Una Mullally: Another day, another Irish woman denied autonomy over her body

Problems with Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act dramatically highlighted this week

Students protest outside the Dáil, calling for a repeal of the Eighth Amendment on the day Leo Varadkar becomes Taoiseach.

It feels as if Ireland would do anything other than allow women to hold their fate in their own hands. As a country we have ceded decisions about women's lives and bodies to their husbands, to priests, to nuns, to doctors, to gardaí, to politicians. To anyone but women themselves.

Now it emerges that a suicidal pregnant child and her mother travelled to Dublin thinking they were going to get the medical care they needed and instead the child was detained in a mental health unit. Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid's Tale – the novel about a totalitarian theocracy that has now been made into a TV series – is a regular visitor to Irish shores. Maybe she comes here for research.

The pregnant girl went to a GP with her mother, and was referred to a psychiatrist who judged that having a termination was not a solution “for all her problems” even though the cause of the girl’s distress – she was at risk of suicide and self harm – was the fact that she was pregnant.

The consultant psychiatrist also “reported that the child had a mental health disorder within the meaning of the Mental Health Act”, according to the Child Care Law Reporting Project. As a result a girl who had travelled to Dublin with her mother thinking she was going to be able to get an abortion was detained in a mental health unit.


A guardian ad litem (GAL) – an independent advocate – was appointed for the child at the time the detention order was made. The GAL employed another psychiatrist who concluded that as the young girl did not have a mental illness she could not be detained under the Mental Heath Act.

The court subsequently ruled she could not longer be detained. She was released. We don’t know what happened to her.

Torrid record

The day after the story broke, a United Nations committee found that Ireland violated the human rights of a woman who had to travel to Britain for an abortion after a diagnosis of a fatal foetal abnormality. We know this woman's name, Siobhán Whelan, whom the UN human rights committee – surely jaded at this stage with Ireland's torrid record on denying women medical care – has told the State to pay compensation to.

Some people can pay to travel for abortions, but the poorest, the most vulnerable women and girls suffer the most. Political apathy towards women’s reproductive rights was summed up by Leo Varadkar’s response to the effect that he is very concerned about woman being sectioned when seeking abortion but “cases are between doctor and patient”.

As usual Varadkar’s curious attitude towards abortion exists in an empathy vacuum. Let’s be clear: a girl being sectioned when she requests an abortion is not normal. Cases are not “between doctor and patient” as Varadkar, a doctor himself, so coolly puts it. I wish cases of women asking for an abortion were just “between doctor and patient”.

Instead they are between doctor, patient, constitution, courts, a plethora of psychiatrists, local TDs, ministers, the Catholic Church and their lobby groups, RTÉ panel shows, campaigners, political parties, British clinics, marches and rallies, lads holding graphic placards outside the GPO, the parish priest, fake crisis pregnancy clinics, the newspapers, and anyone else who thinks their opinion on someone else's womb matters more than the woman whose womb it is.

We should aspire that medical care is “between doctor and patient”, but it ain’t, Mr Varadkar, and you’re the one who can and has to do something about that.

Red flags

This case exposes once again many of the red flags people were frantically waving as the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act was being formulated: that a woman or girl’s autonomy could be superseded and that presenting as suicidal is open to interpretation. Women and girls cannot hold their fate in their own hands. Once again, it’s handed over.

This “story” – yet another, sad, barbaric one – cuts to the core of the deepest fears women in Ireland have. Our bodies are not our own. We can be taken. We can be locked up. We can be discounted and discredited. We can be ignored and debated. We can have judges and psychiatrists and doctors make decisions about our bodies over our heads. Our bodies.

We can be voted upon and talked about. What we cannot do, is allow this situation to continue. The UN is on our back. Our own people in the Citizens’ Assembly emphatically demanded change. Does this girl not matter? Did Miss Y not? Or Miss X? Or Savita? Because unless this changes immediately, there will be another terrible story, and more newspaper columns, and more furious hashtags and louder marches.

Give women and girls the ability to decide what they require and want and need in a safe and legal context in the country in which they live. End this Irish dystopia.