Irish solutions on women’s rights not enough for UN

Opinion: Rights bodies flabbergasted at horrors Irish State has imposed, writes Anthea McTeirnan


There’s something about Mary. And Bridget. And Ciara. And Katie. And Ngozi. There’s something about these women. There’s something about all women in Ireland that is unspeakable and untrustworthy and undeserving of the same rights as Sean and Patrick and Samuel and Enda.

There is something about these women, rooted between their legs, rooted in the foundation of their State, rooted in the articles of our Constitution, that must be managed, controlled and minded.

Ireland was lucky to have Frances Fitzgerald installed as Minister for Justice and Equality in advance of the review of its human rights record in Geneva.

An impressive Fitzgerald, wearing a well-cut purple suit and sporting seamless Hillary Clinton hair (she’s a female politician - this kind of stuff is compulsory), was sent out to the crease to bat against an onslaught of spinning balls that no one had interfered with except ourselves and our lawmakers.

Super-sharp political manoeuvring or happy coincidence? To smug politicos, having Fitzgerald at the helm of the Irish delegation might point towards the former; the rest of us can take small comfort from the irony of it all.

Like our two glorious former presidents, Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese, Fitzgerald has all the trappings of power and choice and autonomy, yet she has none of them. No woman is immune from our State’s desire to tell her what to do with her body, even when she is the head of that State. There is no escape from our obsession with ovaries, no matter whose ovaries they are.

At the United Nations Human Rights Committee, Fitzgerald’s genteel fudging on the myriad unresolved issues Ireland has with women and their internal organs was blown out of the water by her closing statement. “As an Irish woman, I’ve had reason to be grateful to this exposure to international bodies on equality issues,” she said.

Fitzgerald didn’t spell out the trail of gains brought kicking and screaming to our door from Europe; as Minister for Justice and mouthpiece for the Irish State she was there to do a different job. But she acknowledged the European probing and prodding that has led us thus far.

The probing and prodding continued.

International human rights bodies remain flabbergasted by the litany of horror the Irish State has imposed and continues to impose on all of us ovary-bearers. In his closing remarks, committee chair Sir Nigel Rodley stumbled and bumbled over the word “symphysiotomy”, reminding us all on our rocky woman-hating European outpost that carving a woman open to let a baby out without even asking her if it is OK is barbaric and abusive and astounding and absolutely not normal.

Symphysiotomy, Rodley reminded us (not that we needed reminding), is torture. Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights prohibits torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. That the survivors of this barbarism have not received an effective remedy or an independent inquiry from a State that is still horse-trading the cash it should just hand over to an ageing cohort of the abused is incomprehensible to most. “There remains the problem of accountability, of assault,” said Rodley. Too right there does.

Never mind assault. The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013 has no truck with assault, with rape, with incest. Pregnancy resulting from illegal violation is not deemed worthy of coverage in our domestic law. They’ve clocked this in the United Nations. And our Irish solution to our Irish problems is not enough for them, as it was never enough for Irish women.

Our “Act” of hand-wringing compromise and omission was found wanting in so many ways. This time it has been found wanting by a bunch of learned men of the United Nations with legal qualifications. This time we may have to take notice. Women marching. Women shouting. Women whose pregnancies won’t survive crying as they board a plane and travel to a strange place. Irish women’s voices on their own are never enough.

So be it.

Like Fitzgerald, we’ll always accept international help to vindicate our human rights.

And the United Nations has spoken. Fitzgerald listened and she heard them. Of course, “the will of the majority cannot derogate from the State’s human rights obligations”, she said. That’s new. That’s significant.

Mary Jackson, of the Department of Health, speaking for the Irish Government, also admitted that a woman only has the right to travel out of the country to get an abortion if she has the resources. “We have no solution to that at present. We haven’t had the challenge to make a change to that.”

Pity the poor woman who must make that challenge. The State won’t do anything until a resident heads up the Liffey to the Four Courts barefoot and pregnant, with a desire not to be.

Ireland got a few home truths from the learned members of the Human Rights Committee. We need to talk about abortion. We need to talk about it again, and this time we need to make it a choice for all the women of Ireland. If we still can’t let all women choose what to do with their own bodies, at least we must give the raped, the abused, the women carrying foetuses with fatal abnormalities the right to have an abortion here. We must look again at our obsession with cleaving a woman’s life from her health.

Chair Nigel Rodley said that in Ireland women who are raped and denied access to abortion are “treated as vessels”. The Irish Constitution treats us all as vessels. We deserve better. If the State-sponsored abuses of the past teach us anything, it’s that women should be the final port of call for their own healthcare. Then we will have reached our destination.

l Anthea McTeirnan is the former chair of the Irish Family Planning Association and an Irish Times journalist

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