Monday, December 14, 2009

Irish Women Fight for Reproductive Rights

I wrote this piece for the University College Dublin College Tribune a few months ago, having been asked to write about Ireland's abortion ban from a pro-choice American perspective. Last week, the European Court of Human Rights heard a challenge to Ireland's incredibly restrictive abortion policy by three women who claim that the law as it stands violates their human rights. We'll be following the case as it develops, but here is a bit of back story.

Women will never achieve true equality until they are able to determine when they can and cannot have children. This belief lies at the core of pro-choice feminism. To lose control over one’s body means to lose power and agency in one’s life. When a government denies women the right to choose to have an abortion, it is implying that a woman cannot be trusted to make decisions about her own health and that her life is less valuable than that of a fetus. Thus, the Feminist Majority Foundation and other women’s rights organizations like it continue to fight for reproductive rights—not just abortion, but also the right to contraception, family planning, and comprehensive sexual education.

In the United States, like Ireland, abortion is a divisive issue. A recent USA Today/Gallup survey found that 47% of Americans consider themselves to be “pro-life,” while 46% of Americans identify as “pro-choice.” These labels are thrown around casually and frequently, and while this poll reveals a nation divided, the reality of the situation is somewhat different.
One out of every three women in the United States will have an abortion by the age of 45. 89% of these abortions are performed in the first trimester. Because abortion is legal in the United States, it is a very safe procedure. A doctor can perform a first trimester abortion in one to two minutes, without general anesthesia. Abortion is safer than taking an injection of penicillin.
Globally, 42 million abortions are performed every year. 20 million of them are illegal. Clearly, the prohibition of abortion does little to curb its practice. Unfortunately, illegal abortions can be incredibly unsafe, and worldwide about 75,000 women die every year from unnecessarily botched abortions. 5 million women are hospitalized every year due to complications of illegal abortion.

While abortion has been legal in the United States since the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision in 1973, the feminist movement has had to continually fight for legal, safe, and accessible abortion in this country. Year after year, individual states attempt to enact restrictive laws that hamper a woman’s right to choose, with varying degrees of success. Accessibility remains a huge problem; 34% of American women live in counties with no abortion provider, according to the National Women’s Law Center. The cost of travel is incredibly restrictive, and the cost of the procedure itself is also often prohibitive. Doctors who perform abortions face incredible risks from anti-choice terrorists, as the recent assassination of Dr. George Tiller tragically demonstrated.

Women in the United States seeking an abortion face significant challenges, but those are nothing compared to what Irish women must go through. According to The Safe and Legal in Ireland Abortion Rights Campaign, 5,585 women traveled to the UK to obtain an abortion in 2005. This figure is probably higher in reality given the covert nature of such travel. There is also no way to estimate how many women travel to other countries in the EU for the procedure or take their chances with an illegal abortion. While abortion has been prohibited in Ireland since 1861 and unconstitutional since the addition of the 8th Amendment in 1983, that has not stopped Irish women from seeking abortions.

In December, three women will challenge Ireland’s ban on abortion before the European Court of Human Rights. The women, known as A, B, and C, rightfully argue that Irish law endangers their health and violates their human rights. Should they succeed in their case, these women could totally alter the status of women in Ireland, empowering them to control their own bodies and have agency over their lives. As the American situation has demonstrated, that would only be the first step in the ongoing struggle for reproductive rights, but it would be an astounding victory and bring remarkable change to Ireland. The Feminist Majority Foundation and other American pro-choice advocates support them and their heroic effort to usher in an era of safe and legal abortion in Ireland.

1 comment:

queenofbirds said...

I'm Irish, and while I am in favour of legalising abortion in Ireland, I don't think that the terrible risks of illegal abortion are as strong an argument here as they are in other countries. Women in Ireland have (comparatively) straightforward access to legal, safe abortion in the U.K.: one reason why this issue is ignored so often - we literally export it.