If there is an overarching theme to this blog it is that everyone should have the right to bodily autonomy and that consent is sexy. Yet millions of people across the world have no guarantees of bodily autonomy. This is particularly the case if you are female. If you are female and pregnant it is often the state that denies you that autonomy, and this denial occurs in many western democracies, and several members of the European Union. This is not a hangover from the past either. Social conservatives are active in many countries seeking to reverse the gains of the last 50 years. Who can say that Roe v Wade is safe from being revisited by the Supreme Court of the United States once Trump had packed it with right wing placemen, in a country where the lifestyle choices of women are being made to penal sanction because they happen to be pregnant?
Tomorrow, the people of Ireland have the chance to contribute to the fightback when they vote in a referendum to decide whether the Eighth Amendment to the constitution, approved by a referendum in 1983 and which gives the unborn a right to life on the same footing as the already born, should be repealed. They have the chance to say that bodily autonomy matters, that women matter, that bearing children is not the sole criterion of the worth of a woman.
And a yes vote in Ireland would be a big boost to women in other European countries fighting their own battles with the “pro-life” obscurantists. Poland already has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, and it is sign of the prevailing political climate there that the 1993 legislation which does allow for abortion in exceptional circumstances such as danger to the health and life of the mother, is regarded as an acceptable compromise by many. It is not. Every year thousands of Polish women go to Slovakia and the Czech Republic for terminations just as Irish women get the ferry across the Irish sea. Yet for the zealots this is not enough. A citizens’’ imitative in 2017 originating with a crazy fundamentalist Catholic group attracted support from the ruling Law and Justice Party and draft legislation was drawn up only to be shelved when women took to the streets in their tens of thousands in a Black March. There were women’s strikes, a mass walk out from churches on the day a pastoral letter supporting the proposed changes was read out. The Government took fright. The threat has not gone away.
The current legal position in both Ireland and Poland has led to women either being denied treatment they need or, disgracefully, being forced to undergo medical interventions they have not consented to. I had the opportunity to talk to a Polish obstetrician about the possible impact of a total ban on abortion. He have the example of a woman with severe pre-eclampsia at 32 weeks. The only treatment is to induce the birth. This may led to the death of the baby (although doctors will do all they can to save it) but, if that is what has to be done to protect the health and life of the mother that is what will be done. Unless the laws are tightened further in which case the doctor inducing a birth may find herself jailed for up to 5 years for carrying out an abortion.
Doctors, he said, will become reluctant to carry out medically necessary procedures, and women will die. This is where pro-life legislation grounded in theology and not actual biological reality leads. Give a foetus which can have no existence independently of the mother an inalienable right to life and you deny this right to the woman who is carrying it.
I hope the Irish people will vote yes tomorrow. I hope too that such a vote will give impetus to efforts to change the unacceptable and totally anomalous situation in Northern Ireland. I know that the women of Poland will be watching with interest too. I hope that the message to the fundamentalists will be what many of us have chanted at demos over the years:
“Pro-life that’s a lie, you don’t care if women die”