Pregnant women, not lawyers, can best protect developing life
Abortion is an intensely personal issue. Behind politics, it is about reality and equality
While a woman is pregnant, we don’t comprehend her developing pregnancy as separate from the living, breathing woman standing in front of us.
Women share their views and concerns about abortion with me every day. In my role as director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland, it’s possible that people feel more comfortable talking with me about the issues. Pregnancy touches the most intimate, tender and sensitive aspects of our lives. Abortion is an issue about which many of us hold complex and sometimes contradictory feelings. What I have learned is that everyone has their own understanding of pregnancy, and everyone has their own thoughts on what we should do about abortion in Ireland. The one ambition we all share is that we avoid a divisive and ugly public debate, that we can build consensus this time around.
NWCI works toward women’s equality in Irish society. One of the ways in which we support and defend women’s equality is by ensuring that women in Ireland can manage their own fertility through access to effective contraception and pregnancy care.
Until now, discussions on the Eighth Amendment have been framed largely in terms of restrictions. We have discussed at length which restrictions we should impose regarding women’s access to care, which restrictions we should impose on a woman seeking to end her pregnancy, which restrictions we should impose on a woman’s life choices. For those of us familiar with the historical shaming, isolation and punishment of pregnant single women and girls in Ireland, this sounds all too familiar. We must be honest with ourselves. Irish reproductive healthcare must be designed around the realities of women’s lives. We must face these complex issues with courage, and kindness. If we are to build a positive approach to the Eighth Amendment we need a fresh perspective. Our approach to abortion should not be based on fear and control, but on compassionate care for real women’s health needs.
Pregnancy is utterly unique in terms of human experience. There is nothing like it. From listening to women every day, I know that every pregnancy is different. Women’s decisions about pregnancy care are considered and thoughtful. Some women plan their pregnancies, some don’t, some women find it difficult or impossible to become pregnant. Many women imagine their future baby from the very moment they discover they are pregnant. Happily, most Irish pregnancies result in the joy of a live birth. But almost a quarter of Irish pregnancies end before birth. The vast majority of these are the result of miscarriage. We know that the loss of a wanted pregnancy can be every bit as devastating as any bereavement. But there are some women in Ireland who do not wish to continue with their unplanned pregnancy. Most of those women have a child or children already. Most of those women are pregnant as a result of the failure of their long-term contraception. These women are thoughtful, caring mothers who want the best for their children. Managing the size of their family is an integral part of how they care for their children. Each situation is unique, each family decision is deeply personal, never political.
While a woman is pregnant, we don’t comprehend her developing pregnancy as separate from the living, breathing woman standing in front of us. It’s impossible for us to imagine her developing pregnancy as having separate rights independent from or superior to the woman’s life, health and wellbeing. From this real, lived position, it’s clear to us that the person who can best protect and nurture a developing life is of course the pregnant woman herself. Not lawyers. Not judges. Certainly not the Constitution. Decisions about care in pregnancy are and should be a private matter for a woman, her doctor and her family. If we truly wish to reduce the need for abortion in Ireland, we must stop exporting our girls and women, some of whom are in very vulnerable situations. Instead we must provide proper, integrated reproductive healthcare to all people living in Ireland.
If we are to move forward as a society on this issue, we must attempt to build consensus. We must listen to one another with open minds. We must support our public representatives, along with those doctors and midwives who are brave enough to speak up so that women, girls and families can have a better future in Ireland.
We are every woman. We are mothers, sisters, aunts, grandmothers, daughters. Every day we care for our families and make important decisions which affect our lives and the lives of our loved ones. Women and girls in Ireland deserve their dignity. They deserve to have freedom of thought. They deserve to have freedom of conscience and of religious belief. They deserve the right to privacy, family and home. If we can find the courage to face our past with honesty, we can face our future with hope. It’s my belief that we must remove the Eighth Amendment before we can achieve a new vision.
Orla O’Connor is director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland