Feminist Ire’s Stephanie Lord and Sinéad Redmond, along with Niamh McDonald and her son Tom, join Kathy Sheridan to discuss the origins of Cop On Comrades, how men can support the feminist struggle, and activism in the social media age.
Category Archives: Politics
To access a life saving abortion in Ireland requires 3 medical professionals (two psychiatrists and one obstetrician) to agree that the woman is at risk of taking her own life. As the recent case of a young girl shows it only takes one psychiatrist however to get sectioned for wanting an abortion in Ireland.
The girl was legally classed as a child and her identity has understandably been withheld so we know nothing more about her other than that she had an unwanted pregnancy and that when she sought an abortion from her healthcare professionals she was of the understanding that she was being taken to Dublin for the procedure. However unbeknownst to her the consultant psychiatrist had given evidence at a hearing to detain her under the Mental Health Act.
“The consultant psychiatrist was of the opinion that while the child was at risk of self harm and suicide as a result of the pregnancy, this could be managed by treatment and that termination of the pregnancy was not the solution for all of the child’s problems at that stage.”
How frightening it must have been for her to find herself in a mental hospital after travelling to Dublin expecting an abortion. We are told it was “days” later that another hearing was held that resulted in her discharge from the mental hospital. During this time her court-appointed guardian ad litem (GAL) had employed another consultant psychiatrist to access her and on the basis of their evidence the girl was released from the institution. She spent unnecessary “days” in a mental institution for the “crime” of nothing more than wanting an abortion.
I’ve heard numerous reports of suicidal people trying to access mental health units in Irish hospitals who have been sent away. In future I’ll suggest to those of them who are capable of getting pregnant to say they’re pregnant and want an abortion, as that seems to be a sure way to get sectioned.
This case raises a number of questions. How is it that it only took one psychiatrist to have the girl sectioned? Why was the PLDP act not enacted for this pregnant, suicidal child? How can the public be assured that the personal beliefs of medical professionals won’t interfere with them being able to access the healthcare they need? Did Government Ministers know of the case at the time?
Abortion Rights Campaign (ARC) spokesperson Linda Kavanagh said:
“Looking at the report, it’s hard not to think that the psychiatrist in this case essentially used the Mental Health Act as a tool to force a child into continuing an unwanted pregnancy because of their own personal beliefs. It is clear we need some process which ensures medical professionals with such conscientious objections cannot block timely health care in critical cases.”
This is the latest case in a long line of women and girls who have been failed by the state. Ms X was another suicidal child prevented from accessing an abortion in 1992 and Ms Y a teenage rape victim likewise led to believe she would be given an abortion and instead detained against her will. Ireland has a disgraceful history stretching back to the Magdalene Laundries of locking up pregnant women.
The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act is supposed to “protect” women who are at risk of taking their own lives, not used as a tool to lock women who want abortions up.
The Irish Government are allowing this human rights abuse to happen on their watch, leaving a trail of abused and sometimes dead women, girls and children behind them.
Rally to Repeal is on Saturday 17th in Dublin. If you can’t go please contact your local T.Ds and ask them to urgently implement the findings of the Citizens Assembly.
You can sign an UPLIFT petition here:https://action.uplift.ie/campaigns/187
*I’d like to acknowledge the work of the Child Law Project. We would know nothing of this case if it wasn’t for their work. Since 2012 they have been able to report to the public on child care proceedings in the courts, they aim to report on 10% of cases.
We are a group of activist women from a wide variety of backgrounds, races, ethnicities, and sexual orientations. Last week, a good number of the left-wing men we work and organise with seriously disappointed us. These men – our friends, our fellow trade unionists, activists, writers, organisers, and artists – shared and commented on a reductive and damaging article written by Frankie Gaffney, which was published in the Irish Times.
We live in a world where our advantages are tangled up with the things that disadvantage us – some of us are working class, some queer, some of us are poor, some of us come from minority ethnic groups or have disabilities or don’t enjoy the security of citizenship. As well, some of us have had a multitude of opportunities in our lives while some of us have had to fight our way through. It is an obligation on all of us to honestly look at our different positions within the structures of oppression and privilege under patriarchal racial capitalism. It is only by acknowledging all these differences that we have any chance of imagining and building a better world that includes us all.
Working-class ‘straight white men’ in Ireland don’t have it easy these days. They never did. They are ignored by a political class that couldn’t care less about them. They should have a say in the decisions that affect their lives, but they often don’t.
However, that doesn’t make them immune to critique. We all have to examine ourselves as oppressor as well as oppressed – because we are all both. The response to the article felt like a silencing to us and we are writing this because we are way past putting up with that. You will see from the names on this letter that we are women who have been in the thick of things. Whether in political parties and organisations, education, trade unions, or grassroots and community-based movements, we are tired of being accused of ‘bourgeois feminism’ and of betraying the struggle when we raise our voices. No campaign in this country could survive without women, without us – our work and energy and knowledge and organising have been instrumental in all the progressive movements in this country. When we say we need to be recognised and respected within our movements, we need you to listen.
The article expressed the view that identity politics is good for nothing except dividing movements, using language and narratives that have been made popular by MRA (Men’s Rights Activist) groups and the alt-right. According to such narratives, straight white men are the new most oppressed group. This ignores the struggles of women and others at the sharp end of misogyny, racism, anti-trans and anti-queer violence. It aims to silence those who will no longer tolerate the violence, abuse and marginalisation we have suffered for so long. These alt-right arguments have been used by people on the left to support the view that women, and feminists in particular, are to blame for the rise of the far right – for instance, for Trump’s election – and for neoliberal capitalism, which is seen as having damaged working class men in particular.
In this version of events, straight white men are made to feel uncomfortable about being ‘born this way’ by social media-fuelled ‘political correctness’. They are too afraid to say what they think or express opinions for fear of online retribution. Men who claim to be silenced in this way might try a week or even a day as a vocal woman or person of colour online and see how they deal with the rape threats and threats of racist violence that follow.
We are not concerned here about one opinion piece by one person. Rather we have all been aware of the increasing trend towards this particular new type of silencing of women from our supposed fellow activists on the left. The arguments mounted here and elsewhere are apparently to criticise some of the worst aspects of ‘call-out culture’, as well as the lean-in type of so-called feminism that disregards class and race. Yet they seem to be used now by some of our left-wing activist comrades as an excuse not to deal with the complexities of gender, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation in our political organising. These excuses, when accepted, prevent us from seeing clearly the state of our movements – who is taking part in them, who is heard and represented, who is doing the work. These are massive issues that have to do with how we are creating mass movements, which need to be addressed and faced to ensure that people of different classes, races, ethnicities, sexual orientation and gender have not just a voice but leading roles in our struggle. Without this solidarity in working together, we are simply imitating the oppressive structures we want to fight – the structures that say “not now, your life comes second.” It is not the straight white men who are being silenced when this argument is made.
We are working-class women, women of colour, migrant women, trans women, Traveller women, disabled women, queer women, women who are sex workers, women with children, and women who are none of these, active in our communities and committed to an anti-capitalist struggle. We are well aware that a right-wing, neoliberal distortion of feminism and what is called ‘identity politics’ exists. We know this because it erases our experiences and struggles and we resist this erasure through our work as activists every single day. It is distressing and enraging that we also have to fight against the bad faith of fellow activists on the left – mostly men, sometimes women – who, for their own reasons, blur the distinction between this kind of middle-class neoliberal faux-feminism, and a truly radical feminist politics that has class struggle at its very core. This hurts us because it erases and undermines our realities, our suffering, our analyses, and our organising, and gives more strength to the powers that are ranged against us. For many of us, it is heart-breaking to look at some of the men around us and realise that they are nodding in agreement with this erasure of their working class women friends and comrades.
Most of us have grown up learning to appease men. How to give them our space, how to deal with the fact that they dominate any political discussions, that they are paid more, heard more and believed more. However, most of us expect that the men we work with in all the social justice movements we are part of should have at least considered how they are complicit in this domination when they refuse to recognise that it exists. Patriarchy forces men into roles that damage them as well as us. Most of us have men that we love, admire and respect in our lives and for that reason, not only because it damages and diminishes the life experiences of women, we should all be fighting patriarchy together.
Hazel Katherine Larkin
Eilís Ní Fhlannagáin
Aoife FitzGibbon O’Riordan
Stephanie Crowe Taft
Fionnghuala Nic Roibeaird
Clara Rose Thornton IV
Doireann Ní Ghríofa
Lisa Keogh Finnegan
Taryn de Vere
Orlagh De Bhaldraithe
Sarah Vanden Broeck
Susan O Keeffe
Máire Ní Giolla Bhríde
Maria O Sullivan
Amy Ní Mhurchú
Muireann Meehan Speed
Debbie O Rourke
Kieran Ann Clifford
Grian Ní Dhaimhín
Sarah Marie Slattery
Síomha Ní Aonghusa
Noirin Mac Namara
Rebeccah O’ Donovan
Jene Hinds Kelly
Áine Ní Fhaoláin
Aislinn O Keeffe
Leighanna Rose Walsh
Aoife Riach Kelly
Sarah Ann Behan
Catherine Ann Cullen
Dorcas Mac Nally
Anna Mac Carthy Adams
Alicia Byrne Keane
Emma Jayne Geraghty
Aoife O’Neill Gormley
Fiona de Londras
Mary Treasa Cahill-Kennedy
Julia Tor Rojo
Geraldine Moorkens Byrne
Ailbhe Ni Mhaoilearca
Réaltán Ní Leannáin
Fionnuala Mc Kenna
Ann Marie Duffin
Cara Ní Mhaonaigh
The following is a not-at-all comprehensive list of things that are not considered a crime in Ireland (if the person doing them to you is your partner or ex partner):
- Refusing to get you medical attention when you need it
- Deliberately embarking on a campaign of brainwashing to break you down and erode your self worth
- Leaving you sick without food or water for more than 24 hours
- Belittling and mocking you for your health issues
- Stopping you from seeing your friends and/or family
- Hacking into your accounts and spying on you
- Trying to turn your children against you
- Extorting money from you by coercion
- Coming into your house without your permission
- Going through your belongings
- Leaving photographs of themselves in your bed
- Sending abusive texts or emails
- Using children to hurt/control you (by not attending to their needs when in their care, refusing to sign permission slips/passport applications/H.S.E forms etc)
- Spreading malicious lies about you
- Reading your texts and emails
- Lurking round your property and looking through your back windows in the morning
- Using jointly owned assets (property etc) as a means to control you
- Not allowing you any money or taking all the money without your knowledge or permission
- Sabotaging your contraception
- Not allowing you to have an abortion if you want one
- Neglecting the children when they are in his care
- Not allowing you any time to yourself
- Not allowing you to work
- Making you keep a diary of what you do every minute of the day
- Using their financial means and your lack of to control you
- Deliberatley stripping you of your sense of identity
- Threatening to take your children off you
- Threatening to harm your children and or pets
- Threatening to kill themselves in an effort to control you
All of the above examples I’ve taken from my own experience and those of the many women* I’ve supported after leaving abusive relationships. Many of these examples were cited in dealings with domestic abuse services and Gardai and the victim was told they had no case against the abuser. They are just some of the techniques used by abusive people to emotionally abuse others. I call it psychological torture, a brainwashing that happens over time that slowly but surely erodes the sense of self. This connection to the man’s needs creates a binding dynamic that makes it extra difficult for women to leave. Their victim’s sense of self is so eroded and they are so brainwashed into putting him first that even after leaving the most awful of relationships they are still thinking of and worried about the ‘poor’ man they’ve left. A lot of the work I do is helping women to reclaim their sense of self and to learn to put themselves and their needs first.
If you are a victim who has suffered emotional abuse constituting any of the above list (or other emotionally abusive actions), there are a few countries in the world that consider that treatment of you a crime. The U.K, France and Canada all consider emotional abuse to be a crime, as does the the U.N and domestic abuse service providers who work with abused women. Given the long term affects on the victim are the same regardless of the type of abuse perpetrated, why is it that most countries (including Ireland) only recognise the physical body as capable of being ‘abused’?
According to a U.N report on violence against women,
“Forty-three per cent of women in the 28 European Union Member States have experienced some form of psychological violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime.”
43%. That is nearly half the female population of Europe that has been a victim of a type of abuse that is considered a criminal act in several first world countries and that is every bit as harmful to the victim as physical violence.
In Ireland, domestic abuse is not even seen as a crime, as Jane Ruffino points out in her excellent piece on the subject. A woman in Ireland whose partner or ex partner is doing any of the things on the list above has no legal recourse to get him to stop. Yet the list above contains actions that are considered warning signs if you are an expert in domestic abuse. And as we know, domestic abuse often ends only when the woman is dead.
Data on domestic abuse is not even collected in Ireland. Perhaps the Irish government thinks it can put it’s head in the sand as to the scale of the problem. That Gardai were grossly under reporting domestic abuse figures came to light when the Northern Irish Police released their report detailing more than 29,000 domestic abuse incidents. When this figure was compared with 3678 incidents reported by Gardai the same year people started to question the validity of the Irish figures. Since Ireland has nearly 3 times the population of Northern Ireland our figures should’ve looked more like 87,000. But then I suppose figures like that might require some kind of action on behalf of the Irish government.
According to the U.N less than 10% of women report physical, emotional or sexual crimes against them to the Police. If we are to assume that the Irish figures should be more like 87,000 and that that is representative of the 10% who report, we would be looking at 783,000 women in Ireland currently or previously being a victim of abuse (excluding child abuse). That roughly equals one sixth of the Irish population. Add that to the one in four who have been abused as a child and you have a country with a massive abuse problem. A country that doesn’t record domestic abuse figures and has a horrific history of covering up (and enabling even) child abuse.
As the government in Ireland seems disinterested in knowing how many of it’s citizens have been abused, perhaps some monetary figures would incentivise them to care. The link between metal health and trauma has been widely reported on, and the cost of mental health problems to the Irish economy is 3 billion a year. While some mental health problems are physiological, research shows that a lot of mental health problems stem from trauma. There are potentially 783,000 women in Ireland who have or are currently a victim of domestic abuse (excluding child abuse statistics). Some of these women have children who have also been exposed to if not abuse itself then the aftermath of experiencing abuse. These women have friends, family and work colleagues who will similarly be exposed and perhaps affected. That is a lot of potential mental health issues.
If we cared about abuse (if we cared about women) we might know what the actual figure of the economic cost of domestic abuse is. I’m not an economist, so I can only talk about the human cost. The human cost of living in a country that doesn’t view someone psychologically torturing you, denying you healthcare, tricking you into getting pregnant, threatening you, stalking you, lying about you or using your children against you as a crime worth prosecuting. A country that doesn’t even bother to collect data about the abuse you are receiving. And I have to ask, what kind of country accepts this behaviour as socially and legally justifiable?
- Domestic abuse to be made a criminal act.
- Data to be collected by the Gardai on domestic abuse.
- Emotional abuse to be included as a crime.
- The name to be changed to ‘Domestic Abuse’ to encompass all types of abuse, including those that aren’t physical.
*I’m speaking of women in this piece as they are the most affected by domestic abuse and I have only worked with women survivors, however men can of course be victims of abuse as well.
Note: most of this was written on an iPad Mini on an airplane, so please excuse lack of hyperlinks and fadas.
It is more than a decade ago, and Dublin Sinn Féin are holding a full members’ meeting to discuss party development. Gerry Adams has travelled from Belfast to address the meeting. After he speaks, the members are invited to share their views on what could be done to increase party membership in the capital. A young North Inner City activist puts up her hand, nervously, and somehow finds the courage to say that the party has got to get its head around the abortion issue, or at some point it will find itself alienating the very demographic it wants to attract: passionate young people seeking fundamental change in society.
Gerry Adams replies that he disagrees, and that he doesn’t think this is a problem Sinn Féin needs to concern itself with. After all, he says, we have the most progressive abortion policy of any party in Ireland. And the young activist doesn’t argue, because the fact is, he’s right – at this point in time, Sinn Féin’s “exceptional circumstances only” policy actually is as good as it gets in Irish politics. Labour’s, believe it or not, is even worse. Oh, sure, there are genuinely pro-choice parties amongst the far left, but the far left aren’t really a factor right now; only the Socialist Party have a seat in the Dáil and their lone TD, Joe Higgins, hasn’t even mentioned abortion as far as anyone can remember. (In the 2007 election, Higgins will lose his seat and Ireland will be left without a single pro-choice party in its parliament.) The Workers’ Party have no TDs anymore and anyway, with a North Inner City representative linked to Youth Defence, they have problems of their own on the issue. And the subject itself is still so taboo in Irish society, there isn’t even really much debate about it; realistically, no one hopes to see more than legislation for the X case any time soon. So while Sinn Féin may be rather transparently trying to play both sides, the truth is, their fence-sitting policy is probably costing them more votes from the “never, never, never” crowd.
It’s now 2017, and how things have changed! That young activist – me, if you hadn’t guessed – is now politically unaligned (and needless to say, not so young anymore). Labour are now officially pro-choice, as are the Workers Party (who still have no TDs, but are far more active in Dublin these days). The Socialist Party are now Solidarity, and hold two Dail seats; People Before Profit and the Independents for Change are also giving pro-choice voters a strong parliamentary voice. You can’t throw a rock in Dublin city centre without hitting someone in a Repeal jumper; and though no one thinks the Dail will accept the Citizens Assembly recommendation for no restrictions on abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, even the fact that 100 randomly selected Irish people could come up with that recommendation is a sign of how far Ireland has moved.
Sinn Fein, however, are still rooted to the same position they were over a decade ago, and in fact two or three decades ago: calling for abortion to remain generally illegal with exceptions. So anachronistic does this now sound that when their spokesperson Louise O’Reilly responded to the Citizens Assembly vote by reiterating party policy, her statement was met by disbelief and anger among pro-choice supporters all over social media – many of whom had misinterpreted Sinn Fein’s call for repeal as a call for meaningful change. (And no, any change won’t be meaningful if it still leaves more than 90% of abortions illegal, and forces those women entitled to a legal abortion to either prove it, or just keep going to England like they always have.)
Now in fairness the party can’t just change policies on a whim; the exceptional circumstances policy must remain until an Ard Fheis votes to overturn it. Critics and cynics are right that the party leadership can usually get such a vote when they want one but that formality is, nonetheless, constitutionally required. And party spokespersons are constitutionally bound to adhere to that policy whether or not they personally agree with it (and I’m inclined to suspect Louise O’Reilly doesn’t, though I’ve never met her). [ETA: Judging by her Twitter response to this article, it seems I was far too generous to her. Well, at least now we know.]
But it does mean the party has a serious decision to make. And it can’t just keep doing what it did all the years I was involved, and respond to every attempt to change party policy at an Ard Fheis by trotting out a female Ard Chomhairle member with impeccable feminist credentials to persuade delegates that party unity would be best preserved by retaining its middle-of-the-road position. Because frankly, it no longer is a middle-of-the-road position. The hardline, no-repeal, no-exceptions stance that formerly represented the conservative side of the debate has now been relegated to the outer fringes where it belongs (just like in the US where, you might recall, Republican candidates supporting Irish style abortion laws were condemned as extremists even by other anti-choice Republicans). It’s no longer a question of will there be a referendum but when, and the real issue that remains is how restrictive – or how liberal – the replacement regime will be. If Sinn Féin sticks to their current policy they will find themselves on the right of this debate along with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael and you can bet that they will struggle to convince today’s young activists to join them.
Of course, there are many people in Ireland – and not just among the far left – who think that that’s exactly where Sinn Fein belong, exactly where they always intended to be. Fianna Fáil light, just waiting to go into coalition and shed all their remaining leftist pretences. I can’t speak for the leadership, but I can certainly say that is not where the activists who I called comrades wanted to see them. I have no doubt that those who remain in the party are saying the same things internally that I’m saying here – and hopefully this time, the leadership will listen. Because the excuse I was given all those years ago just doesn’t cut it anymore, and I don’t think there’s an excuse that will. Ireland has changed, abortion politics have changed and it’s simply no longer credible for a party to present itself as a radical or even merely progressive alternative to the establishment parties, while siding with the most conservative of those parties on an issue of such fundamental importance to young people today. My prediction at that meeting may have been a bit premature, but tiocfaidh an lá. Sinn Féin cannot sit on the fence anymore because there is no fence anymore. The fence is gone, and they will have to choose one side or the other.
Over to you, comrades.
Peter Mathews was a former Fine Gael TD who was known for waving rosary beads around their parliamentary party meetings and for famously declaring in response to being asked a question regarding whether women should be forced to carry life-threatening pregnancies to term with the phrase “Sure we’re all going to end up dead anyway.”
He also once declared that the decision to allow a 14 year old rape victim an early stage abortion as in the X Case as being “repugnant” and on occasion said it would be better lock women up, if that was what it took, to stop them having an abortion.
When news of his death emerged yesterday, many people wryly commented that at least Peter was right about one thing, we would all end up dead anyway. In response of course, men on the internet, defenders of the hurt feelings of a dead man, came out in their droves to tell women who used his literal own words that they were “scum” for doing so. Indeed, the fact that I had pointed out the irony of being reminded that the feelings of a dead man are important than the actual lives of the women who Peter Mathews would have preferred dead or in jail for want of an abortion, I attracted tweets from men to tell me I was “thick” for doing so.
Others were more measured in their replies to women remarking on Mathews’ death saying that their emotional responses to his death would result in less support for the pro-choice argument despite it being highly unlikely that a person who doesn’t think a woman deserves basic bodily autonomy is going to change their mind based on whether they think a woman’s reply is polite enough.
The mantra “do not speak ill of the dead” was taken to heart by many yesterday. Ordinarily most people would probably agree, but Peter Mathews was not an ordinary person. He was a former public representative who was elected to the Dáil, who on multiple occasions had an audience to which he could pontificate on the value of my life as a woman. He spoke at length throughout the debates on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill debates during 2013 in which he advocated a position that, despite his protestations otherwise, would result in women dying for want of legal abortions. The only reason that Bill ever saw the light of day in a Dáil chamber was because a woman died. Peter Mathews had a hand in formulating the State’s legislative response to the right of bodily autonomy of every woman in Ireland. This is all the more remarkable when you consider that no woman of childbearing age has had a vote on the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. My own mother was not old enough to vote when that referendum was passed.
Although politically marginalised by the end of his electoral career, he had a platform and influence and power over the lives of those who are actually marginalised; the women who he would round up and jail for having abortions; the women who he believed would be better off dead than having an abortion because “sure we all end up dead anyway.” There is no value in tone-policing the reactions of those women who Peter Mathews did not recognise the basic humanity of. The only value in it is for those who need very little excuse to have a pop at them anyway.
Of course, no one is arguing that pointing out Mathews’ comments that women should be forcibly prevented from having abortions should be the thing shouted at his grieving family, but we are not his grieving family. That said, unlike the majority of men rushing to berate me and others for even the mildest of comments on Mathews’ death, I actually did know him – at least in passing. He was a remarkably affable man who wouldn’t pass you without saying hello. I remembered on one occasion in 2014, I walked past him and said hello and he said “It’s a lovely day, isnt’ it?” It was a lovely day and it took every fibre of my being not to reply “Yeah but sure we’re all going to end up dead anyway.” In the end I said, “yes it’s lovely” and smiled and kept walking.
The thing was, no matter how gentlemanly and courteous he was, every time I passed him in real life and said hello, I was presented with a physical reminder that my life, in the eyes of this man who was an elected legislator, should not be saved if I had a medical condition that required an abortion. When I passed him and he remarked upon the rain, I thought of the women I know who he would let die rather than have abortions. When he smiled and asked “how are you?” to whoever he was passing, I would think of the women he would jail for having abortions. I would think of X, of A,B,C, of Ms. Y, Miss D, of Savita, or a woman who was clinically dead but kept on life support because people like Peter Mathews believed a foetus was equal to a born woman. Now that he has passed away, it is bizarre that there appears to be some unwritten code that says the only valid reaction is to narrate how polite he was and his work in relation to banking issues.
The criticisms of women who point out what Peter Mathews himself went to great lengths to talk about during his life is important for anti-choice activists and their supporters because it enables them to paint anyone who takes issue with what he believed in, and by extension their own beliefs, as being uncaring, heartless witches, or “thick” and “scum,” depending on the your preference. It serves to undermine the views of those who thought that Mathews was very wrong to dismiss the death of a pregnant woman with “sure we all end up dead anyway.”
There is something grotesque about a society that expects women to listen to male political figures pretend they know better for their bodies than they do themselves and pontificate on their potential death or jailing, and then further expects them to remain silent when one of those political figures passes. Their death does not magic away the impact of their actions when they were alive.
Those who are anti-choice and berating the rest of us might like for us not to speak ill of the dead, but seeing as they agreed with Mathews views and mostly people are just stating Mathews’ own words, it is odd that it is considered speaking ill at all. They can’t have it both ways, but even if it is speaking ill, it brings to mind Hired Knaves comments following another death, “A generation ago in Ireland it was customary not to speak ill of the dead but it was deemed fair enough to bury them in unmarked graves and tell their mothers that they were in limbo. Or hell, if the dead had killed themselves.”
The objective of criticising women for speaking out about Mathews’ comments is to silence them. It is not about politeness or his family or respect for the dead. Most of us do not have the luxury of standing up in the Dáil chamber to debate philosophical points regarding the bodily autonomy of others in a disconnected, dispassionate manner. We don’t have the platform to move seamlessly from discussing whether women should have abortions or not to how we knew Hugh O’Flaherty because we’d met him at rugby match or at tennis clubs, or make bizarre comments connecting abortion rates in France being somehow related to French women being given the vote. Most of the women affected by the Eighth Amendment aren’t shooting the breeze in the tennis club with the judges who decide what letters we’ll be known by in the High Court cases concerning our wombs.
Instead, we live with the prospect of being denied medical care if something goes wrong in our pregnancies. We live with the Eighth Amendment being used as an excuse to keep us alive even though we are clinically dead because women in Ireland are viewed as little more than vessels. We live with the prospect that a hospital will let us die if the risk to our life is not deemed “substantial” enough to warrant an abortion at that time. The ruaille buaille of the middle aged, middle class misogynists in Dáil and Seanad chambers is a sport to its participants as the outcome has little impact on their own lives. Meanwhile men scream at the people who are against forced pregnancies that they should have manners and then tweet at their employers and co-workers to flag up the audacity of being a woman with an opinion.
It is not the responsibility of marginalised people and those who are denied bodily autonomy to respect the opinions and words of those who made it so. We are not obliged to be kind to people who would lock us up for deciding we do not want to continue a pregnancy, whether they are living or dead. We are not obliged to be mindful of the feelings of a man who thought that the feelings of a woman who stated she would take her own life if she had to continue her pregnancy were irrelevant.
A society that respects a dead man, more than it does a living woman, is a society that is in itself, morally bankrupt, and those who defend the customs of such a society deserve no respect at all.
We all end up dead anyway, and personally I’d rather have that respect when I am alive.
It happens with depressing regularity, but reports of sex workers being prosecuted for “brothel-keeping” have actually got a fair bit of attention recently, both in mainstream and social media. None of it, of course, from the Turn Off the Red Light campaign or its leading member organisations, who are campaigning hard for new legislation which will double the penalties for this offence.
Supporters of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill 2015 have done their best to keep this aspect of the bill quiet, regularly insisting that the bill “decriminalises” women in prostitution even after The Journal’s Fact Check established that it does no such thing. On the rare occasions they’re pressed on it, they usually witter on about how this law is “intended to punish pimps”, sometimes even suggesting that it’s the only mechanism the law has to do so.
They’re wrong on both counts.
To take the second point first: the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 1993, which currently governs sex work law, contains an offence of “organising prostitution” as well as one of “living on the earnings of prostitution”. Both of these offences will remain under the new law, so there’s no reason that any “pimps” found keeping brothels could not continue to be prosecuted if the brothel-keeping law was removed.
The first point – that the law is not aimed at pimps, but at sex workers themselves – can be proven clearly enough just by looking at how the law is actually used in real life. As Lucy Smyth’s media analysis shows, nearly all the reported prosecutions have in fact been of sex workers, not of anyone managing or controlling them. So maybe it’s a case of the Gardaí misusing the law and just in need of better guidance?
No, it’s not. Go back to the original debates over the 1993 Act and you see very clearly that sex worker prosecutions are a feature, not a bug, of the brothel-keeping law – which was intended to address the public nuisance factor of brothels. Introducing the bill to the Seanad, then-Minister Máire Geoghegan-Quinn said:
I would now like to briefly explain the thinking behind the provisions in the Bill on prostitution. Prostitution is not, and never has been, an offence. The criminal law has no role in trying to regulate sexual arrangements made in private between adults, whether or not money is a factor in those arrangements. What the law has in the past sought to regulate are certain public manifestations of prostitution which can cause upset and distress to members of the public, such as soliciting in public or the operation of a brothel. I think it must be acknowledged that these activities can cause genuine problems for the public, and that is a reality of life that we as legislators must deal with.
Over in the Dáil, meanwhile, Michael McDowell (of all people) attempted to introduce an amendment which would exclude from the definition of brothel “the bona fide home of a prostitute unless the premises are used by any other prostitute for the purpose of prostitution”. Implicit in this amendment is the understanding that the offence would be used against sex workers. The Minister rejected the amendment, saying:
As the Deputy rightly states “brothel” is a common law term and means a place resorted to by persons of both sexes for the purpose of prostitution. There must be at least two women or men plying their trade as prostitutes in the place. If two persons are using the premises for prostitution, the place is a brothel and it is immaterial that one of them is the occupier. Therefore, the home of a prostitute is not a brothel unless another person is also using the premises for prostitution.
So again, it was clearly envisaged by the law, at the time it was introduced, that a sex worker would be prosecuted under it – even in her own home, if she allowed someone else to sell sex there. This is not a law about pimps.
Which is not to say that the brothel-keeping law could never be used against pimps. It’s a hybrid offence, meaning it can be prosecuted either summarily (before a District Court judge) or on indictment (in the Circuit Court, before a jury, and at the risk of a much higher penalty). In real life, sex workers who are prosecuted under this law are inevitably prosecuted summarily; it’s only in the rare “pimp” prosecutions that indictment occurs. And – I think this is pretty significant – the new bill only increases penalties for the summary offence of brothel-keeping, while leaving the penalties for the indictable offence unchanged. In this respect, the new law is clearly going directly after sex workers. Not pimps.
And if you need any further evidence, just look at Frances Fitzgerald’s recent contribution to the Committee Stage debate on the present bill. Rejecting amendments that would reframe the brothel-keeping law to only target third parties, the Minister stated:
Women would come under pressure to claim that they were working independently when that was not the case and the Garda would be limited in the actions it could take to close brothels and disrupt the activities of pimps and criminal gangs.
So there you have it, straight from the horse’s mouth: sex workers – not pimps – are intended to be prosecuted under this law, in order that Gardaí can shut down their workplaces. The fluff about women being pressured to lie about their working arrangements is a complete non-sequitur; if anything, such pressure is probably more likely in the present set-up. When managed sex workers take the fall for the “real” brothel keepers, after all, there’s less incentive for the guards to go after their bosses.
So make no mistake about the brothel-keeping law. It is not an anti-pimp measure with an incidental, unfortunate side effect of occasionally catching the wrong target. It is not being misapplied by overzealous Gardaí who just need a bit of training or direction. Gardaí who go after sex workers with this law are doing exactly what it’s designed to do, and they will keep doing it as long as the law allows them to, and regardless of the dangers it creates for sex workers. And the Gardaí are doing it with the explicit approval of the Minister for Justice, and with the effective acquiescence (if not silent approval) of the Turn Off the Red Light campaign, and its constituent NGOs who continue to pretend they have these women’s interests at heart.
Sex workers are literally dying because of this law. We owe them at least our honesty about why we allow that to happen.