The latest fiasco in the long-running saga of Ireland’s denial of abortion rights to women is tragic for regrettably obvious reasons. This time, the main protagonist is a teenage asylum seeker, pregnant as a result of rape, and with uncertain immigration status, who became suicidal, went on hunger strike and was forcibly rehydrated before finally being compelled to undergo a Caesarean section at 23-25 weeks gestation. Her compounded social vulnerabilities prevented her from doing what thousands of other women in Ireland do every year – take a plane to the UK in order to receive the medical attention she required.
But if you step away from the horror and tragedy of it, this story is also farcical, because Ireland has, again and again and again, been called to liberalise its abortion legislation, and again and again and again, Ireland has repeated that it has the best interests of both mother (read: vessel) and child (read: foetus) at heart, and again and again and again, women have shown this isn’t the case by inadvertently dying in Irish hospitals or revealing the inconvenient truth: that the state forced them to continue their pregnancy against their wishes and against best medical practice. I see all of this as farce, because if I don’t find a way to laugh at it, I’ll cry.
In the flurry of reporting on yet another sensational misadventure in the Irish justice system, it’s possible that some of the facts in this case have gotten lost or been misrepresented. However, most sources agree that the woman first sought a termination at 8 weeks (at which point the foetus is about the size of a raspberry – a miraculous raspberry, but a raspberry nonetheless). After being denied an abortion in the first instance, she became “increasingly distressed”, and eventually was brought before a panel of medical experts. Two psychiatrists deemed her to be suicidal (a precondition for being able to access safe and legal abortion in Ireland), while an obstetrician argued that the foetus was now – at about 22 weeks – compatible with life.
You see the terrible logic that appears to have been at play here? A woman who is 8 weeks pregnant, a young, vulnerable, but determined and rational woman, decides that she does not wish to continue with a pregnancy that was imposed on her against her will. Her situation is terrible, but it is not desperate, and she is not – entirely – suicidal. There is a way out of the situation, a way out that would have been granted to her in every other EU country except Malta, at that stage of her pregnancy. Denied the treatment she seeks, her mental resolve begins to break down. She manages to hold out for a remarkably long time, in the circumstances. At 10, at 12, at 15 weeks, she still does not exhibit the symptoms of extreme suicidality.
The system fails her because she does not conform to Irish legislative expectations of the hysterical pregnant woman whose risk of killing herself conveniently manifests itself in the first or early second trimester. She is not an always-already suicidal woman, as in the trope of our legislation. She is a woman who becomes suicidal precisely because she is denied an abortion under that legislation. By the time the logic has worked, it is too late to perform an abortion. Instead, having been forced to carry the pregnancy to at least 22 weeks, she undergoes an invasive surgery in order to deliver the baby into the waiting arms of the state. And lest we forget, we’re talking here about the state which since 2004 has denied citizenship rights to children born to non-Irish nationals on our soil.
Even as a hypothetical case – and I admit that no one can be certain of all the facts – this would be a stark illustration of the sheer absurdity, and the profound cruelty, of the state’s ruling on abortion to date. Through its insistence that women are incapable of deciding what’s best for themselves, through its refusal to trust to women’s “instincts” about their own physical and mental capabilities, the state forces women into an abject position, denying them control over their own bodies, in some cases driving them to suicidality. In other words, the law is not an impartial arbiter. The law turns out to be the instigator of the very circumstances it then claims to regulate. It is a torturous practice which has been condemned by, among others, the United Nations Human Rights Committee.
For over twenty years, opponents of abortion liberalisation in Ireland blocked legislation on X (the 1992 Supreme Court ruling in which a 14 year old girl, pregnant as a result of rape, was deemed sufficiently suicidal to warrant an abortion) by arguing that it would lead to scores of Irish women pretending to be suicidal in order to end what is merely an “inconvenient” pregnancy. Of course, as the past two decades have shown, hundreds upon thousands of Irish women found it easier to discretely avail of abortion services abroad rather than debase themselves in front of the stone wall that is the Irish justice system.
But we can see now, can’t we, how close the anti-abortion lobby was to the truth of the matter? If the young woman at the centre of this week’s controversy had any idea, on arriving in Ireland, of the harsh penalties that would be meted out to her by the courts and the HSE, for daring to be pregnant and asking for an abortion, perhaps she would have found it easier to become suicidal at an earlier stage – to perform the role assigned to her by law. Instead, she went to great lengths in her attempt to preserve her dignity – until such point as it was violently wrested from her by the state.
I dislike the polarised nature of the debate on abortion in Ireland, but sometimes plain speaking is required. I believe that for as long as Article 40.3.3 remains in the constitution, women in Ireland will never be fully free or equal. I believe that abortion is not a crime, but a matter of conscience. I trust women to choose what is right for them long before the state is required to intervene in their personal affairs. And I no longer trust my country, my state or my government to uphold the rights of women – either domestically or in the context of various international commitments – for as long as we remain mired in the shame of the twentieth century and resist the calls to repeal the Eighth Amendment.