Tuesday 26 March 2019

Women just want right to make their own choices, good or bad

A pro-choice protester at the annual ‘Rally for Life’ march last Saturday. Photo: Fergal Phillips
A pro-choice protester at the annual ‘Rally for Life’ march last Saturday. Photo: Fergal Phillips
Fiona Ness

Fiona Ness

They say it takes a village to raise a child. To abort one could soon be no one else's business but your own.

We girls were called to the school hall. It could only mean one of two things: rubella jabs or period talk. It was 1992 and I was a 15-year-old at a mixed gender Catholic high school in Scotland's industrial belt. Ours was a society of mixed religion, race and opportunity, marbled with the gristle of Celtic versus Rangers.

In a high school year-group of 250 pupils where girls did woodwork and boys did home economics, and PE was a maelstrom of gym pants (us) and bare torsos (them), segregation of girls and boys wasn't a thing. But on this day only the girls were filing into the hall and we didn't know why.

Three women stood at the lectern, the one used for class Masses after assembly. Their clothes were dowdy but their faces, kind, and their words intelligent and restrained. One by one they told how they had each had abortions as young women, and had lived to deeply regret the act. We listened with respect.

This was not Catholic Ireland. This was a country where abortion was legal and the contraceptive pill commonplace. Growing up, we had not been bet over the head with Catholicism or felt its undercurrent of the impurity of women.

These women were talking to girls who knew the reality of an unwanted pregnancy. They saw it every day in the ashen faces of the single mums riding on the 'schemies' and pushing buggies up the high street: having an unplanned baby would ruin both your lives.

We filed out of the hall to the common room, filled with compassion for the women who had come to lay themselves bare in the name of saving lives. We recounted how awful their experiences had been. But we thought they were daft. Abortion? We said that were we ever to find ourselves in that position, we'd drink a bottle of vodka and throw ourselves down the stairs. We could never tell our parents. Never ask for help. Never contemplate bringing up a child. If living with abortion could be a difficult thing, an unplanned pregnancy would be a living nightmare. And the only person living it, would be us.

In retrospect, I should have been enraged at the attempted manipulation of our young lives and the rampant sexism evinced in the exclusion of males from a subject in which they had crucial input. But we just shrugged and went back to class. No one in my year group (bar one boy, who bragged about it royally), went on to have a baby during our school years. If there were any abortions, I didn't hear of them.

I thought about those three women when the story broke recently of the suicidal teenager who was initially refused an abortion after she was referred to psychiatrists under the Protection of Human Life in Pregnancy Act of 2013. The report outlined a particularly distressing set of events and set in the spotlight Ireland's continued grappling with the topic of abortion.

Last week, the Irish Independent probed the details of the case, and the details were quite different to the initial headlines splashed.

The girl got pregnant but this wasn't diagnosed by her GP until almost six months later. The girl was deeply distressed and didn't want the baby. And at this point, it was most definitely a baby. Her mother agreed that she should have an abortion.

It was a genuine crisis pregnancy. Just a few days after being told she was pregnant, she was sent by her doctor to the regional hospital at risk of self-harm. The staff explained they weren't in a position to give her an abortion. The psychiatrist on duty assessed her and tried to get her a bed in an adolescent psychiatric facility. None was available for the weekend, so she was admitted to the hospital's antenatal unit. From here she was finally transferred to a psychiatric hospital, and the process began of determining if she could have an abortion under the Act. This was complex and medical advice was conflicted. Lawyers wrangled. An obstetrician intervened. The girl had the baby and is, to date, said to be caring for it at home.

Converse to the initial commentary on the case, what the girl's story didn't do was to prove the case for abortion in this country. It proved that the legislation in the area is such a quagmire that it is exacerbating the crisis already at the heart of a crisis pregnancy. In this case, Ireland's abortion legislation was used to sanction an abortion to take place beyond six months - something that is outlawed in Britain.

The system hadn't failed the girl. The system wasn't equipped to deal with cases like hers in the first place.

Is there any way to reach a durable consensus on abortion in Ireland? A change in the law can make abortion a more easily accessible procedure for women, and for medical staff who determine it a necessity, but it will never make it an easy choice.

I drew my conclusions on the topic early. Bottle of vodka and down the stairs. But as I have aged, and given birth to babies I didn't plan, lost babies I planned for and been offered the option to abort a baby with a syndrome incompatible with life, my thinking on the matter has changed. Getting rid of a baby is not the easy option, and I would not like to live in a society where people believe otherwise. But my conclusion remains the same: it is a choice women need to be given.

Leo Varadkar has affirmed that the country will get to vote on the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution in 2018.

The decision Ireland will make at that point will be about the sort of society it wants, the principles that it lives by and the beings it values. But on the most basic level, on that day many women of Ireland will simply ask for the right to make their own choices.

Choice are not without consequences. A woman who has an abortion will live with those consequences for the rest of her life. But we women know that already.

Irish Independent

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