Irish women’s rights

Savita Halappanavar (left); people protest her death in Dublin

By Lynda Walker in Ireland:

Parity is the priority

Saturday 17 November 2012

With the death of Savita Halappanavar, who was denied an abortion, women’s reproductive rights are back on the agenda in Ireland.

Ms Savita Halappanavar, a dentist, had a life-threatening pregnancy; but was told at the hospital that she would not get an abortion; “Ireland being a Roman Catholic country”.

Indian ambassador to Ireland says hospitals in his country would not have denied miscarrying woman an abortion: here.

Inquiry into Ms Halappanavar’s death: here.

Savita Halappanavar’s death: Amnesty International asks Ireland to clarify on abortion issue: here.

The husband of a pregnant woman who died in an Irish hospital has said he has no doubt she would be alive if she had been allowed an abortion: here.

Demonstrators in Delhi protest over the death of Savita Halappanavar, who was refused an abortion in Ireland. The Indian ambassador to Ireland said the dentist would still be alive in India. Photograph: Raveendran/AFP/Getty Images

The patriarchal system in Ireland has not been kind to women, especially when it comes to reproductive rights.

It is estimated that around 120,000 women from Ireland, north and south, have gone to private abortion clinics in Britain over the past 40 years.

When women’s activists began their struggle for improved rights in the mid-’70s they were working within a violently divided community.

Some nationalist and republican women were opposed to demanding abortion rights from a foreign British government. The suffrage movement faced similar objections at the beginning of the 20th century.

Yet women, and some men, have been successful in establishing various campaigns to change the law in Ireland.

In 1971 women activists organised the “condom train” to challenge the ban that then existed on contraceptives in the republic.

Women bought contraceptives over the counter in Belfast and returned with them by train to Dublin’s Connolly station, where they threw their contraband at customs guards and Garda Siochana in defiance of the laws of the land.

In the early ’80s I remember standing in Dundalk with some other sisters handing out condoms to bemused passers-by, again in contravention of the law.

In 1980 the Health and Family Planning Bill became law, allowing most married couples access to the pill.

And five years later condoms became legal to buy in the republic – but even then chemists could decide whether or not to stock the offending articles.

However, that same year the Irish constitution was amended to give foetuses the “right to life,” solidifying the ban on abortion.

Abortion remains illegal under any circumstances in the republic, but in 2010 the European courts accused Ireland of contravening international human rights laws for its refusal to permit abortions if the mother’s life is at risk.

The report is still pending, but whatever its findings it will be controversial.

Campaigners recognise that, amid the heated debate, the most practical option is to call for parity of rights with women in Britain.

Even in the North women do not have this parity. The Unionist government at Stormont refused to implement the 1967 Abortion Act, which legalised abortions by registered practitioners via the NHS.

Just as the unionists decided not to introduce comprehensive education and abolish the 11-plus, they want to be British only when it suits them.

Women’s reproductive rights are a highly sensitive subject and abortion law reform is not a vote-catcher in Ireland, north or south.

The Communist Party of Ireland (CPI) was one of the first political parties to support a woman’s right to choose.

In the mid-’80s Sinn Fein came close to supporting that too, but then changed its policy and now describes itself as a “pro-life party” along with the DUP and SDLP.

Indeed, it is only in relatively recent times that some trade unions have adopted pro-choice policies.

However, contrary to popular belief, abortion is not an illegal act in the North.

Surgical abortions can be carried out on the NHS in Northern Ireland but doctors have to first agree that a woman meets the legal criteria.

Abortion is available if a woman’s life or her long-term physical or mental health are considered to be at risk, but the law is still unclear and the medical profession has asked for better guidelines.

And Northern Ireland recently saw the opening of its first private abortion clinic, which is run by the charity Marie Stopes.

The Belfast clinic provides medical abortion tablets for women who have been pregnant for nine weeks or less, though it does not provide surgical abortions.

With the establishment of the new clinic all kinds of maggots have wriggled out of their holes.

One anti-abortionist asked how much profit the clinic would make, while another challenged the salary of the clinic’s director Dawn Purvis.

It is doubtful if such critics are truly concerned about the evils of private medical provision – a far better stance would be to get out campaigning for a change in law to allow access to NHS facilities.

This is the position of the CPI, which welcomes the new clinic, but also believes that women should have access to decent state care, not just in abortion provision but also in family planning and sex education. This is the way forward for a society that values its women and their lives.

Lynda Walker is chairwoman of the Communist Party of Ireland.

12 thoughts on “Irish women’s rights

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