Ending the tragifarce of Ireland’s anti-abortion legislation

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.

Caucasus update – reflections on the international media coverage

By the time the international media picked up on the news of intensifying clashes in and around the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone, the dust already appeared to be settling. While it didn’t make major headlines, the escalation did receive attention from the BBC, Bloomberg, the NYT and Al Jazeera. A few things I’d like to say to anyone who has been relying on these sources for their information:

1) The numbers are still not clear

The articles by the BBC, Bloomberg and the NYT all refer to “at least 15” fatalities.

However:

On Friday, the names of 9 Azerbaijani soldiers were being circulated in social media by reputable (if not immediately verifiable) sources, while on Saturday, RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service reported that 4 Azerbaijanis had been killed in a separate incident.

On Sunday, RFE/RL’s Armenian Service reported a total of 5 fatalities on the Nagorno-Karabakh side since the start of the recent flare-up.

9 + 4 + 5 = 18.

An article from Bloomberg Businessweek also gives a figure of 18, but doesn’t explain how it was derived or why it differs from the Bloomberg article that came out on the same day.

Why is it so hard to get this right?

Well, the Ministries of Defence haven’t really been issuing clear and timely statements. At the same time, they have been releasing contradictory information about the numbers killed on the opposing side. Add to this the fact that the de facto authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh have also been issuing statements, and it’s not clear to an outsider whether or not one should read these in concert with the official Armenian reports, or separately.

The OSCE, which is charged with monitoring the ceasefire, needs to clarify the names and numbers of those killed, and make that information available to the public. A joint record of incidents would be a useful tool for journalists and civil society organisations, whose attempts to create their own databases are hampered by the lack of official information.

2) This is not about Ukraine

The international media has been slow to react but quick to try and fit the recent clashes into the over-arching narrative on the conflict over Ukraine. The most blatant example of this was the New York Times article, which included the following paragraph:

“Russia’s annexation of Crimea, however, has contributed to the tensions. Armenia, which depends on Russia for economic and military support, has welcomed the takeover of Crimea and some Armenians have suggested it could be a model for Nagorno-Karabakh. This has rattled Azerbaijan, which like Ukraine has aligned itself with the West.”

My thoughts on this? The annexation of Crimea received a very mixed reaction in Armenia, where there is still considerable talk of finding a “third” way, comprising of Russian economic and security cooperation and European style political development. Remember: Armenia was at least on the verge of signing an EU Association Agreement in 2013 – Azerbaijan never even got that far. And Armenia’s accession to the Customs Union has also been delayed in part because of the Karabakh issue.

Russia, supposedly Armenia’s security guarantor, is busily supplying arms to Azerbaijan, which while it may have no intention of joining the Eurasian Customs Union, has equally little intention of further integration into Western political structures. The Bloomberg article makes pretty clear that relations between Azerbaijan and the West are about one three-letter word: oil. And this is what has caused the West to turn a blind eye to Azerbaijan’s rapidly deteriorating (and never good) human rights record.

So yes, Ukraine is a factor. But any attempts to weave the latest clashes in the South Caucasus into a black and white narrative on alliances in the post-Soviet space are going to have some massive, and potentially dangerous, gaps.

3) Domestic politics are going on as usual

Anyone with an interest in the region should be aware that the current tension has not put a stop to politically-motivated arrests in Azerbaijan (which is currently chair of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe). Leyla Yunus and Rasul Jafarov, both of whom have been working to bring the issue of political prisoners to the attention of the international community, have now themselves been placed behind bars (so far it is just pre-trial detention). The charge of treason, which has been levelled against Leyla Yunus, may act as a brake on further people-to-people diplomacy in the region – surely a relevant factor in weighing up the chances of another full-scale war.

One place where these arrests haven’t been overlooked is in Armenia, where they have further damaged the frankly appalling image that many Armenians have of Azerbaijan. There are two aspects to this knock-on effect: it dissuades people who are genuinely interested in peace from working towards it on the state or civil society level, and it presents those who are not interested in peace with the perfect argument for maintaining NK’s de facto independence and denying displaced Azerbaijanis the right to return to even the adjacent territories.

4) The local population is at risk

On both sides of the Armenia/Azerbaijan border and in and around the conflict zone, there are vulnerable populations who may have little access to information about what is going on (other than their own eyes and ears), and very little trust in the local or national – or for that matter international – official bodies. In many cases, these people are those who were displaced from their homes the first time round, and have spent the past 20 years attempting to build up a normal life from the ashes of war. The psychological stress that they have been dealing with for all this time is unimaginable. So is the physical danger that they would be in if these clashes were in fact to escalate further.

Of course, it’s not a surprise to anyone that the politicians on either side are busy blaming one another for initiating the attacks, as opposed to taking steps to protect the local civilian population through a sustainable and just peace process. But it would be helpful if the international media would adopt even a slightly more people-centred approach in its reporting on the issue, instead of giving us more empty words about the “possibility” of war over Nagorno-Karabakh. It would be more accurate to say that the war never truly ended, and that international community has been more than happy to allow the status quo to continue in order not to have to face up to lingering East-West tensions after the end of the Cold War.

Tensions which have since blown up in our faces anyway.

Caucasus update – clashes on the frontline

I spent this afternoon reading the first, unofficial reports to come across regarding the deaths of approximately 9 Azerbaijani soldiers in clashes on the line of contact (between Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh) last night.

There is some confusion about the number of casualties, with various sources referring to between 8 and 14 deaths. From what I can make out, 8 soldiers were reported killed last night, while a ninth died of wounds at some point today. Though official sources have yet to confirm it, the names of the 9 are already circulating on social media, in some cases along with photographs and final Facebook statuses.

It appears that five other Azerbaijani soldiers were seriously injured in the incident, which may explain how some sources got hold of the number 14. I’ve also seen a hashtag referring to “11 martyrs”, which may or may not be in reference to two Azerbaijani soldiers reported dead in a separate incident on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border on July 31.

While two soldiers were also reported killed in Nagorno-Karabakh yesterday, there appears to be no official response as yet from the authorities in the breakaway region or in Armenia. In the past week, both sides have reported extensive ceasefire violations – even more than is the usual norm.

What is the response to this? While we can expect further militaristic rhetoric (at the very least) from the government and pro-government sectors of society, the majority of Azerbaijanis I know are focusing on the tragic loss of human life. In some cases, the lives of conscripts who were under 20 years old. While the slow wave of profile pictures turning from smiling selfies to commemorative ribbons is an over-whelming sight, there is little talk of who is to blame.

Among my friends, there appears to burn both a strong patriotism and collective grief, and a growing tendency to question this war, and this supposed ceasefire, which has seen hundreds of soldiers and some civilians die over the last 20 years – one here, one there, never in numbers great enough to spark international alarm (the number of casualties in the 1988-1994 war, on the other hand, is usually given at around 20,000).

Some are citing a report, which coincidentally made the news yesterday, which puts the overall number of deaths in the Azerbaijani army for the period January-July 2014 at 50. Of these, 10 are frontline military casualties, while 3 died as the result of landmines. The remainder died in non-combat circumstances: 10 in road accidents, 6 as a result of hazing, 2 in unspecified accidents, 1 for reasons unknown, 7 died from illnesses, and 11 committed suicide.

The fact that parts of the local population are beginning to refuse to distinguish between combat and non-combat deaths is something of which international observers should be well aware. ‘Conflict resolution experts’ typically put the number of deaths per year at approximately 30 – inclusive of both the Armenian and Azerbaijani armies. However, while monitoring ceasefire violations is important, the mood in both countries (and in the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh) cannot be gauged without taking into account the effects of the overall situation in the army.

“Against Soldier Deaths” became the rallying-cry for major street demonstrations that took place in Azerbaijan in early 2013 in response to the death of a young conscript through hazing. The action was successful in mobilising many first-time protesters – as well as bridging the generational divide – before a string of arrests began to quell the signs of civic unrest. For many people in Azerbaijan, the latest casualties will fit into a broader narrative of needless deaths, the struggle against militarisation and the cynical manipulation of the conflict for political purposes.

A still broader narrative would take into account the casualties logged on the Armenian side of the conflict. The Armenian NGO Peace Dialogue has reported that in the first six months of this year, 23 fatalities were recorded in the armed forces of Armenia, of which 11 were the result of ceasefire violations. The project Safe Soldiers for a Safe Armenia offers a database which logs information on non-combat deaths in the army, the reasons for which range from lack of safety rules to murder.

To the best of my knowledge, these figures do not include the deaths of Karabakh Armenian soldiers. The reason I say this is because several months ago I had a conversation on this topic with a woman from Nagorno-Karabakh, who told me that the Armenian Ministry of Defence had refused a request for information about Karabakh Armenian fatalities, on the grounds that the Armenian Armed Forces are officially separate from those of Nagorno-Karabakh (as a very large number of the soldiers serving in the breakaway region are from the Armenian Republic, this division is largely treated as symbolic by the population).

To return to the most recent soldier deaths in Azerbaijan, a number of friends, while expressing their deep condolences for the friends and families of those killed, point out the strangeness in the timing of this attack. Just two days ago, a prominent activist (and former deputy Defence Minister) and her husband were arrested following weeks of mounting persecution. They are facing charges of treason and fraud, and are being held in pre-trial detention for the coming three months. No sooner had this been announced, than another human rights activist was brought in for six hours of questioning. This follows what seems like months and months of arrests, intimidation, and increasing fear – verging on what seems at times like paranoia – among civil society activists.

This is, quite simply, what’s going round my head at the moment. Like many, I am waiting to see what will happen next. And I am made anxious by the lack of information coming through. Sitting here safely in the heart of Tbilisi, I can’t help remembering the suddenness with which the August war (between Georgia, South Ossetia and Russia in 2008) came upon us, and the strange symmetry by which I was in Azerbaijan at the time. And I sincerely hope that perhaps this latest escalation will prompt something more than the usual, perfunctory responses from the people who have the power to influence the resolution of this conflict.