photo: Independent

Under Irish law, a woman who seeks an abortion after rape can face a longer prison sentence than her rapist – but this could be about to change

Source: Independent 14th Dec 2017 – by Guen Morroni

The reality is that 10 per cent of all Irish women will experience penetrative sexual violence in their lifetime and a proportion of them will become pregnant as a result

I left Ireland at age nineteen, thinking that by the time I was “old” – that is in my thirties – abortion would have been made legal in the country. I am now in my thirties and it is still very much illegal.

However, things might be changing. Ireland is preparing for a referendum on abortion in May or June 2018. Yesterday, the terms were voted by the Eighth Amendment committee in favour of a motion to recommend making the termination of pregnancy lawful with no restriction up to twelve weeks. The terms will be published on 20 December.

Never more than now, the country will need the support to campaign for the clearing of the law on abortion.

As it stands, the 8th amendment of the Irish constitution equates the life of a pregnant woman with that of an embryo or foetus and criminalises any woman or doctor that will carry out an abortion. Abortion pills are illegal, termination is also not permitted if foetal abnormalities are detected, if the woman’s health is affected, or in cases of rape or incest. A woman who seeks an abortion after rape can face an equal or longer prison sentence than her rapist – up to 14 years in prison.

Many rape pregnancy survivor cases have been cast into the public eye. The Miss X case (1992), the Miss C case (1997), the Miss D case (2007), the Miss Y case (2014). These women, some teenagers, were either granted to travel abroad to terminate their pregnancy due to their threat of suicide, or forced to continue their pregnancy.

The reality is that 10 per cent of all Irish women will experience penetrative sexual violence in their lifetime and a proportion of them will become pregnant as a result. In 2013, 8 per cent of females attending a Rape Crisis Centre reported they became pregnant as a result of rape, representing 75 women.

The prohibitive culture against abortion in Ireland is further exemplified by the death of Savita Halappanavar and Bimbo Onanugam. Savita was a 31-year-old Indian dentist who was denied an abortion at Galway hospital, despite her miscarriage of an unviable foetus. The reason given: “Ireland is a Catholic country”.

Groups like MERJ (Migrants and Ethnic-minorities for Reproductive Justice) have brought to light the true discriminating character of Ireland’s abortion law. Emily Waszak, co-organiser, mentioned 40 per cent of birth deaths are migrant deaths. These are women born outside of Ireland, some of whom would have been denied travel due to their “status” as migrant ethnic minorities, such as the case of Nigerian born Bimbo Onanugam, who died at the Mater Hospital in 2010, due to a ruptured uterus caused by induced labour.

Catholicism has a lot to do with this law, but it’s not the only driver behind it – the situation is far more complex and full of contradictions.

Even when the World Health Organisation’s best practice on abortion states that abortion services must be regulated to prevent unsafe terminations, the pro-life side will condemn a woman for “killing babies”. This pro-life narrative has always been one of shame – the vocabulary is punitive, and years of this mindset has not made it easy for Irish people.

There is no consideration from the pro-life side for the trauma that women deal with in relation to unwanted pregnancy and the process of abortion – let alone pregnancies as a result of sexual assault and rape itself.

Of course, misogyny reigns, but considering the last Magdalene Laundry closed in just 1996, this does not come as a surprise. The laundries kept women confined in working institutions, some for their whole life, because of their “sins” – having children out of wedlock or prostitution. In some cases, these women were victims of sexual assault. Apparently that counted as a sin.

Travelling has been the other focal issue alongside health care. Women seeking medical assistance travel, ironically, to the country that brought in the law against abortion in Ireland in the first place in 1861 – Britain.

In 2016 only, 3,265 women have travelled from Ireland to the UKfor abortion services. And this number is an underestimation, as not all women will provide their Irish addresses at UK abortion clinics.

Travelling is a further financial, psychological and emotional burden. Women who need visas to travel abroad and re-enter Ireland may have to wait six to eight weeks for the necessary documents, or in some cases may not be able to travel. Asylum seekers must apply and pay for an emergency re-entry visa from the Department of Justice and a visa to enter the UK or the Netherlands. In this case, Brexit might only create a further barrier.

Nevertheless, as Ailbhe Smyth (Convenor of the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment), put very well, in the past 40 years Ireland has pulled itself out of a very traditional and patriarchal frame of reference when it comes to women.

Things are changing. The mobilisation of the last few years has seen up to 30,000 people take to the streets with an enormous increase in visibility compared to the last referendum in 2002, with #repealthe8th becoming the number one hashtag in Ireland in 2017. Organisations such as Strike 4 Repeal, the London Irish ARC and the Abortion Rights Campaign in Ireland are ready to campaign, canvass and mobilise people now more than ever to put an end to what is clearly a dehumanisation of women.

Women in Ireland are tired of being treated as second-class citizens. If abortion was to become safe, free and legal it would be an incredible win.

There are more factors to be implemented on the agenda, in my opinion. Psychological training will be needed for doctors who up until now, have had no preparation, as well as support for women having abortions. The country is still divided over the matter. Women might still have to face discrimination and shaming. The fight won’t stop at the legislation – we has to continue to build a safe culture for women who have been mistreated for centuries.

Traditionally, when Ireland wants a revolution, she gets one. Let’s hope this will be the next.