Abortion and human rights at Holyrood

Vigil for Savita HalappanavarYesterday, in anticipation of abortion law being devolved to Holyrood, a familiar coalition launched.

They’re SPUC Scotland and CARE Scotland; also three religious bodies, the Catholic Church in Scotland, the Free Church of Scotland, and the Scottish Muslim Council; and two purely anti-choice groups: the Abortion Recovery Care and Helpline (ARCH), Cardinal Winning’s Pro-life initiative.

Anyone who followed the campaign to lift the ban on same-sex marriage in Scotland will know what the organisations in this coalition are about. (SPUC and CARE on same-sex marriage.)

John Deighan, who campaigned against same-sex marriage as the Parliamentary Officer for the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland, became the chief executive of SPUC Scotland in April 2015. The Archbishop Philip Tartaglia, also a vicious campaigner against same-sex marriage, said then:

“John has provided dedicated and energetic service to the church in Scotland for sixteen years and we wish him well in his new role. His ability to skilfully analyse political development and track legislative changes has been immensely helpful to the Bishops’ Conference. The links between the church and the SPUC in Scotland are already strong, but they will be strengthened and renewed as a result of John’s appointment.”

Many, if not most, Catholics, Muslims, and Presbyterians fully support a woman’s right to make her own decisions about terminating or continuing her pregnancy: just as many Catholics, Muslims, and Presbyterians supported the right of same-sex couples to legally wed and receive the same rights, responsibilities, and benefits as mixed-sex couples. That the leadership of these religious bodies sees fit to campaign against human rights in Scotland, shouldn’t smear all the adherents of these religions as against human rights.

Opposition to the right to access abortion, safely and legally, on the NHS, isn’t about “protecting foetuses”, though the campaigners tend to try to present themselves as being for foetal rights: SPUC Scotland’s Project Truth argues that pregnant women with cancer who need chemotherapy that would damage/kill the developing foetus, should get the chemotherapy while pregnant and deal with the resulting miscarriage: they shouldn’t be allowed to decide to have an abortion before beginning chemotherapy.

Macmillan Cancer SupportIf you’re pregnant and have cancer

This is not about supporting women who have cancer, or about defending foetuses: this is about denying human rights to women, just as the opposition to same-sex marriage was about denying human rights to LGBT people.

Pregnancy is a huge commitment of a person’s bodily resources: and having children is a life-long commitment. Pregnancy carries unavoidable risks to life, health, and wellbeing. The attitude of organisations such as SPUC and CARE, that the person who is pregnant doesn’t have the capacity to make decisions about their own pregnancy, is based in misogyny rather than religion, though many of their members use religious justifications for wanting to force women through pregnancy and childbirth against our will.

The new coalition against women’s human rights claims that their reason for coalescing this time is based on concern that in Scotland women might gain more access to safe legal abortion: John Deighan, who claimed two years ago that same-sex marriage was pandering to a minority, now claims:

“Already, well in advance of the transfer of legislative authority, we are hearing a clamour for further extension of the existing, excessively liberal law.

“This could see abortion legalised from the existing 24-week limit, in most cases, up until the point of birth.

“In response to these deeply disconcerting demands, pro-life supporters from different backgrounds, people of faith and none, in addition to concerned organisations and individuals have decided that we must stand together in the face of this onslaught.”

The twist in this assertion is that it confuses two issues. The anti-choice brigade object to the 1967 Act as “excessively liberal” because the Act allows a private consultation between a woman and her doctor to be the decider about whether she can have an abortion. This they find abhorrent: in their view girls and women shouldn’t be allowed to make these kind of decisions.

For several years, SPUC Scotland have organised a public demonstration against the 1967 Abortion Act, on Lothian Road on the last Saturday in April: for all those years, human rights supporters have stood in opposition to them on the other side of the road. We say that on 27th April 1968 the Abortion Act took abortion out of the hands of unlawful and unqualified practitioners and into the hands of properly-qualified doctors, nurses, and the NHS. Forty-eight years of health and wellbeing for girls and women is worth celebrating.

SPUC Scotland and the rest of the anti-choice crew spend two hours very publicly wishing for the bad old days when girls and women could be forced through pregnancy against our will if we couldn’t find an unlawful abortionist, regardless of the misery this caused.

The title of this coalition “Don’t Stop A Beating Heart” echoes the legal basis by which Savita Halappanavar’s death in a hospital in Ireland was justified. Savita Halappanavar, a dentist originally from Belgaum in Karnataka, went to University Hospital in Galway suffering from back pain which was discovered to be a miscarriage at 17 weeks pregnancy. The miscarriage was prolonged over several days, and within hours, Savita Halappanvar realised what was happening to her and asked for an abortion. She was not allowed to have an abortion, even though prolonged miscarriage is very dangerous and at 17 weeks there was not a hope of survival for the foetus, because Irish law did not permit under any circumstances whatsoever the doctors who were attending her to “stop a beating heart”. So on 28th October 2012, Savita Halappanavar’s beating heart was stopped by the prolife laws that protected the last days of the foetal life but not the pregnant woman’s.

David Robertson, Moderator of the Free Church of ScotlandDavid Robertson, moderator of the Free Church of Scotland, is fond of referring to pregnant women as “the womb”: dehumanising the person most concerned in her own pregnancy to a walking organ.

The assertions of this coalition, separately and together, are that women can’t be trusted: if a woman late in pregnancy decides or is advised by her doctor that she needs to have an abortion – as Savita Halappanavar did in that Galway hospital in October 2012 – she mustn’t be allowed: these people cannot allow any consideration to the possibility that the woman herself, and her doctors, know better than they do whether or not an abortion is required for her life, her health, her wellbeing. The foetus Savita Halappanvar was miscarrying was protected under the Eighth Amendment of the Irish Constitution: Savita herself had no such protection, and that’s why she died.

If called on this, my experience is that these prolifers claim that most women don’t have abortions for their physical health but because they’ve decided not to have another baby. This is true, and is a perfectly valid reason for wanting to have an abortion: no one should be forced unwilling to have an unwanted child. Most people who discover they are pregnant and decide they can’t have a baby decide to have an abortion very quickly: the vast majority of abortions in Scotland – indeed, abortions anywhere in the world – are carried out before 15 weeks.

When a person decides to have abortions “late” – at 15 weeks or after – this is a decision that may be based on their own health and wellbeing, mental or physical (young rape victims may be in denial about what is happening to them) or may because something catastrophic is diagnosed for their pregnancy or for the foetus. To argue that Philip Tartaglia or John Deighan or David Robertson know better than any pregnant woman what’s right for them, shows an arrogance quite extraordinary: it is an arrogant and dismissive attitude which most people in Scotland do not share.

Still, in Scotland, women who need abortions after 18 weeks often have to go to hospitals in England to have an abortion: hospitals in Scotland don’t provide them.

Hannah Pearson, a woman’s health researcher, wrote in November 2015:

In the last few years there has been a spate of academic research revealing that abortion for non-medical reasons is generally not provided in Scotland after 18-20 weeks, despite the stipulation of a 24 week upper time limit in the 1967 Abortion Act. One study found unofficial time limits for abortion ranging from as low as 15-20 weeks gestation at different Scottish hospitals. This means that women seeking a late term abortion in Scotland are forced to travel to England, in much the same way as their Northern Irish sisters.

It is estimated that in 2011, 157 Scottish women travelled to England for an abortion after 16 weeks’ gestation. These women had to undertake a round trip of up to 1,400 miles, pay the up-front costs and request reimbursement later after completing a lot of onerous paperwork. This experience essentially discriminates against and stigmatises the small percentage of Scottish women seeking a late term abortion.

SPUC Scotland supported the two midwives who didn’t want to provide support to medical staff helping women who were having late-term abortions in Glasgow. SPUC Scotland promoted the false claim that the midwives had been asked to perform abortions. The midwives argued in court that their right to conscientious objection against abortion should entitle them to refuse to “delegate, supervise and support staff” who were helping to perform abortions, and should also entitle them to refuse to support any staff who were providing care to patients who were having an abortion. The midwives claimed their denial of care and support was based in their religious faith. The highest Scottish court supported the midwives’ “right” to deny care to patients based on their own conscientious objection to medical treatment for which the patients were on the ward: the UK Supreme Court ruled against SPUC and the midwives.

The modern Scottish Parliament has stood up for equal rights, human rights, and support for diversity, since its founding: Holyrood is rooted in the Human Rights Act.

No doubt this coalition against choice will try to use the language of human rights to enforce its views that a pregnant person shouldn’t get to be the decider about terminating or continuing pregnancy.

Key to their doing so is their concerted refusal to acknowledge that enforcing abortion denial is a policing of women’s bodies: countries which successfully enforce abortion denial, do so by treating a woman’s body as if she were a crime scene. Countries such as Ireland which merely deny access to safe legal abortion within their borders, ensure only that people who need abortions have them illegally if they can’t afford to travel, and are dependent on the charity and concern of strangers if they leave their own country to have an abortion overseas. Over 4,500 women each year travel from Ireland to England to have a legal abortion there.

This is the future that this anti-choice coalition want for Scottish women:

…Catriona is already grey-faced with exhaustion and so tired that talking is a struggle; her words fall out on top of each other. She is six weeks pregnant and has travelled overnight by boat from a small town an hour outside Belfast to Liverpool for an abortion. She took the boat because it was cheaper than flying and because she had no passport, and didn’t have the money or the time to get one; but it has been a difficult journey and she hasn’t slept. Tonight, after the procedure, she will go back by boat, a second night sitting bolt upright, trying to sleep. This is her first trip to England.

“A lot of bad things have happened to me in my life, but this has been the worst,” says the 28-year-old single mother who, like all the women I spoke to for this article, did not want to use her real name. It’s not the abortion itself that is troubling her; she has two sons already, and no desire to expand her family. It’s the difficulties involved in getting herself, at short notice, to England for a medical procedure considered a criminal offence punishable by life imprisonment in Northern Ireland. In total, the cost of the round trip and the abortion will come to about £570. Over the past three weeks, while saving for the journey, she has cut down on the food for the family and hasn’t bought oil to heat the house. “We’ve been going to my mum’s house, where there’s a fire; she’s been giving food to the boys.”

We need not expect honesty or compassion from these campaigners. In a post entitled “The Economics of Abortion” on the CARE UK website (dated 23rd July 2015), James Mildred, CARE UK’s Press Officer, promotes an American campaign’s lies about Planned Parenthood, the leading reproductive health provider in the US – even though the campaign against Planned Parenthood had already been comprehensively factchecked and debunked. And we should note that in the last three years, three MSPs have taken interns provided and at least part-paid by CARE on to their staff. Allan Beckett, who runs CARE UK’s “Leadership Programme” about equipping Christian graduates to be leaders in public life, asserts that “Christians are better suited to the top jobs”.

A person who needs an abortion is not an ambulant womb to be used at will with the authorisation of political or religious leaders. She is a human being who has made an intensely personal decision about her own life, health, wellbeing, and family. No one is better able to make that decision than her.

The “Don’t stop a beating heart” campaign would like you to forget that women also have hearts that beat.

We must not let MSPs be so forgetful. Abortion is a human right: abortion is healthcare. No one who needs an abortion should be denied care because of someone else’s conscientious objection to her own decision.

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Filed under Equality, Women

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