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Category Archives: Reproduction

The Moral Outrage of the Damned: Public reaction to the plight of Sabrina McMahon

Sabrina McMahon is 36 years old. She has three children, ages 5, 3, and 1. She and her three children currently live in her car. Sabrina has lived in her car for the past week after her “temporary” arrangements, which lasted a year, broke down. She formerly worked as a dental nurse and as a carer. She keeps her buggy, nappies and possessions in the boot of her car and her groceries in the front. She avails of the kindness of friends so she can wash and clean her clothes. Her children sleep in the back. When the baby wakes for a bottle she switches on the engine to keep her warm. A Sinn Féin Councillor Maire Devine, has been making representations to South Dublin County Council on her behalf for the past year while she went from relative to relative over the months since her relationship broke down. When SDCC were contacted by the Irish Times for comment, they said they were “aware” of the case but didn’t wish to say anything further which was unsurprising.

Unless they were going to say, “We are deeply ashamed that we have failed to show basic human decency to this woman and her family and find her a home” they were probably better off to say nothing. No landlord will accept rent allowance from her. She presented at the Dublin Central Placement Service and was told to go back to Kildare, where she had previously lived, but she wants to live near her family.

If was I was living in a car with three small children I would want to live near my family too.

Her story was on the front page of the Irish Times and it covered on all the major radio stations. On Newstalk this morning, texts flooded in saying that Sabrina was a bad mother; that she should have her children taken from her; that she shouldn’t have even had her children in the first place; that she was irresponsible and only “using” the media to get a free ride on the back of taxpayers. Social media users had a field day in condemning the parenting skills of a woman who is literally living on the margins of society. Very little was said about her former partner. However, the level of misogyny and hatred directed at her in those texts and comments was a slightly more ignorant representation of the structural misogyny directed at her from the state. The state shows its disdain for women like Sabrina by failing to provide for her needs. The tweets condemning her are this simply this same attitude refined to 140 characters.

There are 98,000 families waiting for social housing in this state and the comments levelled at Sabrina McMahon are not unusual. In fact, Sabrina’s situation is not unusual. People are fooling themselves if they think that Sabrina McMahon is the only person in Ireland living in her car right now. And the comments about her are the same type of comments made about poor and homeless women who become pregnant and have families because they generally pathologised as people who made bad decisions, lack male authority, and exist without morals or values. They are believed to be selfish and parasitic and rearing children in their own rough image. It is the stock depiction of the very poorest working class women.

While Sabrina has some bread rolls in the front seat of her car, her problem is that she isn’t a consumer. She just wants somewhere to live that’s safe. It’s one of the most basic things a person can ask for. She isn’t economically productive, and therefore doesn’t warrant the concern of the state. She is a mother and a carer so not considered to be engaging in “real work.”

Women do the lion‘s share of unpaid household and care work. But it isn’t considered “work” because there are no wages, it’s just what women do. It is a bizarre attitude from a state that has a Constitution that specifically assigns a woman’s role to the home. But the very structure of capitalism, depends on women doing the majority of this form of work without payment.  Neoliberal capitalism neglects to acknowledge that women working within the home (or from their car in the absence of having a home) are economically productive as it allows the State to not provide public childcare infrastructure or other supports for childrearing. It is just something that women are expected to do, but it isn’t good enough for the terms of capitalist patriarchy.

Unfortunately Sabrina lives in a place where the government department responsible for welfare, the Department of Social Protection, aim to restructure the lives of poor women like Sabrina, in both a physical and a moral sense. It was not by mistake that it was the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Frances Fitzgerald was out commenting on this story today, to address the concerned masses’ cries of “won’t somebody please think of the children?” rather than the Minister for Social Protection or the Minister for Environment, who ultimately have the responsibility for Sabrina’s situation.

It is unlikely that those who had the luxury of sending a message from their smartphone to a radio station to condemn and blame Sabrina for her situation, stopped to contemplate the precarity of their own situations; how many of them are only two, three or four pay packets away from homelessness themselves.

Not only was Sabrina demonised as a bad parent – but through their commentary, the very value of her existence was questioned. Caring for three small children in the back of a car isn’t valued because it is unpaid labour, although it is probably fair to say that if those who condemned Sabrina were forced to do it, they would think it was pretty hard work indeed.

SPARK ran a campaign last year against a programme forcing lone mams to work when their children turned 7, which had been introduced by Minister Joan Burton. You couldn’t have people remaining economically unproductive now could you? The rationale is that the state cannot allow people to exist in a way that does not overtly benefit capitalism. The point of that programme was to redeem the women who do not have male authority in their lives by forcing them into a situation where they would live within a patriarchal system that would give them male authority in the form of employment. The likelihood is, if they even managed to get a job, their boss would be a man. It is the state’s antidote to these dreadful welfare recipients of getting something for nothing. This particular form of workfare is branded an “activation measure” but it is punitive. It punishes women for not conforming to a life that involves a man who is a breadwinner.

Women don’t become poor in a vacuum. Women like Sabrina don’t live in cars for the fun of it and as austerity continues to destroy Irish society, we will continue to see more Sabrinas living in more cars and cardboard boxes, and sadly, more people willing to condemn them for it.

Savita, abortion and the right to health in international law

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Commentary around the Savita Halappanavar inquest has, understandably, focused on the Irish constitutional law context but I haven’t seen much discussion about the breach of her rights under international law.

This is perhaps unsurprising, as abortion itself has a nebulous standing in international human rights law. As its opponents never tire of pointing out, it isn’t protected per se in most of the world’s major human rights treaties. The only real exception is in the 2003 Maputo Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights – that continent’s counterpart to the European Convention – which sets out in Article 14(2):

States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to:

(c) protect the reproductive rights of women by authorising medical abortion in cases of sexual assault, rape, incest, and where the continued pregnancy endangers the mental and physical health of the mother or the life of the mother or the foetus.

None of the human rights treaties to which Ireland is party even mention the word “abortion”, though that doesn’t mean they can’t protect the right in limited circumstances. The obvious example of this is the European Court of Human Rights decision in ABC v Ireland, which held the State in breach of an applicant’s right to her private life for failing to provide a clear mechanism by which she could establish and exercise her right to a legal abortion. This is similar to the way that other treaty monitoring bodies have approached the issue, such as the UN Human Rights Committee in KL v Peru and the CEDAW committee in LC v Peru. In both cases, the decision wasn’t that there was a right to abortion per se in the relevant treaty (respectively, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women), but that the particular abortion sought would have been legal under state law and thus various treaty provisions were breached by denying the petitioner access to it.

But what I want to talk about here is a more general right – namely, the right to health, and how it was breached in Savita’s case. The right to health is protected in a number of treaties that Ireland is party to, most importantly under Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Then there’s CEDAW, mentioned above, which has its own Article 12 protections for women’s health, while in the European Social Charter, “The right to protection of health” is set out in Article 11. It’s important to realise that these treaties are all fully binding on Ireland as a matter of international law. There’s often confusion on this point, because Ireland has a “dualist” system which means a treaty isn’t domestically enforceable unless it’s incorporated into national law by the Oireachtas (as with the European Convention on Human Rights Act 2003). You can’t go down to the High Court to sue the State for breaching your ICESCR rights – in fact, at the moment you can’t go anywhere. But it’s still legally obliged to protect them, even though there’s not much you can do if it doesn’t.

In and of itself, the fact that Savita died wholly avoidably in a public hospital proves the State’s failure to protect her right to health. If her death really had been due only to the “system failures” we keep hearing about, then perhaps we could chalk it down to a one-off, individual failure. But the more we hear from the inquest, the more apparent the truth becomes: the breach is in the law itself, not merely the way it was implemented or (mis)understood by her medical team. In fact, even if she had survived – and I know of a few women in similar circumstances who, thankfully, did – her right to health would still have been violated. Ireland’s ban on abortions in all but life-threatening cases will inevitably violate the right to health in those cases that fall short of the “real and substantial risk” threshold set by the Supreme Court. Here’s why.

The most widely-accepted definition of the right to health – the Article 12 ICESCR definition – is the “right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health”. The General Comment on this right by the treaty’s monitoring body, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, goes quite a bit further in defining that to include “the right to control one’s health and body, including sexual and reproductive freedom”. This is a fairly unambiguous, though legally non-binding, interpretation. But we don’t even have to go there, because on the plain terms of Article 12, you cannot enjoy the highest attainable standard of health if you’re denied an abortion that you need for the sake of your health. Simple as – and there’s no getting around it by hypothesising whether Physical or Mental Condition X would entitle someone to an abortion under this rule. Yes, there may be cases where it’s uncertain if abortion really is indicated for health reasons, but that’s completely beside the point: Irish law doesn’t allow for any of them if you aren’t considered likely to die otherwise. An absolute prohibition on “therapeutic” abortions for non-life threatening cases is not made compatible with the right to health just because it’s not always easy to determine who needs a therapeutic abortion.

“But rights aren’t absolute”, I hear you say. Well no, they aren’t, but when they’re guaranteed in a legally-binding treaty they can only be limited under the terms set out in that treaty. The ICESCR limitations clause, Article 4, states that the rights can be subjected

only to such limitations as are determined by law only in so far as this may be compatible with the nature of these rights and solely for the purpose of promoting the general welfare in a democratic society.

Now, admittedly, this is a bit woolly, and a casual reading might well lend itself to a utilitarian interpretation, or suggest that a society which considers abortion a generally bad thing could legitimately consider an abortion ban to promote society’s general welfare. It’s not an absurd argument, on its face.

But it’s also not supported by the aids we have to interpret the meaning of the text. The Convention’s travaux préparatoires – the official records of the negotiation process (not online, but detailed in this book) – don’t exactly explain what the drafters of Article 4 had in mind. They do, however, show the rejection of various proposals to include grounds of public order, public morality and the interests of the community – all things which might suggest a person’s rights could be trumped in the interests of some aspirational “greater good”. The CESCR, for its part, states that Article 4

is primarily intended to protect the rights of individuals rather than to permit the imposition of limitations by States

which would mean that the State has a heavy burden of proof in justifying any such limitations.

In Irish law, of course, this is met by Article 40.3.3’s protection of “the right to life of the unborn”. But that won’t cut it in international law, because there is no right to life of the unborn in international law.  (As with the “right to abortion”, there is one exception, but it’s in a treaty that Ireland isn’t party to – the American Convention on Human Rights). And again, in terms of the treaties we’ve ratified that protect the right to life – the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the European Convention on Human Rights – there is either travaux or case law leaving the foetus out of this protection. (This nifty fact sheet from the Center for Reproductive Rights has lots more detail about this.) So the balancing exercise that would be required to make the denial of therapeutic abortion compatible with the ICESCR is, in international legal terms, simply a nonsense. There is no legal “individual” to balance the woman’s rights against.

There’s another way in which I think Savita’s right to health was infringed, and that’s in the discriminatory way her health needs were dealt with. Article 2 ICESCR requires that the Covenant’s rights be protected “without discrimination of any kind”. Patently, there was discrimination in her case: she was treated differently because she was pregnant. A non-pregnant person would not have had a medically-indicated course of action refused to them at a time of comparable need. There may also be an issue around the antibiotic she was given, which wasn’t strong enough but was “recommended for use in maternal cases”. I’ve found the newspaper reports on this a bit unclear, and I’m not sure whether she was purposely given a weaker antibiotic because she was pregnant, or whether the staff simply didn’t realise, when they gave her the one they always give the pregnant women, that her infection needed a stronger dose. If it’s the former, then she clearly received discriminatory treatment – especially given that it was already known her foetus wouldn’t survive and anyway, she’d already asked for an abortion. The use of less effective medication in the interests of foetal health may certainly be justified, with the woman’s consent, in a wanted and viable pregnancy. But this wasn’t one of those cases.

I said earlier that there’s no place we can go to complain about a breach of the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Well, that could change in the near future. The Covenant’s Optional Protocol, which allows individuals to bring complaints to the treaty’s monitoring body, will come into force on the 5th of May. Ireland has yet to ratify the Protocol, but it did finally sign it last year and ratification is the next step. Again, since this is international law, the CESCR won’t have enforcement powers – but there’s plenty of potential to shine the world’s spotlight on Ireland, and how it fails to adhere to its international obligations. Abortion rights campaigners should call for the government to ratify the Protocol now.

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

1992 – 2012 Legislating for X and Savita?

Savita Halappanavar was a 31 year old Indian dentist based in Galway, Ireland. She was married to Praveen Halappanavar who was a 34 year old engineer. Savita was pregnant. On the Sunday 21st October 2012, she presented to University Hospital Galway with back pains while in her 17th week of pregnancy.

Sadly, hospital staff told her she was miscarrying her pregnancy but there was still a foetal heartbeat present.

The doctors in the hospital told Savita and Praveen that her cervix was fully dilated and that amniotic fluid was leaking. They also told Savita that the foetus would not survive – but it would be over in a few hours.

For the following three days, Savita was upset and in “agony” but according to Praveen she had accepted that she was having a miscarriage and the doctors continued to check the foetal heartbeat. She asked the doctors on several occasions to terminate her pregnancy. They had said there was no prospect of the foetus surviving.

On Monday 22nd October, the consultant did ward rounds. Savita asked the consultant if there was no prospect of saving her pregnancy, could doctors induce to end the pregnancy instead. The consultant responded “As long as there is a foetal heatbeat, we can’t do anything.”

The same conversation took place with the consultant on the morning rounds of Tuesday 23rd October, and the consultant said that nothing could be done, as it was “against the law” and “this is a Catholic country.” Savita responded that she was a Hindu but the consultant said that there was nothing to be done. During that evening, Savita began to shake and shiver. The pregnant 31 year old began to vomit. She went to the toilet where she collapsed. Doctors took blood tests and gave her anti-biotics.

On Wednesday 24th October, Savita was still sick, and she and Praveen again pleaded with doctors to end her pregnancy and the response was unchanged from the previous days.

It is the law. It is a Catholic country. There will be no termination.

An open cervix has the same risk of infection as an open head wound.

Her cervix had been dilated since Sunday.

At around lunchtime, the foetal heart stopped and doctors brought Savita to theatre where they removed the womb contents. After the procedure she spoke to her husband Praveen, but she was very sick. This was the last time Praveen spoke to his young wife.

At 11pm that night Praveen received a call from the hospital to say she was being moved to an intensive care unit. Her heart was low. Her pulse was low too. Her temperature was high. The doctors said she was critical but stable.

By 7pm on Saturday her heart, kidneys, and liver were no longer functioning. She had contracted septicaemia and E.coli ESBL.

Savita Halappanavar, 31 year old Indian dentist, and wife of Praveen, died during the early hours of Sunday morning in this “Catholic country”. Praveen brought his wife home to be cremated in India. She was laid to rest on November 3rd.

Savita should have been celebrating Diwali this week with her husband.

Instead, the Health Service Executive have started an investigation in to her death and University College Hospital have extended their sympathy to her family and friends. External experts are being consulted and a ‘risk review’ is being carried out.

Under Irish law, the Supreme Court decision handed down in the 1992 X Case, Savita would have had a right to a legal termination of her pregnancy where there was a “real and substantial risk to her life.” There must not merely be a threat to a woman’s health. She must be at risk of death for an abortion to be performed legally in Ireland. But it is a Constitutional right in that case, according to the Supreme Court.

There is no legislation to give effect to this though.

Seven different governments have decided that women at risk of dying as a result of their pregnancies are not important enough to provide a law for. There are no legal rules to say to a doctor that yes, an open cervix for a number of days is a risk to a pregnant woman’s health, or that it may be such a risk to her health that it veers in to the category of being a risk to her life, and she is therefore constitutionally entitled to an abortion. Yes, the medical profession will know when a woman is at risk and when she isn’t, but there is no clarity as to whether there is legal cover for them to be able to act in a case such as Savita’s. They could be liable for severe penalties under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 if they are found to not have the legal cover required.

Perhaps the doctors in this case genuinely felt that there was not such a high risk of infection and that this did not reach the very high standard of being a “real and substantial risk to her life”. However, the response the consultant gave Savita and Praveen while she was pleading in agony for a termination was that it was “against the law” in “this Catholic country” – rather than “you don’t actually need a termination.” Strange that.

The European Court of Human Rights said during the ABC v Ireland case that women should know under what circumstances they are entitled to a lawful termination in Ireland. It is a ruling based on the constitutional law of Ireland.

For many years, some prochoice activists have been of the clearly held view that, when it comes to the political establishment, someone would actually have to die before the Government would legislate for the Supreme Court decision in the X Case handed down twenty years ago. If the HSE inquiry finds that Savita died as a result of not receiving a termination, leaving her open to the massive risk of infection which eventually killed her, this Government, and the six Governments that have gone before them must realise her blood is on their hands. That is not to be melodramatic about things. A woman has died. If the HSE inquiry finds that Savita did not die from being prevented from having a termination and it was something else, her story will still send shivers down the spines of every woman in Ireland who has had a miscarriage who may well think “what if that had been me? What if the foetal heartbeat hadn’t stopped when it did?”  – because under those circumstances there is still a real and substantial risk of death. The fact remains, there are some conditions that will arise in pregnancy that will make the pregnancy itself life-threatening.

At this stage, it is either wilful ignorance or complete and utter misogyny that prevents the Government in Ireland from legislating for the X case to allow women in life-threatening situations have abortions legally and safely. The ABC case judgment was delivered in 2010. The Government responded by convening an Expert Group to examine “options” rather than actually produce legislation. The time is now over for the Expert Group.

While the Expert Group are examining, there is no way of knowing whether there is a woman in a hospital somewhere in Ireland with a dilated cervix miscarrying and pleading for a termination to take place. We have no way of knowing whether there is a woman contracting the e.coli that will kill her at this very moment because doctors have refused to terminate her pregnancy.

It is time to legislate for X. Savita Halappanavar should not be dead.

This must never happen again.

 

Marching for Choice in Dublin

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Man carrying a sign with a picture of a coathanger and the words "Warning: Not for internal use".

It’s rarely easy to be openly pro-choice in Ireland. This country has no shortage of people willing to tell you how you’re a murderer, selfish, disgusting, a baby-killer. How you’re heartless. How you should be ashamed of yourself.

Woman with a poster saying "It's my uterus, I shouldn't need your permission"

The last major pro-choice demo I was at, two years ago, was a counter-demonstration to the March for Life. A couple of hundred of us, thousands of anti-choice marchers led by Youth Defence who didn’t hesitate to get in our faces, shout abuse at us, call us things I’m not going to repeat here. Being openly pro-choice can feel like running a gauntlet where you’re never sure what’ll happen next. So it’s not surprising that I was more than a little bit nervous before yesterday’s March for Choice. That nervousness, that apprehension, made what happened next even more incredible than I could have imagined.

Woman on the phone, holding a sign saying "Having no choice tears MY life apart"

There were so many of us. Meeting at the Spire on Saturday afternoon, I couldn’t help but be amazed at how many people had showed up. I’d expected the usual suspects. There were, when I arrived early, hundreds and hundreds of us. And people just kept on arriving. And in these crowds of people was none of the usual tension of a pro-choice demonstration. As I walked through the crowd to check out what groups and banners were here and to say hello to friends I’d spotted, I heard so many people talking about the numbers. About how they couldn’t believe there were this many of us here. How they’d never seen so many people at something like this before. We were genuinely and collectively in awe at our numbers, here on O’Connell street. For the first time in my life, I felt that we might get somewhere with this. That we might really have some power to change things. Living in Ireland, it’s hard to truly explain what a truly big deal this is. How much of a revelation.

Woman with a sign saying "Against abortion? Don't have one!", pushing a pram with two children, with signs saying "I was a choice".

Walking through the streets, crossing O’Connell bridge, down Westmoreland Street and Kildare Street before turning up towards Merrion Square, it felt even more like a turning point. Here we were, chanting pro-choice slogans on the streets of Dublin, and the counter-demonstration was… where? I saw one man with a sign on O’Connell street. I saw no abuse from passers-by. And our numbers continued to swell.

Woman carrying sign saying "Woman, not Incubator"

In Merrion Square, the speakers were as varied and inspiring as the march itself. We weren’t on the defensive- we were on the offensive and proud of it. They spoke about how we won’t be shamed any longer. About how the majority of Irish people have consistently voted for women’s right to choose, and how we are fed up of being ignored. How if TDs want to follow God’s law and not the law of men (oh, how ironic), they should get out of Leinster house and join a seminary.

Woman carrying a sign saying "If I wanted the church in my *** I'd f*ck a priest!"

Feminist Ire’s Ariel Silvera spoke about the LGBTQ community and the pro-choice movement, arguing that we are natural allies. LGBTQ people need abortions too. Even if queer women don’t need abortions themselves, their sisters, daughters, mothers, and friends do. Ariel also highlighted the fact that it is not only women who need abortions. Many trans* men can get pregnant as well, and abortion providers and campaigners must be aware of their needs.

Man carrying a sign saying "My mother CHOSE to have me. I'm glad society didn't FORCE me on her!"

Mara Clarke from the Abortion Support Network spoke about her experiences raising funds for Irish women to access abortions they would otherwise never be able to afford. Banning abortion does not and never has prevented abortion. It just means that rich women can travel for abortions, and poor women are forced to give birth. The twelve women who travel to the UK every day for abortions are those who can afford it. The Abortion Support Network provides grants to Irish woman, and runs solely on private donations and fundraising. Needless to say, if you’re able to support them please do. Irish women should never be forced by lack of money to become mothers. Nobody should.

Woman carrying a sign saying "Fine Gael protects..." then with the words "Students, Pensioners, the Sick" crossed out, and then the word "Embryos"

But finances aren’t the only reason that people in Ireland could be forced to give birth against their will. The Irish Feminist Network‘s Osaro Azamosa reminded us that many immigrant women are simply not permitted to access visas to travel to the UK. These women’s reproductive rights are not only financially but legally denied by the current situation.

Woman holding a sign saying "Not just a white middle class issue: ethnic migrant women need access to abortion."

And so much more from Sinead Ahern, Ivana Bacik, Claire Daly- if I’ve left anyone out do tell me! And it wasn’t all about abortion. Pro-choice isn’t just about the right to choose abortion. It’s about full reproductive rights- and that means that right to reproduce free of coercion. For a real choice, women need to be supported to raise children without cutbacks to welfare. Without cutbacks to disability allowances for themselves and their children. Just as nobody should be forced to give birth because they can’t afford abortion, nobody should be forced to choose abortion because they can’t afford to raise a wanted child.

Man holding a sign saying "The Truth:In the UK, 78% of abortions are carried out under ten weeks. This is the result of an abortion at 10 weeks. Actual size. Truthfully. "

The Irish state needs to face up to its responsibility for the many thousands of women who have travelled overseas for abortions. It has a long-standing habit of brushing inconvenient women under the carpet- years ago to be incarcerated in Magdalene laundries, now on Ryanair flights to Britain. At yesterday’s march we came together to say that we are no longer going to accept this. We’re sick of being silenced and of our choices villified and shamed. We’re not going to accept being caricatured as heartless murderers anymore. We care deeply for the rights and well-being of all of us, for everyone in this country’s right to self-determination. And we’re not going to be quiet anymore.

Your post author holding a sign saying "Some of us can't leave this country! Whether illegal, trafficked, resident, refugee or asylum seeker- ALL ethnic migrant women deserve quality access to quality sexual health in Ireland. That includes ABORTION!"

Your intrepid blogstress weary and happy after the march.

Children’s rights must not mean women’s wrongs

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Last month the Irish Minister for Children, Frances Fitzgerald, announced that the long-promised referendum on the rights of children would finally be held this year.

The background to this lies in the following provisions of the Irish Constitution:

Article 41
1. 1° The State recognises the Family as the natural primary and fundamental unit group of Society, and as a moral institution possessing inalienable and imprescriptible rights, antecedent and superior to all positive law.
2° The State, therefore, guarantees to protect the Family in its constitution and authority, as the necessary basis of social order and as indispensable to the welfare of the Nation and the State.

3. 1° The State pledges itself to guard with special care the institution of Marriage, on which the Family is founded, and to protect it against attack.

Article 42
1. The State acknowledges that the primary and natural educator of the child is the Family and guarantees to respect the inalienable right and duty of parents to provide, according to their means, for the religious and moral, intellectual, physical and social education of their children.

5. In exceptional cases, where the parents for physical or moral reasons fail in their duty towards their children, the State as guardian of the common good, by appropriate means shall endeavour to supply the place of the parents, but always with due regard for the natural and imprescriptible rights of the child.

The proposed referendum, as agreed by an all-party parliamentary committee, would leave Article 41 intact but remove those two subsections of Article 42. The replacement text is rather lengthy so I’ll just provide a link rather than post it all here.

The impetus for this change comes from a series of judicial and policy decisions, which have been seen as making it so difficult to interfere with the sacred institution of The Family (and more particularly the marital family) as to effectively tie the State’s hands when it comes to child protection and welfare. A few examples:

  • The 2001 case Northwestern Health Board v HW, where the Supreme Court upheld the right of parents to refuse to allow their child undergo the PKU test, a totally safe procedure to detect a disorder that leads to brain damage if untreated.
  • An unspeakably horrible case of familial abuse in County Roscommon, revealed a little over a year ago. You can Google it yourself, I don’t have the stomach for it. The mother had obtained an injunction preventing the children being removed from the family home; her affidavit cited the rights that she and her husband, as a married couple, had over their children. Social workers on the case confirmed that Article 42 had a sort of chilling effect on their efforts to protect the children, as it led them to believe they would need to prove a nearly impossible threshold of neglect.
  • The 2006 “Baby Ann” case (N v Health Service Executive), in which a two-year-old girl was ordered returned to her birth parents. They had consented to her adoption, but changed their minds and subsequently married – at which point, according to Justice McGuinness, the rights of the family took over from the best interests of the child as the “central issue”. (Actually, on the peculiar facts of this case the birth parents would have had a decent argument even without the constitutional imperative, but there are obvious reasons to be concerned about the court’s emphasis on the primacy of the marital family.)

So you can see why there’s widespread support for amending the Constitution to specifically enshrine the rights of children. What little opposition there is is mainly coming from two of the most repellent groups in Irish society: the xenophobes, who fear the amendment being used to prevent deportation of Africans with minor children; and the uber-Catholics for whom any interference with the marital family is anathema. (It hasn’t gone unnoticed that the list of amendment opponents reads like a Who’s Who of the Irish anti-abortion movement – whose concern for the rights of children clearly ends at birth.) Ironically, although the latter group is far more organised and politically powerful than the former, it is the deportation issue that is actually holding the referendum up. I was present at a private meeting a couple years ago where a then-Cabinet Minister, a current Cabinet Minister and a backbench member of the other current government party all agreed that the wording would have to be changed to assuage those fears.

Irish feminism, on the other hand, seems to be pretty much entirely behdind the amendment, and that’s fairly understandable. After all, the primacy of the marital (read: patriarchal nuclear) family hasn’t exactly done us many favours; and while the amendment won’t remove Article 41.1, it clearly will narrow its scope. But while I wouldn’t argue that we should vote “no”, I do think some important issues have been overlooked in the debate. Consider the following:

  • In 2006, the High Court ordered that a Jehovah’s Witness be given a blood transfusion (subscription required) contrary to her express wishes, the first time this was done to a competent adult. Counsel argued and the Judge accepted that her child’s need for a parent overrode her right to refuse medical treatment.
  • In the US, women have lost custody of their children for working outside the home, being lesbians and even reporting domestic abuse.
  • According to a representative of the fabulous Association for Improvements in the Maternity Services Ireland who I was speaking to recently, some Irish women have been threatened with prosecution – yes, prosecution – if they insisted on giving birth at home rather than under the full control of the professional (and strongly male-dominated, and extremely paternalistic) medical industry.

What these cases all have in common is that they’re examples of the “best interests of the child” being used to further a patriarchal agenda, in which motherhood automatically strips women of their autonomy. Make no mistake about it, this isn’t just the standard assumption of self-sacrifice that having children always entails; it’s the quite deliberate channeling of women with children – whose primary identity is now “mother” – into tightly prescribed roles, with the legal system there to act as enforcer.

I’m being a bit deliberately melodramatic here and I’m not suggesting that passage of this amendment will actually turn us all into Stepford wives. But I don’t think we should be complacent about the risk of “children’s rights” becoming another tool of state misogyny. Let’s not forget that this is a state where woman’s primary role as housewife and mother is actually enshrined in the Constitution (Article 41.2, for readers abroad). Do you trust all of our judges to read the new amendment in a way that protects children’s rights without trampling on women’s? I don’t.

I’m also uneasy about the way this amendment could be read in juxtaposition with Article 40.3.3, on the right to life of the “unborn”. Judging by some of the cases coming out of the US at the moment, it seems that pregnant women in some states might be only a few years away from being forcibly institutionalised to prevent them doing anything that might possibly lead to the birth of a less-than-perfectly-healthy baby, such as having the odd glass of wine or eating too much junk food. It’s a strange sort of logic that allows women to be penalised for “neglecting” foetuses that they have every right (at least on paper) to abort, which I suspect is why those laws aren’t more widespread throughout the US than they are. Here, of course, the constitutional position on abortion is no impediment to such laws – and with a mandate to protect both the rights of (actual) children and the rights of the “unborn”, there is, I think, a worrying possibility that this American trend could catch on here.

Again, and just to be perfectly clear, I’m not saying that feminists should oppose the amendment. In all likelihood I will vote for it myself, on a simple cost-benefit analysis (as in, I think overall it will probably do more good than harm). And I don’t have any suggestions as to how it could be worded to avoid these nightmare outcomes, especially while the odious Articles 40.3.3 and 41.1-2 remain. But we shouldn’t be leaving it to the racists and religious fanatics to highlight its possible unintended consequences. We should be putting the State on notice that although we want to see better protection for Irish children, we are not going to tolerate it becoming yet another tool to oppress Irish women.

On surrogacy, slavery and choice(s): My response to Breda O’Brien

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Breda O’Brien is a conservative Catholic and columnist with the Irish Times, notable for her resolute adherence to church doctrine in all matters reproductive. She has become notorious for crackpot columns like this one, a response to the horrific case of the 9-year-old Brazilian girl who was raped and impregnated with twins by her stepfather and whose mother and doctors were excommunicated after getting her an abortion. (Her rapist, quite tellingly, was not.) The column is behind a pay wall, but to summarise, O’Brien’s response was first to grab her own 10-year-old daughter and put her on a scale to compare her weight with that of the Brazilian girl, and ultimately to proclaim that if the same thing happened to her own daughter the pregnancy would be carried to term.

Last Saturday she wrote this piece, which I hope can still be read without subscription. It’s an attack on surrogate motherhood, which she condemns as “just another form of slavery” and wants to ban, although she does not clarify exactly what form this ban would take. The clear implication of her column is that surrogacy is something only done by desperately poor women in the developing world, which isn’t actually true; here, for example, is the website of a Canadian woman who seems to have become a professional surrogate and encourages others to do the same. I don’t think she’s aiming her “Information on how to become a surrogate mother” at Kolkata slum-dwellers – but even if she was, the possibility that they might rationally consider surrogacy a better option than their alternatives is one that O’Brien simply cannot fathom.

I sent a response to the Irish Times but, true to form, they didn’t print it. In fact, they haven’t printed any replies, which is unfortunate (I can’t believe mine was the only one). This is an increasingly important issue – not least because of the gap in Ireland’s laws which means that some children produced through surrogacy are ending up stateless – and as Ireland’s paper of record, the Times has a responsibility to facilitate debate on it and not to simply print one side of the argument and leave it at that.

Anyway, here’s the response that I wrote.

Breda O’Brien raises a valid point about the potential for exploitation of women as surrogate mothers, although her invocation of slavery to describe what is more likely to be a preference among limited options is unfortunate. Real slaves do not get to make even constrained choices.

It is not clear, however, why surrogacy should pose any greater legal dilemma than adoption, which O’Brien seems to believe should be not only legal but mandatory when a woman has an unwanted pregnancy which she would otherwise abort. Is it not also a form of surrogacy to compel a woman in this circumstance to bear the child for the benefit of another woman?

Furthermore, O’Brien is silent about exactly HOW Ireland should make surrogacy illegal. Would she criminalise a woman who becomes pregnant on behalf of another? Would she force such a woman to become the legal mother herself? Or would she simply deny Irish couples the right to recognition as parents of a child born through surrogacy, leaving the child and birth mother to whatever fate awaits them under the laws of their own country (in the hope this will never be Ireland)?

Finally, O’Brien fails utterly to address what will happen to the women who become surrogate mothers due to lack of other options. Those who use protection from exploitation as a reason to deny a source of income to persons in poverty have a responsibility to outline how they expect those persons to compensate – now, not in some future utopia where there are adequate alternatives available.

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