A Woman’s Right to Her Own Body

by Jennifer Collins

A few weeks ago, I wrote about abortion in Ireland on the 20th anniversary of the “X Case” – a case which saw the Irish Supreme Court rule that women in Ireland had the right to access an abortion if their lives are in danger. Successive Irish governments have failed to legislate for such a scenario. As a result women in Ireland seeking an abortion on medical grounds or for other reasons are forced to travel to the UK for the procedure.

During last year’s general election campaign, the Labour Party promised to legislate for the case if it came to power. The party is now in coalition with Fine Gael, yet instead of taking immediate action, the government has decided it would be a great idea to establish yet another expert group to examine how the ruling might be best implemented.

The United Left Alliance (ULA), a recently formed electoral alliance of left-wing political parties and independent politicians, hopes to force the Irish Government to legislate for the case with the introduction of a Private Members’ Bill to the Irish Parliament. The formal introduction of the Bill, which was produced by Socialist Party TD Clare Daly, Joan Collins of the ULA and Independent TD Mick Wallace, was not opposed but it won’t pass without the support of the government.

Aside from the formal introduction of the Medical Treatment Bill, the Action on X Alliance held a public meeting in Dublin’s Gresham Hotel on February 21st to discuss the current situation. Speakers included Joan Collins (just to note in the name of full disclosure, Joan is my aunt and godmother), Ailbhe Smyth of the Feminist Open Forum and journalist and broadcaster Vincent Browne.

Vincent makes a number of particularly noteworthy points. He not only gives a good rundown of the history of abortion and legislation on contraception in Ireland but also raises some important points questioning the presumed right of the government to dictate what a women does with her body. What gives the government the right to make this choice for women? Why are women not trusted with their own bodies? Why are a woman’s reproductive rights and her body a matter of public concern and ultimately public property? Vincent quite rightly says there is no equivalent government interference when it comes to the male body or male reproductive rights.

Such attitudes are relics of an era when a woman was ultimately a possession of her husband to whose will she had to submit. An era when – due to a ban on contraception in Ireland – a woman was expected to produce baby after baby in spite of the risk to her health; in spite of the fact that she may have been living in a tiny one-bedroom house with barely enough money to provide food for her other seven or eight kids. In other words, an era during which the Catholic Church dictated society’s morals and the roles of women and men. This is a Church that does not hold men and women in equal esteem. It’s an institution which was – and to a large extent still is – deeply misogynistic (not to mention homophobic).

I recall as a child my grandmother telling me stories of female neighbours who already had a gaggle of children behind them and who were warned that having another child could kill them. But they had no real choice. Some did die. Others struggled on.

Of course, that doesn’t happen now thanks to the courage of women who fought for the right to self-determination over their bodies and their reproductive health. Abortion legislation is the final hurdle.

It’s time to legislate for the X Case and the ULA Bill is certainly to be welcomed – although there is no guarantee it will pass. However, what Ireland really needs is a public debate about abortion and a real referendum on the issue.

As a final note on this, I can’t help but think about the girl, who is now a 34-year-old woman, known as X. Where is she now? How does she feel about the fact that the landmark case she was at the centre of is still a source of such contention and debate? Perhaps she doesn’t think about it and would rather forget about the awful trauma she suffered at the hands of this man and the further ordeal she was put through by the state that was mean to protect her. I can’t say. What I can says is behind it all, behind these court cases and rulings and public debates, behind public policy and government legislation, are individuals and their lives. That is what we should remember.

See Vincent Browne and the others speaking at the Action on X public meeting here: http://vimeo.com/37394349