Bill marks progress in the fight for women’s rights, but it’s only a first step

THE inclusion of a 14-year jail term, for women who induce their abortions, in the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill, is a punishment for being poor and female.

The 21-year debate that has raged since the controversial X Case decision will soon end when Ireland accepts its responsibility to legislate for abortion in narrowly prescribed, life-saving situations.

The passage of the legislation, which is under final review in advance of its publication, will be seismic in the history of the State.

It will be the first time that legislators recognise that women’s lives matter more than potential lives in the first stages of development. It will be the first time that politicians take seriously the threats to women’s lives that can result from pregnancy, and act to ameliorate those risks.

It will be the first time that an Irish government acknowledges that, given the choice between a woman and a foetus dying or a foetus dying, the latter is the least worst option. It will be the first time that doctors fearful of the risks of pregnancy to a woman’s life will have the protection of a legal framework within which to confidently assess that risk and act.

It will be the first time that pregnant women in a medical emergency will have legal clarity and certainty about their human rights. It will be the first time that women whose pregnancies endanger their lives have options, albeit limited, enshrined in law. In short, it will be the first time that pregnant women are intrinsically valued by the State and not just for their procreative potential.

It feels bizarre to laud a government for introducing legislation that seeks only to save women’s lives, but, given Ireland’s extremely regressive history on this issue and the cacophony of complaint, the coalition deserves credit for persisting with the bill.

So, too, do those politicians who, if the legislation is put to a vote, support this historic bill and, for the first time, pay more than just lip service to the protection of pregnant women’s lives.

Its passage through the Houses of the Oireachtas will be recalled for generations to come. It will signal that Ireland, as a country, has begun to divest itself of its misogynistic treatment of women, who, up to now, have been viewed as expendable baby-making machines whose lives pale into insignificance compared to a fertilised ovum. It will also sever the disproportionate influence of a small, fundamentalist group (which perversely labels itself pro-life, despite its reckless ambivalence about women’s lives) over politicians and national policy. On the cusp of its passage, the significance of this bill, and what it means for the advancement of women’s rights in this country, should not be understated.

The bill is not perfect, but it is progress. Consider, for a moment, Michelle Harte, from Ardamine, in Co. Wexford, who became pregnant in 2010 while she was suffering from terminal cancer.

Although her pregnancy constituted a serious threat to her life, the current legal quagmire meant that she endured an unconscionable delay while a hospital’s ethics committee contemplated her fate, before eventually refusing to perform the termination. Unable to get cancer treatment here, while pregnant, she was forced to travel to the UK, having to be physically helped onto the plane because she was so weak, for an abortion.

This legislation means that desperately ill women, like Michelle Harte, will no longer be forced to endure the barbarism of Ireland’s twisted ‘pro-life’ ethics. It will make a difference. The bill will also provide some measure of relief for those very limited number of women who become suicidal because of their pregnancy. Women like X, a 14- year-old girl who had been raped by her neighbour for two years before falling pregnant.

Despite all of the fulmination about this provision, the prospect of being assessed by a team of three medics is one that most women will want to avoid but, at least, for those who cannot afford to travel, the option of help will exist.

Some TDs have expressed concern at the lack of time limits in the legislation, a consequence of the X Case decision, but would the inclusion of an arbitrary time limit make a difference?

Would TDs, like Labour’s Colm Keaveney, refuse a suicidal woman a termination of pregnancy at 23 weeks, knowing she had been assessed by three medical experts as being at serious risk of ending her life? If so, it seems incredible that a TD with no medical training would be willing to make such a life-and-death decision on a woman’s behalf, instead of deferring to medical experts.

Hailing from a conservative constituency, Mr Keaveney’s position may have more to do with seat-saving than life-saving, but there is one aspect of the bill that should give all politicians pause for thought. Would they be happy to see a young woman prosecuted in the courts, and sentenced to up to 14 years in prison, for procuring an abortion by, for example, purchasing abortifacient drugs online?

The criminalisation of women like this, who cannot afford to travel and are forced to go to extreme lengths to end their pregnancies, is an aberration that perpetuates the stigma of abortion in this country.

Nobody who has the requisite funds to travel to a UK clinic would, instead, opt to induce an abortion at home, at great risk to their own health. It is an act borne out of desperation and poverty, not criminality.

It also means that women who experience medical problems after inducing an abortion will be reticent about seeking medical help, for fear of being prosecuted. Elsewhere, the bill is flawed, largely for what it omits, rather than what it contains. For example, the State will continue to turn its back on women whose pregnancies are doomed because of a fatal foetal abnormality, forcing them to make the traumatic trip to the UK for treatment.

However, pro-choice lobbyists need to be realistic about what can be achieved, and there is conflicting legal opinion about the constitutionality of a provision to facilitate the termination of these pregnancies.

In order to see abortion rights extended to those women whose health, and not life, is imperilled by their pregnancies, then a referendum, to repeal the eighth amendment, is the only option.

Contrary to scare-mongering, change will not occur by the surreptitious opening of some sinister floodgates, but only by winning the assent of the people, in a popular vote.

This bill is important, but it is just a first step. The danger is that political inertia, and voter fatigue, will lead to another 20-year delay, before these important issues are tackled.

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