Are we really that glad to see Ireland hold a referendum on abortion?

The prospect of a group of people, 50 per cent of whom are male, voting on whether or not women deserve bodily autonomy feels less and less liberating the longer you think about it

Holly Baxter
Tuesday 26 September 2017 18:12
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Ireland to hold abortion referendum in 2018

So Ireland is to hold a referendum on abortion in 2018. “Finally!” you might say – despite the fact that the prospect of a group of people, 50 per cent of whom are male, voting on whether or not women deserve bodily autonomy feels less and less liberating the longer you think about it.

This move comes too late for many and is in no way guaranteed to lead to an extension of women’s rights. Five years on from her untimely death, I still think of Savita Halappanavar – a dentist who was born in India and who begged for proper medical intervention during her pregnancy at a Galway hospital – almost weekly. She began miscarrying her much-wanted first child at University Hospital Galway in 2012, and asked for a proper abortion when she found herself in severe pain. The hospital refused because there was technically still a foetal heartbeat, telling her: “This is a Catholic country.” She died of septicaemia. Where the supposedly Catholic reverence for the sanctity of life was as she pleaded for her own to be saved is anyone’s guess.

Any move toward legalising abortion – and therefore preventing deaths like Savita’s where doctors hesitate to act in the best interests of the patient lest they end up struck off and prosecuted for contravening the country’s strict anti-abortion laws – is welcome. Small steps toward liberation are still steps. But one does wonder where all of this would leave Northern Irish women, the only UK citizens left who don’t have the right to terminate their pregnancies (unless they can prove that having the baby would cause their own deaths.)

More than 700 women travelled from Northern Ireland to England for an abortion in 2016, down from 833 in 2015. Just three months ago, the NHS agreed to start funding those trips on the basis that these were medical interventions all UK citizens had the right to access. It was a bizarre and cowardly decision designed to quietly help out the few Northern Irish women with the knowledge and resources to know how to take advantage of the deal in the first place; one week later, the DUP MP Ian Paisley Jr stood up in Parliament and stated that “the rights of the unborn child [would] trump any political agreement” with Theresa May, before the Tories shunted Paisley’s party £1bn.

If the Republic of Ireland does end up legalising abortion, the UK Government will be forced into an uncomfortable position. Northern Irish women – UK citizens, in case that needs reiteration – could be left with some of the worst rights in the western world. What female Prime Minister would want to preside over that?

This is in no way an academic issue in Northern Ireland: in 2016, a woman whose flatmates reported her to the police for taking abortion pills she’d ordered online was prosecuted, leading to widespread protests but no actual legislative change. She was 19 years old, and given a three month suspended sentence which – as her lawyer pointed out – never would have been handed down had she lived in England, Scotland or Wales.

Just a few days ago, members of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists voted in favour of fully decriminalising abortion in the UK (at present, even in England, Scotland and Wales, a woman can go to prison for life for administering her own abortion rather than going to a doctor.) This should be a step towards stripping away the other unnecessary legislation in place which prevents women from accessing abortion because they don’t want a baby, such as the demand for two doctors to separately agree that the termination is necessary on medical grounds or because of the woman’s health. At the moment, many women who simply do not want a child access it when they argue that the demands of pregnancy and childbirth would be detrimental to their mental health. In reality, we shouldn’t need them to have to frame things in this way: if a woman doesn’t want to carry a foetus to full term, that fact alone should be enough grounds for removing the foetus from her body.

Jacob Rees-Mogg says he opposes abortion in all circumstances

There is an old philosophical argument which is often posed to men: you wake up one day with all your organs and your circulatory system tethered by a futuristic machine to a person lying beside you in a hospital bed. This person can’t live without access to your organs, you are told, so you’ll need to walk around connected to them for the next nine months, and then tend to their medical needs for years thereafter. The treatment will probably have a permanent effect on your own organs, but the sacrifice will be worth it. The people who tell you this are fanatics, committed to an ideology which states that the person you’re connected to with wires and tubes is special and must be kept alive at all costs.

Most men respond that this is an unrealistic and nightmarish situation, the kind you might come across in a horror film – and there is something really, truly horrifying about the idea of having your body wrenched off you by strangers because of their commitment to an incomprehensible ideology. When you take the woman out of the equation, most men see this sort of situation as unacceptable. So why, when you put the woman back in, do so many of them still defend it – and why are we giving them a vote?

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