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Europe: Not only in Ireland is there a fight to be won on abortion

Thursday 8 February 2018, by siawi3


Not only in Ireland is there a fight to be won on abortion

Sarah Ditum

Dublin might be preparing for change, but in Poland and elsewhere women’s rights are under threat

Sun 4 Feb 2018 00.05 GMT
Last modified on Mon 5 Feb 2018 06.58 GMT

Ireland’s minister for children and youth affairs, Katherine Zappone, with the taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, brief the media on plans for a referendum on the country’s abortion laws, 29 January 2018.

Before the end of May, Ireland will hold a referendum that could finally give Irish women legal access to abortion in their own country. It feels like the time is right for change. The taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, who made the announcement last week, called himself “pro-life†as recently as 2015; now he says he’ll be campaigning against the repressive eighth amendment that values a foetus’s right to life equally with a pregnant woman’s (or, in the language of the constitution, the “unborn†and the “mother†). It’s a stunning and very welcome reversal.

It’s also overdue. Any change in the law will be too late for Savita Halappanavar, who died of sepsis in 2012 after doctors refused to terminate the pregnancy she was already miscarrying. Too late, too, for the unnamed migrant, pregnant by rape, who was denied an abortion and then legally forced to give birth by caesarean at 25 weeks in 2014. Too late for the thousands of women each year who have had to travel to England to end their pregnancies, some unwanted and some very much wanted but agonisingly unviable; too late for the uncounted others who were never able to make the trip.

But Ireland’s possible move towards liberalisation is a bright spot in a global picture where repression and retrenchment abound. In Poland last week, the ruling Law and Justice party announced its intent to further limit one of the most draconian abortion regimes in the world. In El Salvador, a woman was imprisoned for 30 years for inducing a termination. She says her pregnancy actually ended in stillbirth, but under the country’s total ban on abortion, women can be made criminals by their loss. In the US, states enacted 63 restrictions on abortion in 2017.

In the UK, attempts to push back the 1967 Abortion Act have so far been resisted. Last year, there was even a slight expansion, as women from Northern Ireland (where the act has never applied) were given access to NHS abortion services without charge, although they still have to travel to England to receive treatment. Yet the muted response to the 50th anniversary of the act last year showed how little abortion rights are valued.

2017 was also the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act and the contrast between the two is instructive. The Sexual Offences Act, like the Abortion Act, was imperfect. It took until 2001 for the age of consent to be equalised. Even so, last year was a celebration of LGBT rights. The BBC’s Gay Britannia season included documentaries, specially commissioned dramas and pop music retrospectives in honour of this landmark in sexual liberation.

For the 1967 Abortion Act, our public service broadcaster the BBC gave us Anne Robinson presenting a show called Abortion on Trial, a radio documentary called It’s My Baby Too, which asked whether it was time men were given more attention in the abortion debate (it isn’t), and an edition of The Moral Maze. “Everything had to be a debate,†says Katherine O’Brien of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service. The idea that this was a win for women barely glimmered through the clouds of concern.

The Abortion Act is flawed. Abortion in the UK is still criminalised by the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act – a law that predates women’s right to own property – and the 1967 act only allows a woman to have a termination only if two doctors agree that continuing the pregnancy will endanger her mental or physical health. Not a right to choose: a right to ask permission and that fairly meaningless if you don’t have access to a doctor willing and able to perform the procedure. (Last year, 180 women had to travel from Scotland to England because their health services couldn’t provide abortion up to 24 weeks.)

Even with all this taken into account, the Abortion Act deserved as many tributes as the Sexual Offences Act and for similar reasons. It gave women freedom to have sex without fixing their futures; freedom to set their own limits on their own bodies; and made it possible for them to exercise their choice of when and whether to become mothers without risking death in the backstreets. Women’s feelings around their abortions are complex and reflecting on the act should include that, but ultimately this is a law that has saved women’s lives. Surely that merited a party, not wall-to-wall tribunals.

Where women set their own limits on their own bodies has become a topic of urgent interest with #MeToo. Women speaking out against years of sexual harassment and abuse are speaking out against men who made demands on their bodies, men who believed women didn’t really belong in the professional world and should be driven back into the feminine domestic sphere. When Irish women make the argument for abortion rights in the run-up to the referendum, they’ll be speaking the language of #MeToo. They’ll be claiming women’s right to determine their own lives and not to have to put their bodies at the service of others’ demands – whether that other is a boss who wants to grope you or an unwanted foetus growing in you. Around the world, women deserve better than abortion rights that are at best partial, at worst non-existent. The time to demand more has come.