Women who have abortions in this State should not be called criminals. Doctors who perform safe, early abortions in this country should not be called criminals. In Canada, it was Dr Henry Morgantaler’s defiance of the law, by providing abortions without the approval of the required committee of doctors, that decriminalised abortion.
In 1988, when Morgantaler appealed his sentence, the Supreme Court of Canada declared all of the country’s abortion law unconstitutional because it “asserts that a woman’s capacity to reproduce is to be subject, not to her own control, but to that of the State”. This was considered a breach of her right to security under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
No-one should make a woman have a baby against her will. No-one should attempt it, because the effort will fail. Expectant mothers are pragmatists, and won’t give birth if they think the time and place are not propitious.
If you closed our airports and our seaports, there would soon be a trade in abortions here, and if you cracked down on abortionists, there would be home-made abortions, and so it goes on, until you have the ultimate horror of infanticide.
Unless you looked at it differently and asked: why are Irish women seeking abortions? Irish women, like all women, everywhere, since the dawn of time, decide whether or not to continue a pregnancy, and do so in the context of their societies. What has changed are the methods of ending pregnancies.
In ‘What else could I do?’, a study of infanticide in Ireland from 1900 to 1950, Cliona Rattigan shows that young, poor, unsupported women commonly dealt with unwanted pregnancy by giving birth in secret and killing their babies, while better-off women went to private abortionists. Poor, unmarried women were frequently cast out by society, and one young woman wandered the roads with her infant before killing it. But many women were not isolated.
They came under what Rattigan calls “sustained pressure” from their families to kill their babies.
Sometimes, other members of the family did the job: mothers, fathers, sisters. Rattigan reproduces a letter that a mother sent her daughter telling her how to kill her baby. One sister’s evidence was “I removed the child a few feet from her, and caught its throat with my right hand, and squeezed it to kill it so that my father, and the people, would not know.”
Rattigan cites cases of babies killed by married couples, because the babies were born too soon after marriage and would have been evidence of pre-marital sex.
Who is to blame here? The desperate women or the brutal society, which frequently threw women out if they were not married when they became pregnant? At the time, Irish law preferred to see the women as criminal or intellectually subnormal than to face their own complicity in the death of these babies.
But the law on infanticide was, in theory, more compassionate than is provided for in the case of abortion in this State under the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill.
In November, 1949, a 21-year-old woman, called Margaret, had a baby daughter in Co. Wexford. She was unmarried and she concealed the pregnancy from the relations with whom she lived and worked. She gave birth alone and when the baby cried, “terrified that people in the street below would hear the baby’s cries, Margaret put her hand to its neck and squeezed a little on its neck to stop it crying. She continued to apply pressure to the infant’s neck with her fingers until the cries subsided and ‘it got quiet’.”
Margaret’s sentence for infanticide, in 1950, was a fine of ten pounds and a year in the Good Shepherd Convent, in Waterford. Her sentence, for killing a living, breathing baby, back in the dark days before sex came to Ireland, was a full 13 years shorter than that provided for abortion in the new bill, which is now before the Dáil.
The difference, of course, is that sentences for infanticide had to be handed down. Whereas, I don’t believe anyone in the Dáil who is voting for this bill believes a sentence will ever be handed down to a woman for having an abortion in this State, because there is always England. Worse than being hypocritical, this bill will do nothing to reduce the number of abortions that Irish women have. Pretending that women make these decisions in isolation, and then going after them for their decisions, will not do.
What needs to change is our society. We have a society that drives women to seek abortion because it does not support them and it does not welcome their babies.
Oh, yes, sorry, you can go on social welfare and become one of those women often portrayed as bumming off the State. It is better than nothing.
But it does not reflect joy and it does not reflect respect. A woman who has a baby in the wrong circumstances is often debarred from full citizenship, which we define as having a good job.
A recent editorial in an Irish newspaper described the fall in women’s participation in the workplace, when they have a child, as “the maternity bar.” As if there is any childcare formula that would make it easy to hold down a decent job when you are on your own with a tiny child, unless your family rallies around.
You are left with choices that are not much less stark than those of the domestic servants in Rattigan’s book who had their babies in secret, in their employers’ homes, and hid them away for fear of losing their jobs. Except that, nowadays, more women can afford a safe abortion in the UK. In the Stone Age, women were sub-fertile when there wasn’t enough to feed babies.
When food was more plentiful, women abandoned their disabled babies when they could not feed them without compromising their other children. The so-called feral children, said to have been raised by animals, were probably non-verbal autistic children abandoned a couple of days previously. In this age of ‘ecological release’, we have enough food and our need to end pregnancies has been — apart from health reasons — socially constructed.
We have it in our power, as a society, to make abortion irrelevant, except in a small number of medical cases. That starts with voting down this heinous bill, and putting the Eighth Amendment back to the people.