a son who was born in 2010 by Caesarean section

– she wanted to deliver this baby naturally

– she was prepared to undergo a C-section if an emergency arose or if the surgery took place on the Sunday or Monday when her husband would be back in the country.

Just minutes before the judge was due to make his ruling, word arrived from the hospital that the woman had consented and that a spinal anaesthetic had been administered. It is unlikely that we will ever know how the judge would have ruled. Either decision would have been a significant landmark in human rights in childbirth in Ireland.

A ruling in favour of the enforced C-section could have potentially opened up the floodgates to medical professionals turning to the courts when coming up against resistance from women who disagreed with hospital policies such as induction and active labour management. Such a ruling would essentially take the decision making power of a pregnant woman out of her hands and in the process remove her right to body autonomy in contravention of her human rights, a situation not unfamiliar to Irish women.

A ruling in favour of the mother would have been a boost to the recognition of a woman’s right to bodily integrity and to make informed decisions about her healthcare during pregnancy, something that is sorely needed in Ireland at the moment.

Either way, this emergency sitting had huge implications for maternity care and women’s human rights in this country.

It is also worth noting that the absence of a ruling meant that no woman in this country has yet been subjected to a court-enforced Caesarean birth against her will and this is cause for celebration. Although it is a dark day for pregnant women’s rights that the situation arose at all, we should be thankful that the horrors that might unfold in a forced C-section have not been realised. One can only imagination the long term negative implications such a birth would have on the baby and its traumatised mother.

So what happened next?

Outside of a couple of articles from the Irish Times, who initially broke the story on Saturday, an excellent opinion piece from Victoria White in the Examiner and some cursory pieces in a smattering of online and print outlets, the media has been deafeningly silent on this case. Apart from reporting the facts that presented themselves in court, no analysis or questioning of the case has been published. No one has asked why an independent expert opinion wasn’t sought, no one has asked why the woman was insistent on refusing consent, no one has queried the fact that one of the consultants claimed that Caesarean sections are “almost risk free”. It would appear that we’re all relieved that this messy business has been neatly swept under the carpet.

There has been no public outcry or a rallying of the troops to support this woman who played such a strong hand to defend her bodily integrity and human rights when most would have conceded to the pressures. In fact, rather than the sound of supporting voices, the loudest noise has been the feverish tapping on keyboards and smartphones as boards, forums and social media have lit up with other women condemning this new mother for daring to question her medical advice, calling her a reckless, selfish, stupid, dangerous, incense-burning hippy who deserves to have her child taken from her.

Rather than an outpouring of sympathy for a woman who felt she knew her own body and her baby best, many believe that the medical opinion was sacrosanct and beyond reproach and therefore the court should have ruled that she be subject to a forced Caesarean. By all accounts, the majority of the female online community have judged that the pregnant woman was fully entitled to bodily integrity and to make decisions about her body and her baby, just as long as they were the “correct’ decisions as deemed by her doctor.

Is seems that as a nation we are happy to accept that there is only one truth to birth and that is the medical system’s truth. Rather than question the policy practices of the Irish maternity system, which prioritises managing as many women through the system as it can, as fast as it can, over the health and wellbeing of mothers and their babies, we are happy to accept routine interventions which often directly lead to complications and traumatic birth experiences with long term health consequences, both physical and psychological.

We have a birth culture in Ireland where women accept that their birth process can be decided on by a medical practitioner. Hospitals dictate when a woman’s labour starts, how is starts, and whether its going fast enough according to a one-size-fits-all policy. Inductions convenient to hospital diaries, but not to a woman whose body simply isn’t quite ready to give birth yet, often fail leading to Caesarean sections that could have been completely avoided if the woman had been given a few extra days for her body to be ready to give birth.

Women already in labour who are deemed not to be progressing sufficiently fast enough to hospital policy, although their body is going at a pace that is working for both mother and baby, have their labour speeded up which can lead to both maternal and foetal distress. Episiotomies, surgically planned incisions of the perineum, are often performed without seeking a woman’s consent and in some cases in spite of her refusal. There is a time and a place for all of these interventions where they are positive and useful tools in successful birth outcomes. The issue is that they have become standard practice without medical indication.

In recent years a whole industry has developed around dealing with the fall out of women’s – and babies – negative birth experiences. Traumatic birth counsellors with expertise in post natal depression and post traumatic stress disorder, cranio-sacral osteopaths, women’s health physiotherapists and perineal specialists are part of mainstream healthcare. These practitioners provide a necessary and important service but surely there are questions to be asked about why so many women and their babies will require these services in the first instance?

Why is it that when the vast majority of pregnancies in Ireland are considered low risk, do we have such a high incidence of intervention and medicalised birth? Why do we accept that giving birth is something horrific that has to be endured as long as we end up with a healthy mother and baby? Who decides what the definition of healthy is? It would appear that we set that standard as simply still being alive, and to hell with the immediate and long term consequences of trauma caused by a medical interventionalist model. It is a low bar.

We unquestionably go along with hospital policies that are put in place to manage the number of women passing through maternity hospital doors and to protect medical professionals against litigation rather than for the best interest of mothers and babies. Rather than allowing labours to begin spontaneously and to progress at a natural pace for the comfort and safety of both mother and baby, hospitals hold full control over the birth process. This model of maternity care is the only example in the healthcare sector of maintaining such control. In any other medical situation, the patient has full control in the decision making process and can walk away without consequence if they don’t consent to medical recommendations. In this same context, it’s worth noting that pregnancy is not an illness, rather a natural physiological process, until medical complications arise.

Given that there are so many births in Ireland every year and child bearing is experienced by so many women, why is childbirth completely ignored by the feminist movement? . We rally to defend the rights of women in early pregnancy to choose how they want their pregnancy to proceed, as we should. Yet there is something about the birth process itself that we have marginalised and dismissed.

When uninterrupted, pregnancy and birth can be a life-affirming, empowering, peaceful and private experience that can result in positive outcomes for both mother and child, including in the post-partum bonding and healing process. So why do we allow it to be taken from us and controlled? The current system of maternity care, while populated with many excellent medical professionals, has administration, logistics and litigation management as its focus rather than mother-led care. Until freedom of choice in childbirth is put front and centre as a priority of the feminist movement in Ireland, alongside pro-choice and equality policies, cases like this High Court sitting will become de rigour and women’s rights in childbirth will continue to be eroded.

Related articles:

Woman agrees to Caesarean after hospital goes to court – Irish Times

Sadly, Ireland doesn’t know best in Ireland’s rigid childbirth regime – Victoria White, Irish Examiner

Caesarean Section Refusal in Ireland – Human Rights in Ireland

No country for pregnant women – AIMS Ireland

Giving birth is a feminist issue – Mind the Baby

Irish hospital prepared to forcibly perform C-section on non consenting woman – Allergic to Patriarchy

NHS NICE Caesarean Guidelines

Sylda Dwyer blogs at http://www.mindthebaby.ie

On International Women’s Day

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This is all.

Happy International Women’s Day. My feminism is intersectional. Solidarity with women of colour, queer & trans* women, and sex workers.

— + Yvonne Aburrow (@vogelbeere) March 8, 2013