Women’s Rights are Human Rights: The Battle for Bodily Autonomy

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Countless women were offended when the video emerged recently of the Polish MEP Janusz Korwin-Mikke claiming that women should be paid less because they are weaker, smaller and less intelligent than men. This man made a personal attack on every woman. But Irish women are suffering an equally personal, and much more localised, attack. It is an attack on our bodies, on our sexuality, on our existence as women. It is the 8th Amendment.

Janusz Korwin-Mikke

The Eight Amendment reads: ‘The state acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.’  In 1861, while we were under the rule of Britain, the Offences Against the Person act was passed which made the act of getting an abortion punishable by life in prison. This became part of Irish legislation following our independence and has remained so since, despite Britain legalising it in 1967.

While abortion remained a taboo subject for many years, it came to the fore of Irish society when what was known as the X Case took place. This legal battle between a pregnant teenager and the state became the face of the Irish pro-choice movement. In December 1991, a fourteen-year-old girl was raped by a long-term abuser. Her family reported the rape, planned an abortion and asked the Gardaí if the foetus could be submitted as evidence of paternity after it was aborted to be used in the investigation. On the day the teenager left for England for an abortion, Harry Whelehan, the Attorney General who was in liaison with the Gardaí, obtained an interim injunction which prevented her from leaving the country and receiving an abortion. She was forced to return to Ireland on the same day. A psychologist determined that there was a severe risk of suicide, but Whelehan did not think it was enough to grant her access to an abortion. He claimed he had a duty to uphold the constitution and restrained her from leaving the country for nine months. After an appeal, she was permitted to travel for an abortion but suffered a miscarriage in England.

The young woman, known as Miss X, suffered a tragic violation of human rights. She was not and is not the only one.

1992 demonstrations against the treatment of Miss X

This court case began a debate in Ireland – that is still alive today – over what woman deserves an abortion and what woman does not. After this trial, many members of the pro-life movement began to feel that abortion, only in cases of rape and incest, should be allowed. However, there is a fundamental issue with this. It is an implication that something conceived through rape is not a life, but something conceived through consensual sex is. It is to value one “life” over another, which is the idea that the movement claims to reject. A woman who has become pregnant as a result of something as traumatic as rape or incest should, of course, have access to a safe abortion. But a woman who has become pregnant through any other means should have the same right. We are all women. We all deserve rights.

In 2014, more than a thousand abortion pills were seized in the post before they reached the women in Ireland who had ordered them. Women who are found in possession of these illegal abortion pills face up to fourteen years in prison. For many women, there is no other choice. There is a 90 per cent chance that the abortion pill Misoprostol will work – in 10 per cent of cases there are complications or the abortion fails. A woman in Ireland who undergoes an abortion this way and suffers a complication cannot call the hospital, or she may face a prison sentence. The Eight Amendment has left women to bleed to death. It is not preventing abortion. It is putting many women in a position where they are forced to carry out unsafe and unsanitary abortions in their own homes with no access to health care if something goes wrong.

Abortion is not the easy way out. Pregnancy is a huge mental, emotional and physical ordeal (not that I’d know, but I can imagine). There are thousands of reasons why a woman could not put herself through pregnancy – be it she is too young and her body is not physically capable of carrying a child, she is not healthy enough, she is not emotionally ready, she already has a job, or children, or both to tend to and is unable to manage another pregnancy, the cost of having a healthy pregnancy is too high, the list is literally endless. Every woman has her reasons, and each reason is personal and valid. No one is in a position to tell a woman what the “easier” choice is.

The stigma around abortion in this country is fuelled by laws like this. It teaches women that to even consider an abortion, to regret a pregnancy, to feel like you don’t want or can’t handle a pregnancy (and a child) is a crime. It teaches us that our femininity and our sexuality is shameful. But this stigma is changing. Young people are speaking out against these laws that restrict the rights of women. We are becoming the voices of the women who have desperately needed an abortion and couldn’t access one like Miss X; of the women who have travelled abroad for an abortion and returned home to judgement and ostracism; of the women who have died during an illegal abortion or for want of a legal abortion.

These different women forge their places in the world in different ways. I am a woman who has never needed an abortion, but the issue is still very dear to me because of my womanhood. Abortion rights are inclusive: women of colour, transgender women and women from all walks of life are joined together despite their cultural and ethnic differences. It even includes women who fundamentally disagree with the concept of abortion: we are fighting for your rights. We are fighting to protect you, and you are always welcome to join the fight.

The protest that took place earlier this month proved this. On the 8th March, thousands of people marched from Parnell Square to Leinster House to protest Ireland’s lack of reproductive health care. Despite reported verbal confrontations with various pro-life groups that had gathered outside Leinster House, the protest continued. While there is still an atrocious amount of judgement of women who procure an abortion, there is comfort in knowing that there are thousands of citizens who will support these women and fight for their rights on their behalf.

March4Repeal protestors on O’Connell Street

Access to abortion is a human rights issue. Women in Ireland are not given the rights we should be given. Women who are in need of them are going to have abortions, whether or not abortion is legal in Ireland. By legalising it we are protecting women. But we are doing more than that: we are acknowledging them as equal citizens. Give women bodily autonomy. Give us rights.

Polish women protest abortion ban, 2016

Helpful links:

Irish Family Planning Association: https://www.ifpa.ie

Crisis pregnancy help: http://www.crisispregnancy.ie

Dublin Rape Crisis Centre: http://www.drcc.ie

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