Our bodies, our choices

Seven thoughts about abortion:

  • All prolifers I’ve ever discussed abortion with, live in countries where women have access to safe legal abortion.
  • No prolifer who’s ever given me their views on abortion has had any informed views on what would happen if women in their country no longer had access to safe legal abortion.
  • The best person to judge if an abortion is necessary is almost invariably the woman who is pregnant.
  • In the rare exceptions to point three, the better judges of whether an abortion is necessary have medical training and are medically responsible for the health and wellbeing of the pregnant woman as their patient.
  • No woman who knew she needed an abortion ever refused to have what she needed.
  • No man who cared for a woman ever wanted her to be hurt or die doing without what she needed.
  • Prolife arguments for making abortion illegal are never about preventing abortions: only about making abortions more difficult, expensive, and dangerous.

Abortion was decriminalised in England, Scotland, and Wales in 1967. No one much younger than sixty can have direct personal memories of what it was like to live in a country where the law said that unless a girl or a woman was going to die when she was forced to have the baby.

In March 1983, Sheila Hodgers died in Ireland. Abortion in Ireland remains a criminal offense under 1861 legislation: a doctor who is convicted of performing an abortion would be sentenced to two years penal servitude.

[Sheila Hodgers] was a young, married Dundalk mother-of-two who had died in agony at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda the previous March, two days after giving birth to a premature baby girl. She had become pregnant while receiving treatment for a recurrent cancer. The hospital had refused to allow her to stay on the treatment because of the pregnancy. Her husband, Brendan, had asked variously for an abortion, early delivery of the baby or a Caesarean section. All were refused.

The baby, at seven months’ gestation, died a few hours after birth. “By then Sheila had tumours everywhere; on her neck, her legs, her spine,” Hodgers told Yeates. She died two days after her daughter.

Savita HalappanavarNearly thirty years later, in October 2012, another woman died of neglect in an Irish hospital, doctors unwilling to break the 1861 law and perform an abortion. The direct cause of her death was a raging infection caused by an unusually prolonged miscarriage: unusual because, in any prochoice country – indeed, in many countries just a little less prolife than Ireland – the doctors would have known they could lawfully perform an abortion for the purpose of saving her life.

Two midwives who used to work at Glasgow’s Southern General Hospital, who were required as part of their job to delegate, supervise and support nursing staff who were caring for the women on the ward, got “conscientious” about the idea that they were supposed to ensure that all of the women on their ward were receiving the treatment they needed: even if they were in the ward to receive treatment because they were having an abortion. Mary Doogan would have been 13 when the law changed: Concepta Wood would have been 7.

Neither one would ever have been working to save a woman’s life when she was dying from an illegal abortion. Neither one has ever been asked to perform an abortion, nor to care directly for women who were having an abortion: Doogan and Wood were required not to neglect/ignore the nursing staff who were providing care to women on the ward who needed abortions: they were required to delegate, supervise, and support all the nursing staff in caring for all the patients.

They lost their case last year, the court finding that there was no conscientious right to deliberate neglect in order to indicate moral disapproval, but they appealed that decision, and this Tuesday their lawyer argued to the Court of Session that as coordinators they were an essential part of the team, and so ought to be allowed to neglect part of their work if it entailed providing – even at second-hand – care for patients who had committed a mortal sin. The midwives’ appeal is paid for by SPUC.

Rick and Karen Santorum - Abortion saved Karen's life in 1996Rick Santorum is one of the biggest prolife advocates in America. As a legislator, he’s voted for laws that make it difficult, expensive, and dangerous for a woman to get an abortion when she needs one. But when his wife Karen needed an abortion in 1996, she got her abortion and Rick Santorum went right on calling himself prolife without turning a hair, voting and campaigning for legislation that would have killed her if it had been enforced then. The Santorums deal with this publicly by claiming that since they removed the 19-week-foetus that was killing her by induced labour, that’s totally not an abortion and anyway even though Karen had been told she would die if she didn’t have an abortion what totally happened was that she spontaneously had a miscarriage. What I’m pretty sure Rick Santorum means is that (a) he loves his wife and he didn’t want her to die and (b) these kind of rules are meant to stop ordinary people from doing bad things, not to be applied to virtuous, wealthy, powerful Christians like himself and Karen.

Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said in her exit interview of the decision to have an abortion:

This is where none of us can walk in another woman’s shoes. None of us knows the situation that she is in. None of us know what her feelings are. It is a complexity for every woman. It is not something that is done cavalierly. It is not. She thinks about it. As I’ve said to many elected officials, women hear their gods. They don’t need to be listening to the gods of politicians.

But it could also be read that the speech was apologizing or giving up ground. When you say it’s not black and white and the pro-choice movement has been too black and white, are you saying it needs to be more compromising?

No, absolutely not. It’s not about compromising. It’s about recognizing that women who choose abortion care are also women of faith. And don’t let the other side own that. We, too, are women in this country, many women in this country, some that don’t believe – but it’s to say, only she can decide. And don’t give up the ground that we are not good people and people of faith. That’s the point here. It’s not about compromising on the issue of making sure that abortion is safe and legal in this country … Women who choose to have abortions in this country are moral and good people and none of us, no one, should judge her on that decision.

This week, the Irish government are consulting on their decision to legislate to allow life-saving abortions to be carried out in Ireland.

The Catholic church is against this.

The change in the law won’t make very much difference to where most Irish abortions are performed. Women in Ireland who need abortions usually have to go overseas to get a safe legal abortion: often to London or Liverpool, sometimes to the Netherlands or Belgium. The Irish healthcare system outsources virtually all abortions to other countries at the expense of the patient. Only if doctors are sure a girl or a woman will die if she doesn’t have an abortion, will they be legally allowed to provide one.

On hearing that the Irish government intended to legislate to allow doctors to save women’s lives, the four Archbishops of Ireland at once released a statement:

The dignity of the human person and the common good of humanity depend on our respect for the right to life of every person from the moment of conception to natural death. The right to life is the most fundamental of all rights. It is the very basis for every other right we enjoy as persons.

They have demanded that the vote on the government’s legislation should be a free vote, and said they

encourage all to pray that our public representatives will be given the wisdom and courage to do what is right

In short, if a woman’s going to die and an abortion can save her life, say Cardinal Seán Brady, Diarmuid Martin, Dermot Clifford, and Michael Neary, the moral thing to do is, in all circumstances, “defend and vindicate the equal right to life of a mother and the child in her womb”: if the foetus is going to die no matter what, well, say the Archbishops of Cashel & Emly, Dublin, Armagh, and Tuam, the pregnant woman only has an equal right to life with her foetus, so the doctors should let her die too. Like Savita. Like Sheila.

The Archbishops claimed that this was all about saving the foetuses:

The lives of untold numbers of unborn children in this State now depend on the choices that will be made by our public representatives.

But in plain fact, as they must know, the only people in Ireland who can be forced through pregnancy against their will are the very young, the very destitute, those otherwise incapacitated from independent travel who have no one to give them support, and of course – the very ill. Even a woman who can’t afford to pay for the trip overseas and an abortion performed privately, could probably afford to buy abortifacient pills via the Internet, induce a miscarriage, and can then go see her doctor for aftercare.

A woman who simply doesn’t want to be pregnant can choose to travel overseas or to have an illegal abortion inside Ireland: if the Archbishops succeed in their campaign to have Irish political representatives vote to keep it illegal to save women’s lives, women will continue to have abortions. A woman too ill to be able travel, too far pregnant to have a medical abortion, and yet judged not likely to die, can be forced through pregnancy against her will in an Irish hospital, but that is already the case in Ireland.

All of the Archbishops’ stern resolution is focussed on ensuring that it remains unlawful for a doctor to save a woman’s life by performing an abortion, because doing so would value the woman’s life above that of the foetus she is pregnant with, and never was it made more clear that to the Catholic hierarchy, a woman’s life has no intrinsic value: she is worth keeping alive only in order to produce a live baby.

Last year a group of prolifers set up a sting operation. Pretending to be pregnant, carrying hidden cameras, women went to offices of the Irish Family Planning Association and claimed to need help and advice. We don’t know what questions they asked, nor precisely what the IFPA answered. The Irish Independent attests some of their staff have viewed five hours of the tapes the prolifers produced, but their story about the sting operation does not quote the prolifers’ questions nor directly quote the IFPA’s answers.

Many women in Ireland who cannot afford the trip overseas to have an abortion buy abortifacient pills to take illegally at home. If safe, legal abortion were available in Ireland, at a local clinic or hospital, they wouldn’t need to do this. It’s probably the safest method of illegal abortion, and – as IFPA may have told the prolife fakers – while a woman would need to go to her doctor afterwards, she could lie about having had an abortion, and claim to have had a miscarriage. The treatment would be the same in either case.

Prolifers are all in favour of abortion remaining illegal in Ireland, even though they are well aware this doesn’t stop women from having abortions, it just makes abortion more expensive, more dangerous, and more difficult to obtain. This kind of sting operation carried out against Ireland’s leading sexual health organisation, is a classic prolife move – prolifer groups in the US have carried out similiar sting operations, usually against Planned Parenthood.

In Scotland, the baffled selfishness of Mary Doogan and Concepta Wood will continue to look to them and to their prolife support like a moral value. It does not occur to them or their supporters that it doesn’t speak much for Catholic morality to have the prolife case be a public argument for medical staff to show their moral goodness by neglecting their duties towards nurses when they’re providing care for vile sinners deserving automatic excommunication (that’s by Catholic standards). Still, though SPUC can keep funding their appeal until the ECHR finally turns them down, they don’t have any legal right to what they’ve claimed.

But in Ireland, while the Catholic Church hierarchy throws itself against women’s right to life, prolife groups defending this kind of sting operation justify it because, after all, women lying to their doctors could be dangerous. Not that they care to remove the danger of illegal abortion: just that they’d like an organisation that provides contraception and other reproductive healthcare to be investigated by the police and shut down. After all, it’s not so long since preventing abortion was also illegal in Ireland and doubtless if the Catholic Church could roll that back twenty years, the hierarchy would be happy to see contraception made unlawful, too.

There is a willed stupidity from prolifers about reproductive healthcare. In some instances it may be genuine innocence, but in the case of the sting operation run by the prolifer group against the IFPA, it would seem deliberately wicked: and who knows what to make of midwives who want healthcare provided not according to need but to virtue?

Cora Sherlock is Deputy Chairperson of the Pro Life Campaign, which announced its intention to oppose legislation for life-saving abortions in Ireland on 18th December, describing laws to save women’s lives as “a chilling prospect”.

The Pro Life Campaign was founded nine years after Sheila Hodgers died, in 1992, the year of the raped child “X”. Cora Sherlock has said explicitly she thinks rape victims are better off being forced through pregnancy against their will, and while opposing self-chosen physician-assisted suicide, has no problem with pregnant girls or women killing themselves because they have been denied abortion.

We know from their attitude to the proposed change in the law that had the Galway doctors performed an abortion, they would have objected on the grounds that Savita would have lived anyway. Since she died, they transition from complaining that prochoice organisations are “hijacking” her death, that there’s no evidence she wouldn’t have died anyway, to promoting the sting operation carried out against the Irish Family Planning Organisation. Because there, never mind the lack of evidence: there are contraception-providers to attack!

They call themselves “pro life”: but all their activism is directed against saving lives. They don’t even support an organisation like the IFPA that does more to prevent abortions than they ever will. They are, quite literally, anti-choice.

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Filed under Human Rights, Religion, Women

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