Prolife violence against women

Few things annoy me more than a person who has never been in a difficult situation claiming that they know what they would do if they were. Examples: a person who has never experienced real poverty claiming that they know they would manage their money better than those wastrels on the dole; a person who has never been tortured bragging that they would never betray their side no matter what; a person who has never been under fire/in a war zone declaring that they wouldn’t experience post-traumatic stress disorder; a person who has never needed an abortion claiming they’d never have an abortion no matter what their need.

We know that whether a woman identifies herself as prolife or anti-abortion, and whatever the rules of her faith or her claimed principles, when women need abortions women have abortions if they possibly can. Making abortion illegal or expensive, the goal of the prolife movement, does nothing to prevent abortions: the only thing that’s shown to be effective in preventing abortions is free access to contraception, with strong encouragement to use it. Universal access to contraception is never a goal of the prolife movement: indeed, prolifers tend to be found on the side of pharmacists who don’t want to provide women with contraception.

Yesterday was the International Day of the Elimination of Violence Against Women, which begins the annual 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence campaign worldwide.

Sixteen Days of Activism Against Gender Violence

The World Health Organisation notes

Violence against women has profound implications for health but is often ignored. WHO’s World Report on Violence and Health notes that “one of the most common forms of violence against women is that performed by a husband or male partner.” This type of violence is frequently invisible since it happens behind closed doors, and effectively, when legal systems and cultural norms do not treat as a crime, but rather as a “private” family matter, or a normal part of life.

Over a hundred women a year are killed by a current or former partner in the UK, one in four victims of domestic violence have to be turned away by a refuge when they first apply, but the Conservative/LibDem cuts are reducing even the services that are available.

Prolife denial of safe legal abortion is simply another kind of violence against women. I use “Prolife” because that is their own deeply ironic name for their movement: but their justifications for denying abortion are always justifications for using force against women, or excuses for the harm women suffer when denied access to safe legal abortion.

In a hospital in Galway on 28th October, a woman died of septicaemia because the medical team were afraid of an 1861 law and paralysed by decades of the medical tradition in Ireland of dealing with women who need abortions by advising them to go overseas and have an abortion at their own expense somewhere else. Whether the team in Galway even included anyone who knew how to perform an abortion at 17 weeks will be discovered, perhaps, by the medical investigation: who made the decision not to record the Halappanavars’ requests for abortion and not to perform the requested abortion – who, exactly, is medically to blame for her death – that is also something to be uncovered by independent investigation.

But the facts of the matter are very easy to understand:

A woman’s cervix spends most of its time so firmly closed that even tiny little sperm have to really fight to get in. During birth or miscarriage the cervix dilates to let the baby or foetus out. Then it closes up again. The facts as we, so far, understand them are that Ms Halappanavar was seventeen weeks pregnant when she went to the hospital and had full cervical dilation. Medical professionals at the hospital agreed that miscarriage was inevitable. While waiting for the miscarriage to run its course the cervix remains open. Doctors describe this as like having an open head injury. It’s a problem because as time passes the likelihood of an infection getting in increases. Speeding the miscarriage along by removing the contents of the womb serves to dramatically reduce the risk. The medical team refused to do this for four whole days, Halappanavar, by this stage in agony, developed an infection, septicaemia, and died.

Abortion is legal in the UK at the pregnant woman’s request and if two doctors agree it’s medically necessary: abortion is legal in most of Europe where the medical need is clear and the foetus’s survival is impossible: only in Ireland, where for thirty years governments have regarded women’s lives and women’s health as unimportant trivialities, could a woman in a modern hospital be left unhelped to die as Savita Halappanavar died.

She was just the latest – and the highest-profile – instance of a woman sacrificed to the prolife ethos of forcing women through pregnancy no matter what their risk or their own wishes:

A few days before the 1983 referendum that gave us article 40.3.3 of the Constitution, a heartbroken man spoke out. Brendan Hodgers described the death of his wife Sheila in an Irish hospital.

She had cancer but was taken off all drugs and treatments when she became pregnant because they might harm or kill the foetus. Mr Hodgers said that with his wife screaming in agony, he asked for her to be given an abortion. He got no reply. After giving birth to a premature baby girl who died immediately, Sheila Hodgers died.

He revealed his personal tragedy in the hope that it would remind Irish people that sometimes a woman needs an abortion and that the amendment could cost women’s lives. In the same year, an Irish man was convicted of the rape of two girls aged 14 and 16, both of whom had given birth to babies.

The architects of the amendment swept aside all such sorrowful facts. Ireland was a Catholic country, they insisted. Feminists who said they wanted contraception, women’s refuges, rape crisis centres, support for single mothers and divorce, were out to destroy traditional Irish values. Abortion must be banned in all circumstances. Leading campaigner John Reilly warned that those who opposed the amendment were opportunists whose strategy would be to spread confusion by arguing for abortion in cases of rape, incest, alleged “life and death” situations, and in the case of foetal abnormality.

Prolifers claiming that there is no need for new legislation because Irish law allowed the doctors to perform an abortion once they were sure the pregnant woman would die if they didn’t, are setting up what amounts to the traditional test for witchcraft. If the doctor performs an abortion, and the woman lives, she was a witch – sorry, I mean she would have lived anyway (they say) so there was no real need to perform the abortion and, in Ireland, the doctor can then be jailed for two years under the 1861 Act. If the doctor refuses to perform an abortion and the woman dies, well, since he was allowed to perform an abortion to save her life clearly either (a) she would have died anyway so there was no need for an abortion, or (b) the doctor is to blame because he should have performed the abortion.

No wonder doctors in Ireland prefer to save their own careers and advise miscarrying women to get on to a plane to England. It’s not done that way in any other developed country: but Ireland so ruthlessly outsources abortion healthcare that:

five women who faced similar situations to Savita Halappanavar explained the reality of a grey legal area. All callers were 15-20 weeks’ pregnant when the incidents occurred in hospitals from 1997 to 2004.

Medical Council guidelines and all sides of the debate accept there is a clear argument to help miscarrying women pass the foetus if their health is at risk in the very early stages of pregnancy. However, the women claimed they were advised to “read between the lines” and travel to clinics in Britain.

One woman, Jennifer, said that in 2003 when she was 16 weeks’ pregnant, she started bleeding and went to her local hospital.

“All the nurses inside [the unit] just started crying uncontrollably. They said there was no hope for the baby and they couldn’t understand I hadn’t miscarried.

“There was no … fluid [around the foetus], he had one kidney, fluid on his brain. But there was a heartbeat. They kept listening.”

Jennifer said GPs and four consultants met her separately after work in their own time for scans, only to tell her “you need to make a decision immediately” due to the impact on her health.

She said one said to her mother: “I know what I would do if it was my daughter, you need to read between the lines. You need to do it urgently.

“I went to see my GP at 11pm at night.” Her mother travelled with her to Britain.

That’s violence against women. To force a miscarrying woman on to a plane to get the medical treatment she needs in another country because her own country has a law that would make a hospital risk her death: how can Ireland justify treating women like this?

Prolifers like to claim that Ireland combines a zero abortion rate (not true) with the lowest maternal mortality rate in Europe. But even the claims for a low maternal mortality rate are looking dubious: it appears that the low figure results from faulty reporting procedures.

The expert report on Ireland’s abortion law was given to the Cabinet late last week, and is due to be published tomorrow before the Dáil debate on Wednesday 28th November. On Sunday the Irish Independent leaked the expert report’s conclusions:

The State is obliged to provide procedures to establish a woman’s right to an abortion as well as access to such treatments.

– In the case of a risk to the mother it must establish criteria or procedures by which a doctor is to assess that risk; and set up an independent review system where a patient disputes her doctor’s refusal to certify that she is entitled to a lawful abortion and where there is a disagreement between doctors as to whether one is necessary.

Though the expert group is circumscribed, by its terms of reference, from making specific recommendations, the full unexpurgated report clearly indicates that legislation is the only appropriate response to the challenges posed by the X and C cases.

The report notes that while the State “is entitled to and indeed obliged to regulate and monitor” the rights of the unborn, it must ensure that “measures that are introduced to give effect to this constitutional right should not act as an obstacle to any woman who is legitimately entitled to seek a termination on lawful grounds”.

Tellingly, the expert report was compiled before Savita Halappanavar’s death, by an independent commission set up in response to the 2010 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights which warned the Irish government that while in theory a woman who would die if she didn’t have an abortion could get one, in practice, there was no legislation, no framework, no guidelines, to allow a woman to access lifesaving abortion in Ireland:

“The diagnosis of the medical specialists as to whether the woman satisfies the test in the X Case should be made expeditiously/or within a defined time limit and should be formally notified to the woman,” it says.

The report also recommends that the Government must make provision for emergencies and disputes and measures to protect medical personnel involved.

“If a doctor carries out a termination in circumstances where the risk to life of the woman is imminent and inevitable rather than real and substantial, he/she should not have any liability because of the failure to follow prescribed procedures.”

In the evening of 28th November, the Irish government will debate whether they intend to continue to outsource abortions overseas and place all the risk and cost on women who need them, or whether they will follow the recommendations of their own expert group to legislate. A prochoice protest is planned outside.

On Thursday 29th November, Edinburgh will hold our annual Reclaim the Night march. Edinburgh Abortion Rights will be there.

Oppose all violence against women – no matter how the proponents claim to morally justify it.

Two days after the Republicans comprehensively lost the 2012 Presidental election in the US, Fred Clark at Slacktivist wrote (from an evangelical Christian perspective)

The religious right has backed losing candidates before and has occasionally lost ballot initiatives too. But this loss wasn’t due to other issues — the economy, a war — eclipsing the significance of their “values” issues. This loss wasn’t due to any evasive “yes, but …” arguments from the other side.

The other side met them toe-to-toe: You want to argue about abortion on moral grounds? Great, let’s do that. We say your opposition to legal abortion is immoral, and here’s why. You want to argue about the morality of same-sex marriage? Fine. We say your opposition to marriage equality is immoral, and here’s why.

The religious right wasn’t prepared for that response. You could see that throughout the election, as they continued to rely on attack-lines that had served them so well in the past.

If the Dáil agrees to pass legislation that will allow women in Ireland to have abortions in Ireland when their doctors agree that they will die if they don’t abort, this will not do anything to help the thousands of women – ten a day – who leave Ireland because they need abortions for reasons of their own. But it will make the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland equal in caring for women in the most desperate need.

While the prolife movement argue that the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast should close its doors because they prefer that women who are at risk of dying should travel overseas to have abortions: while the Youth Defence campaign claims that Savita Halappanavar died coincidentally, not at all because she spent three days miscarrying which could have been terminated within hours if not for the doctors’ fear of the 1861 Act.

Because prolifers do not wish their opposition to women having the right to choose abortion to be framed as it really is: violence against women.

Savita's parents with a photo of their dead daughter

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