Saturday 1 October 2016

Every day our Government fails to act, 10 women have to travel for an abortion

Jacinta Fay

Published 12/05/2016 | 02:30

Our laws have a disproportionate impact on marginalised women, including women experiencing poverty, as well as migrants and asylum seekers Photo: Tony Gavin
Our laws have a disproportionate impact on marginalised women, including women experiencing poverty, as well as migrants and asylum seekers Photo: Tony Gavin

The comments this week by Sabina Higgins that Ireland's abortion laws are an "outrage against women" have drawn welcome attention to the need for urgent action to address Ireland's draconian abortion laws, and for the Eighth Amendment to be repealed.

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As a result of her remarks, Ms Higgins has come under attack from anti-choice groups, despite the fact that her comments reflect the views of many people in this country.

According to an Amnesty Red C Poll in March, 87pc of people in Ireland want access to abortion expanded.

Ms Higgins referenced cases of fatal foetal abnormalities. These are not, as some anti-choice campaigners would have us believe, "babies with disabilities". These are conditions diagnosed during pregnancy that mean a foetus will not develop to be able to live outside the womb. Depending on the condition and individual circumstances, the foetus may die during pregnancy or may survive up until shortly after the birth.

Medical practitioners provide their patients with the full details of the condition and the statistics regarding any chance and length of survival. This allows all patients to make the decision that is right for them on whether to continue the pregnancy.

However, in Ireland, women who choose to end their pregnancy when faced with this diagnosis are forced to travel abroad for abortion care. We know from working with groups such as Termination for Medical Reasons and from listening to the experiences of women who have had to deal with a fatal foetal abnormality diagnosis that their suffering is only compounded by the fact that they are made to feel like criminals in their own country and forced to travel outside Ireland for medical care.

These women are left without a continuity of care, or if unable to travel, forced to carry a non-viable pregnancy to term. Every woman has the right to be given the medical care they need in their own country.

As someone who has been a strong voice for many years on human rights issues, it should come as no surprise that Ms Higgins has spoken out on Ireland's abortion laws, which are not in line with international human rights standards. UN Human Rights committees have consistently told the Irish Government that we need to amend our abortion laws as they treat women like 'vessels'.

This week, during Ireland's examination as part of the UN's Universal Periodic Review, the international community, yet again, has been scrutinising Ireland's restrictive abortion laws and how they deny women's human rights.

It is even more apt that Ms Higgins's remarks were made at an evening for midwives and midwifery students. These are some of the medical professionals whose hands are tied by the Eighth Amendment and the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, which have a chilling effect on healthcare providers and their patients.

The Eighth Amendment affects medical consent and threatens medical professionals with a 14-year prison sentence if they choose to deliver proper and compassionate care to women. It prevents doctors from intervening in the interests of protecting a woman's health. The HSE's National Consent Policy also restricts informed consent and informed refusal of treatment for pregnant women because of the Eighth Amendment.

Every day our new Government fails to act, 10 women must travel to the UK to access abortion care. Some of those doing so are dealing with unfortunate cases of fatal foetal abnormalities. Sabina Higgins is spot on: this is an outrage against women.

We also must not forget the many women who are unable travel to access abortion. A trip to the UK for an abortion can cost upwards of €1,000, which is prohibitive for many women. For many migrant and refugee women, leaving Ireland for an abortion is impossible because of their legal status.

Abortion is legal in Ireland only where there is an immediate risk to the life, as opposed to the health, of the pregnant person, and so women who may need an abortion for health reasons can find themselves unable to travel because of their health, while also unable to access abortion in Ireland.

Many women who need access to abortion are already mothers, and may not be able to arrange or afford someone to mind their children so they can travel.

Our laws have a disproportionate impact on marginalised women, including women experiencing poverty, as well as migrants and asylum seekers.

Whatever choice is made by those given a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality, they should get the support they need here in Ireland. This includes counselling and support, and abortion care if that is what they choose.

Women should be supported to make choices that are right for them, not criminalised and stigmatised by our laws.

Repeated polls show the majority of people in Ireland want to see wider abortion access introduced, and the only way to do this is to have a referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. We urge the Government to commit to holding a referendum and addressing this outrage against women.

Jacinta Fay is a member of the Abortion Rights Campaign

Irish Independent

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