A suicidal woman refused an abortion, is then force-fed to preserve her embryo which is later delivered at 25 weeks by caesarian section.

Diarmuid Breatnach

A woman considered suicidal by a medical panel was recently refused an abortion in Ireland and was subsequently force-fed. Within days a call was made for a protest demonstration and was answered by a substantial number in Dublin on Wednesday night last. The protestors filled the central section of O’Connell Street from the Spire to the Larkin monument and also spilled out into the road. Numbers of protestors took up station on the pavement fronting the GPO. A weekend demonstration was also convened in Dublin and another in Cork.0

Protest Caesarian etc rally 20Aug2014
Protesters in Dublin on Wednesday evening denouncing the treatment of the woman refused an abortion and force-fed. They called for the repeal of the Eight Amendment to the Irish Constitution.  (photo D. Breatnach)

The pregnant young woman, apparently under 18 years of age, was a migrant, who sought an abortion in Ireland. Some media reports say that her pregnancy arose as a result of a rape in her native country prior to her travelling to Ireland. Not all the details are clear but it seems that an Irish advice centre gave her the necessary information to travel to Britain to receive an abortion but that she was unable to afford it (there is also some question about her immigration or asylum status should she wish to reenter Ireland). It seems she then became depressed, not surprisingly, and expressed suicidal ideation. Under the Right to Life During Pregnancy Act 2013, introduced following the “X” case, a woman is entitled to receive an abortion if carrying the foetus should result in a substantial risk to her life – suicidal ideation being one of of those risks.

In accordance with the 2013 Act the young woman’s case was reviewed by a panel, consisting of two psychologists and an obstetrician. According to reporting in the mass media, the psychologists agreed that she was suicidal and that she she should therefore have the termination. The obstetrician apparently agreed that she was suicidal but argued that in a short while (two weeks has been mentioned), a caesarian could be carried out and a baby delivered alive and viable. Since the Act requires the unanimous concurrence of all three members of the panel, the young woman was refused an abortion.

It seems the woman became further depressed and stopped eating, whereupon lawyers for the hospital went to the High Court to obtain a court order permitting the woman to be force-fed, which procedure was carried out (probably intravenously). The woman is said to have subsequently agreed to a caesarian section by which method a baby was delivered. The fate of the woman is not in the public domain at this time but the baby was reportedly delivered alive and well after 25 weeks in the womb.

A number of speakers at the rally made the point that “here we are again”, i.e. that the lack of the necessary legislation has led to another case of terrible mistreatment of a young woman, a reference to other cases of refusal of abortion that have become scandals and lead to demonstrations such as about the death of Sadita Halappanavar in 2012 and the “X” case in 1992.

At the rally, all the speakers, campaigners and providers of services and a male doctor from Doctors for Choice, called for a referendum to repeal Amendment Eight of the Bunreacht (Irish Constitution). This is the amendment passed in 1983 in order to prevent abortion becoming legal. Some very telling points were made, one speaker saying that no-one in Ireland but a pregnant woman would be force-fed or bullied into submitting to an invasive surgical operation. Perhaps we cannot say that none of those things would ever happen to anyone else but it is certainly true that only in the case of a pregnant woman would that combination of coercive and intrusive procedures, clearly in violation of the Hippocratic Oath, have been considered so readily and applied in conjunction. That the woman was a migrant probably made it easier for the authorities but it is the legal position on abortion in Ireland and its moral underpinning which reduces the pregnant woman to the status of some kind of living vessel, the status of the unborn foetus being higher than that of the mother.

Men’s place in the movement

Breaking from the general trend at the rally, one of the speakers addressed many of her remarks specifically at the males present there in support. She told them “they should know their place” and that they had no right to express any opinion on the issue except to support the women. Some women applauded her and some did not.

Drs for Choice 23Aug2014 AF
On the Dublin march for the repeal of the 8th Amendment on Saturday. This banner was also present at the Wednesday protest rally where one of their representatives spoke. (photo Andrew Flood)

Since variations of this view have emerged quite frequently, including the view that it’s a women’s issue or that men should just follow the opinion of women in the movement, it is worth examining this a little further. The current situation on abortion in Ireland of course impacts in the first place on women but it does not affect them only. An unwanted pregnancy, especially at an early age or stage in a relationship can force decisions that may later be regretted, including marriage or abandonment. Raising a child from what was an unwanted pregnancy has long-term social and economic implications, not just for the mother but for a much wider circle – as well as for the child growing up in society. The existence of legislation on abortion and its repeal is in the realm of criminal law — but above all it is a social issue, one affecting society. The provision of abortion is also a medical and social question: medical and social structures and services will need to be put in place, funded, monitored and its practitioners trained. Therefore all of adult society has a right to a voice on it. To call on a section of society to be mute supporters is to treat them as voting fodder and should not be supported by any genuinely democratic person.

Pro-Choice that W not incubators
Man on the Dublin march for repeal of the 8th Amendment (photo Andrew Flood)

Also, if men, because they are not after all going to be the ones being impregnated and bearing children, should not have a voice but should only support women, which women’s opinions should they support? Why not support the many women who are totally against abortion? And even if supporting women who are for greater access to abortion, which section of opinion about which degree of access should men support?

Clearly men have to think about these issues to come to decisions. Are they to think silently, expressing no opinion and discussing with no-one, and then be expected to develop rational opinions to inform their actions and, in the case of a referendum, their voting too? Clearly the expectations expressed in such calls or statements are not only undemocratic but unrealistic too. Men not only have the right to express opinions on these issues but need to be able to do so in order to have the discussions that make it possible for them to make rational choices.

The attitude of the state and a referendum

The Dublin pro-choice demonstration on Saturday, according to observers, matched the numbers at the anti-abortion demonstration in the city on the same day – about seven hundred. The pro-choice demonstration took an unusual route from O’Connell Street and became the third demonstration to cross the Rosie Hackett Bridge (opened in May this year). The Bridge is the only one in Dublin named after a woman and Rosie was a trade union militant active in the Dublin Lockout of 1913, as well as taking part in the 1916 Rising as a member of the Irish Citizen Army. The demonstration rallied just across the river at the Department of Health in Hawkins Street (the Department under which the young woman had been refused an abortion and force-fed) and then went on to demonstrate at the Dáil (the Irish parliament).

ProChoice DeptHealth 23Aug2014 AF
Speaker addresses the crowd in Hawkins Street, outside the Department of Justice — Rosie Hackett Bridge is to the far right of the photo. (photo Andrew Flood)

Some supporters of a change in the law have presented the issue as though it is essential to the State and to the Catholic Church, two institutions closely linked, to control women’s bodies through refusing access to abortion, free and on demand. I do not think it is so. Certainly those forces may want to control women’s bodies (and indeed, men and women’s minds) but such control is not essential for the continued existence of the State. Many capitalist countries have either easy access to abortion or much more liberal laws than has the 26-County state. This state can afford to give that right but that does not mean that it will. When a state is able to give something but does not want to, sufficient force must be mobilised in order to convince it that yielding will cost it less than denying. Substantial pressure will need to be brought to bear on the State so that it agrees to holding a referendum.

But having a referendum does not mean that the correct and necessary outcome will be the result. We have had referenda in which the side of progress and justice was successful but also those in which it was not. The present Amendment Eight to the Bunreacht (Constitution), which the movement seeks to repeal, was the result of a referendum.

Yes, true, that was 30 years ago and opinions have changed since. In recent years, opinion surveys have shown a majority in favour of some relaxation of the law. Also, two legislative attempts to tighten restrictions on access to abortion, in 1992 and 2002, failed. On the other hand, the Thirteenth and Fourteenth amendments, both in 1992, were successful in loosening the ban, establishing the right of a pregnant woman to travel, even if to obtain an abortion, and to be given information about abortions services abroad. However, although the numbers in favour of unfettered access to abortion have grown substantially they do not yet constitute a majority.

According to analysts of the socio-economic background of respondents to the questionnaire, the indication is that the areas of greatest resistance are among a section of the middle class and a section of the working class. That particular section of the middle class is one of generally right-wing views and not amenable to change. Besides, they have the economic resources to lessen the chances of unwanted pregnancies including, despite their ideological position against it, to send their pregnant daughters quietly to Britain, having them return after a brief holiday without the neighbours being any the wiser. Or for a wife to go on a weekend visit to a friend in Britain even without her husband knowing the real reason for the trip.

The working class is in a different situation. High social and economic deprivation in Western countries tends to be accompanied by a higher degree of unplanned pregnancies and single parenthood than is the case with other socio-economic groups. Most working class families would also struggle to find the funds to send a family member to Britain (or to the Netherlands, apparently a new trend) to have an abortion, usually accompanied by at least one friend or family member, paying for travel, accommodation and the procedure itself. And the level of care is likely to be at the lower end of the scale. Of course many, many families and friend groups do manage it somehow.

The working class has a vested interest in this reform and this is recognised among some sections of the class but not in others. Traditional obedience to the Church has broken down in many areas, for example in ideas about sex before marriage and in using barriers to impregnation. However, the opposition to abortion remains, for many, a line not to be crossed. If a referendum is to be forced from the State and, in particular if the outcome is to be such as needed, a change in the outlook of at least a substantial section of this class needs to be achieved. Most working class people outside the immediate circles of the pro-choice movement tend not to see any campaigning on the issue except after such scandals hit the headlines – then a flare-up is briefly visible until things die down again.

The pro-choice movement will need to get out on to the streets and into communities on a regular basis if it is to win. I think it also needs to counter the work of the anti-choice propagandists, particularly those who put up their stalls in public areas or picket information centres. In discussion with some activists in the pro-choice movement, they say they do these things to some degree but don’t have the numbers of activists needed to do it more regularly. I confess that I find it hard to believe that in Dublin, for example, the movement is incapable through lack of activists to put a stall – indeed a number of stalls in different areas – on the street at least once a month. Some of those in the movement have been campaigning for decades and others for many years – and yet, as so many of their speakers said on Wednesday night in O’Connell Street, “here we are again”, responding to another fatal tragedy or shocking violation of human and civil rights.

Front Rally Repeal 8th 23Aug2014
Front of the march on Saturday in Dublin (photo Andrew Flood)

Facebook organising and networking by pro-choice campaigning groups can produce quick mobilisation of substantial numbers of people. These people are already convinced. Most of the working class remains untouched by these mobilisations and certainly their overall outlook remains unchanged. If the pro-choice movement is to have its desires become reality, it needs to get out into the working class communities and promote its cause, hopefully recruiting from among those communities to better carry the message among their own. The movement needs to engage in dialogue with movements with a high percentage of people of working class background, such as – dare one say it? — the Irish Republican movement. The latter is, despite one very deep idealogical divide and the existence of a number of factions, the political opposition movement with the largest active participation of people of working class background. At the moment, the overall position of the movement is anti-choice but that is nowhere near as monolithic or as unassailable as it was even a decade ago.

The hope is that the necessary mobilisation will be done and that very soon the State will be forced to concede a referendum on the abolition of Amendment Eight. The hope is also that the necessary educational work will be done to achieve an overwhelming victory in that referendum. The activists in the movement need our support, men as well as women, in all of that.


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