TW: abortion, suicide.
It looks like Ireland is finally going to get legislation on abortion. Following the massive outcry over the fate of Savita Halappanavar, with the publication of the expert group report this week, there’ll be a debate in the Dail tonight on what- not if- to do about legislating for abortion to save pregnant people’s lives. With any luck, we’ll finally get that 20-years-overdue legislation on the X case, guidelines for doctors that spell out their responsibilities when faced with pregnant people whose lives are at risk, and Savita’s death, while unnecessary, will not have been utterly in vain.
But it won’t be enough. Why? The right to life. And suicide.
The Right to Life: the Eighth Amendment
The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of Ireland states:
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.
To use my preferred terminology: the right to life of a person who is pregnant in Ireland is valued on an equal footing to the life of the embryo or fetus they carry. The state has a responsibility to defend the life of the fetus in a way that it is not required to defend a pregnant person.
Just as importantly, all that is defended is life. Health is not defended. I do not have the right to an abortion in Ireland if remaining pregnant will severely and irrevocably damage my health. In fact, doctors are forced to stand by and watch a pregnancy destroy the health of a pregnant person, as long as that person is not about to die.
Life is not the only thing that is important. My life is about more than just a beating heart. But in Ireland, as the constitution stands, if a pregnancy threatens to leave me with dangerous or long-term impairments I have no recourse. I do not get to choose whether to take that risk. According to the constitution, once a person is pregnant the only time their life matters is when it could be ended. Quality of life doesn’t matter. Health doesn’t matter. I become no longer an adult capable of making my own decisions regarding my body and what medical procedures I will put it through or am willing to live with. I am just a host.
Which brings us to suicide.
Suicide and X
Quick history for my non-Irish readers: in 1992, a 14 year old girl, pregnant and suicidal as the result of a rape, was at the centre of what is called the X Case. X, because she was never named. X was prevented from travelling to the UK for abortion by the High Court, but this decision was reversed by the Supreme Court, which ruled that the threat of suicide could be considered a real and substantial risk to X’s life. Wiki has a decent outline of the case if you want to know more. Later that year, and again ten years later in 2002, the governments of the time sought to reverse that ruling through consitutional amandments that would have removed the threat of suicide as a valid threat to the life of the pregnant person. Both of these were rejected. Neither have, until now, been legislated for. Of course.
There are two arguments that I hear against allowing suicidal people to obtain abortions legally in Ireland. The first is that there is no instance where having an abortion would relieve someone’s desire to end their own life. The second is that this would be abused- that people would fake being suicidal in order to access abortions. Both of these, to me, speak to a deep mistrust of women, an unwillingness to take women’s accounts of their own lives at their word, and a kind of paternalism that insists that the state knows best (I say ‘women’ here, by the way, not because everyone who is pregnant is a woman- of course they’re not- but because the awareness that trans* men and nonbinary people can be pregnant isn’t one that has permeated into widespread discourse on abortion). The fear is of abortion on demand, and people are willing to put the lives of suicidal Irish people at risk in order to prevent it. So let’s look into that, shall we?
Abortion on Demand: the facts.
We already have abortion on demand. If you’re pregnant and don’t want to be, then as long as you have the money and don’t have to worry about visas, you can get an abortion. At least twelve women every day leave Ireland for abortion on demand- and that is probably an underestimation because it doesn’t take into account people who don’t give Irish addresses. The demand for abortion already exists, and it is being met. This is not something that Irish people are unaware of. In 1992, we voted to guarantee the right of Irish people to obtain information about overseas abortions and to travel for them. The freedom to travel and freedom of information regarding abortion are right there in the same Constitution that declares that even if her health (as opposed to life) is in grave danger, a pregnant person may not obtain an abortion within our borders.
We have abortion on demand. If you’re healthy enough to travel, then as long as you have the money to pay for it, and as long as you are not an asylum seeker or immigrant without the right to travel outside of Ireland, anyone can hop on a plane to the UK for an abortion. Ironically enough, women who want ‘abortion on demand’ are in a far better position to obtain it than those whose health may be at risk. Our right to demand abortion is constitutionally guaranteed- as long as we do it out of sight and keep quiet about it.
Abortion on Demand: the fears
The fear is that, if we allow “abortion on demand” here in Ireland, Irish women will start using abortion as birth control. Statistics from around the world, however, belie this claim. The legality or not of abortion doesn’t change how often it happens. It just changes how likely a person is to survive the procedure. From the link above:
A comprehensive global study of abortion has concluded that abortion rates are similar in countries where it is legal and those where it is not, suggesting that outlawing the procedure does little to deter women seeking it.
Moreover, the researchers found that abortion was safe in countries where it was legal, but dangerous in countries where it was outlawed and performed clandestinely.
[...] Some countries, like South Africa, have undergone substantial transitions in abortion laws [...] The procedure was made legal in South Africa in 1996, leading to a 90 percent decrease in mortality among women who had abortions.
The way to prevent abortions is not to ban them. The way to prevent abortions is simply to provide better access to and education on contraceptives:
In Eastern Europe, where contraceptive choices have broadened since the fall of Communism, the study found that abortion rates have decreased by 50 percent, although they are still relatively high compared with those in Western Europe. “In the past we didn’t have this kind of data to draw on,” Ms. Camp said. “Contraception is often the missing element” where abortion rates are high, she said.
So why do we ban “abortion on demand” in Ireland? It doesn’t stop people from having abortions. It does mean that pregnant people who are unable to travel for legal or health reasons face significantly higher risks. I think that we ban it because we want to keep abortion out of sight. We want to shame people who have abortions and keep them quiet. We don’t trust women.
Repealing the Eighth Amendment
Legislating for X is a start. It’s not enough. If we value living in a state that respects the rights of women to their health as well as their lives, we need to repeal the Eighth Amendment. If we want to be a nation that grows up and stops exporting its problems to the UK? We have to repeal. If we actually care about reducing the numbers of later-term abortions and ensuring that everyone in this country, regardless of income or immigration status, has the same right to medical care? We have to repeal the Eighth Amendment.
Legislation on X is a start. It’s necessary, and it’s decades overdue. But Irish people deserve better.
By the way:
If you’re in Dublin, don’t forget the protest tonight! We’ll be gathering outside Leinster House at 6pm, and there’ll be live audio of tonight’s Dail debate. Be there!