Women’s voices and needs must be heard in campaign

Eighth Amendment chair Catherine Noone.

Removing the Eighth Amendment is the first step to ensuring caring and compassionate healthcare that meets the needs of all women and girls in Ireland, writes Orla O’Connor.

There will be a referendum on the Eighth Amendment this summer, where the public will have a say, for the first time since 1983, on the type of reproductive healthcare we need for women.

Over the past few weeks, the political debate has intensified, and we have heard the views of politicians of all

parties and none on the upcoming referendum.

While political leadership on women’s health is both crucial and welcome, we need to ensure that all our discussions on the referendum are focussed on the voices and experiences of women.

As director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland, I spend much of my time talking to women about the issues that matter most to them. I have travelled around the country in recent weeks, meeting with different groups of people and discussing the upcoming referendum.

What is clear from these conversations is that the majority of people want what is best for women. This means ensuring that the complexities of women’s lives are recognised in a non-judgemental way and safeguarding the health and wellbeing of women and girls.

Everyone I have spoken to is very clear: In all conversations around the Eighth Amendment, it is so important that we keep the voices and experiences of women at the centre.

Providing a protected period of 12 weeks where a woman can access abortion if she needs to in consultation with her doctor — this situation has gained much attention but what does it mean in reality for women?

In very real terms, the first indication of pregnancy for most women is a missed period, which can vary anytime from around week four to week six, depending on a woman’s cycle.

This can of course be later if a woman was not expecting to become pregnant and wasn’t looking out for the signs, or if a woman has an irregular cycle.

So in reality, the proposal for a protected period of 12 weeks allows a minimum six-week window in which a woman could be expected to know that she is pregnant, to consider her personal and family circumstances and to enable her decide to end or continue her pregnancy.

This is the minimum for a considerate and compassionate process whereby pregnancy can end as early as possible and at the same time ensure that no woman’s decision is rushed.

It is important to say that with this type of legislation, accessing abortion care at 12 weeks is not a target but an outside limit. In countries where abortion care is legal and accessible, most abortions happen by nine weeks.

The protected period of 12 weeks will be the only compassionate way to provide for women who have become pregnant as a result of rape.

It would ensure that these woman are able to end the pregnancy in a way that protects their safety and dignity, and that they are not forced to disclose a rape, report a rape, or prove a pregnancy occurred as a result of rape.

As one of the leading organisations working on the issue of violence against women for decades, we know that it would be utterly unethical and unworkable to introduce access to abortion on the grounds of rape and to expect a woman to disclose the fact that she has been raped.

When we are discussing proposed legislation that would be enacted if the Eighth Amendment is removed from the Constitution, it is crucial that we understand that these proposals are based on the reality of women’s lives, as well as best medical practice.

Where a wanted pregnancy turns into a crisis pregnancy at a later stage in pregnancy, legislation must allow for restricted access to abortion where it is considered medically necessary to protect the mental and physical health of the woman, and where there is a non-viable pregnancy.

These “protected treatments” will allow medical professionals to care for women in sometimes extremely difficult and distressing circumstances and support women, couples, and families in making these decisions.

The best, considered decisions happen in a supportive, trusting environment where the privacy regarding that decision is protected in the same way the relationship is between doctor and patient.

Removing the Eighth Amendment is the first step to ensuring caring and compassionate healthcare that meets the needs of all women and girls in Ireland.

It will allow us to bring in abortion care that means that we end unregulated abortions in Ireland, where women order abortion pills online or travel abroad for abortions without the necessary medical follow up.

It also ensures that we introduce a regulated and safe system, where women and girls have access to the whole range of healthcare options that they need.

Orla O’Connor is director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland, Ireland’s leading women’s membership organisation.

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