Wednesday 26 October 2016

Creating a safe space to talk about abortion issue

At Electric Picnic, Amnesty held a debate about abortion and Carol Hunt was happy to join in

Published 06/09/2015 | 02:30

At Electric Picnic, Amnesty held a debate about abortion
At Electric Picnic, Amnesty held a debate about abortion

Can we make jokes about abortion? It's something myself and comedian writer and woman of many other talents, Tara Flynn, discussed earlier last week. Last night, an audience at the Electric Picnic were treated to a comedy piece by Tara, entitled Judge, Jury and Obstetrician. It was a provocative look at our medieval abortion laws, followed by a discussion about Irish women My Body. My Rights.

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Colm O'Gorman of Amnesty Ireland chaired and I was very happy to join him and Tara on the panel.

We wanted to discuss, in a safe space, why is it that thousands upon thousands of Irish women have been shamed into self-censorship; into a corrosive silence.

Over the years, more than 177,000 women travelled to England and Wales for abortions. And that's just the number of women who gave their Irish addresses. These figures do not include women who travelled elsewhere.

Which is why Tara decided to tell the audience about her own experience of travelling to Holland, alone, to have an abortion.

It is rare for anyone in Ireland to be brave enough to do that. To come out publicly and say: "Yes, that was me. I'm one of those hundreds of thousands of women.

"This is what I look like. I'm an actual real, breathing person. I'm not a callous, wanton child-killer. I'm a woman who had a crisis pregnancy. But because I live in Ireland that crisis was made into a much worse trauma."

The discussion of a woman's reproductive rights in Ireland has always been vitriolic and often downright cruel.

I was a teenager when the 1983 referendum was passed and I remember being shocked at the attitudes of the time.

Did you know, for instance, that the original PLAC (Pro-Life Amendment Campaign) wording for that referendum recognised "The absolute right of life of every unborn child from conception"?

There was no respect or value placed on the actual experiential life of the mother. None.

But, as Dr Michael Solomons noted at the time: "With the ability to control their fertility, women came out of the house and many men didn't like losing their authority."

We had the irony of serial-child rapist Father Sean Fortune accusing politicians Avril Doyle and Ivan Yates of "not being pro-life" because they attended a Family Planning meeting.

Mary Robinson was accused of having the "morals of a tomcat" and it was confidently asserted by many that "pregnancy never ensues from rape".

Colm made the point that, 10 years ago, he had a conversation with a minister where they both wondered if there would ever be a time in Ireland where we could have a calm and frank conversation about abortion. Is that time now? Perhaps it is.

Social media means that we are regularly appraised of human rights violations in other countries.

The world has gotten smaller. And so we read of Beatriz, a 22-year-old woman in El Salvador, who had lupus and kidney disease.

Early in her pregnancy, her baby was discovered to be anencephalic, lacking a portion of brain and skull; a condition incompatible with life. Despite the risk to her life, she was forced to carry a foetus which had no chance of survival.

In Paraguay, an 11-year-old girl was forced to continue with a pregnancy after being raped by her step-father. We shake our heads and wonder at the cruelty of foreign regimes.

Yet we fail to understand that the same laws apply here. We criticise women who, if they have complications following an abortion or attempted abortion, prefer not to inform medical staff here. What we fail to understand is that if a woman shows up, in agony, at her local Emergency Unit after taking pills to bring on abortion, she can be jailed for up to 14 years. A friend of mine had to present herself in just such a manner and was informed that she was "lucky they were treating her after what she had done".

Tara, who, like so many others, had to travel alone to have her abortion, was surprised at the excellent, kind care she received in Holland. She wasn't judged.

Instead she was comforted. I compared this with the treatment I received in Ireland during a pregnancy.

It chimes with two recent stories from 'Roisin' and 'Lupe' I had read in the Amnesty report: She is Not a Criminal, The Impact of Ireland's Abortion Law.

Twelve weeks' pregnant and presenting with bleeding and back pain, I was scanned and sent to a neighbouring hospital for "bed rest" until they were ready to scan me again.

I was given no information so it wasn't until a doctor told me he couldn't give me traction because of the problem with my pregnancy, that I knew there was a problem. When eventually I was returned to hospital for a scan, the technician at the monitor said: "It's definitely gone. Bring her upstairs." Nothing was explained to me.

Seemingly, there was no heartbeat. I had been walking around with a dead baby inside me and no one had bothered to tell me. I was given a pessary to start a miscarriage and left alone for hours, bleeding and in pain, until they 'remembered' that I was there and an abortion procedure was performed.

Lupe had a similar experience, just three months after the death of Savita Halappanavar, and Roisin just seven years beforehand. Both myself and Lupe's experiences occurred in the same hospital where Savita Halappanavar had been treated.

When faced with this type of mindset from the professionals, it's hardly surprising that a terrified silence has been the norm.

And that's just not funny, is it?


Sunday Independent

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