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The past is another country

February 17, 2012 Leave a comment

There is a very important retrospective currently going on in my old country, for a very important anniversary. This is because twenty years ago my old country granted an injunction against a pregnant fourteen year old victim of rape, preventing her from travelling to Britain for an abortion.

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You see, Ireland has a written constitution. This can have its advantages. You can point at a page and say, ‘Ha, see, those are my rights!’ Not very often though. Most of the time we point at it and say, ‘Ha, this is what theocratic twats thought would make the bishops happy. Wait, hang on, where are my rights?’ Sometimes it gives us more rights than any reasonable person would ask for. For example, Article 41.2 says, ‘The State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved. The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home,’ in its charmingly medieval way.

But in 1981, which in Irish terms is pretty much the dark ages, some bright sparks looked at our constitution and spotted that it lacked an outright ban on abortion. So they had a referendum and this oversight was  rectified. To the consternation of many legally-minded individuals including the Attorney General, the equal right to life of the mother and the unborn child was now acknowledged in the constitution.

The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.

And we all lived happily ever after.

We all lived happily ever after because Irish women continued to take the ferry to Britain when they needed an abortion. This wasn’t straightforward, back in the eighties and early nineties. Besides the practical difficulties, the expense, and the shamed silence that surrounded such an action, there was the fact that information about abortion was
also illegal.

When I was growing up, British magazines had little pieces missing at the back. They were blank or blacked out or otherwise appropriately removed. Those were the spaces in which British women could find information about Marie Stopes clinics, advice about where they could turn if they faced a crisis pregnancy. We couldn’t see them. That information was illegal. Some magazines and occasionally newspapers were stopped by customs because they still had information out in full view where anybody might see it. Copies of Everywoman were removed from some public libraries because they likewise contained information. Information was a very bad word. You couldn’t let people have information, because people might use it.

Our blithe state of holy innocence continued until 1992. In 1992 it was interrupted by the X case.

In 1992 a fourteen year old girl who had been raped by a family friend was about to be taken by her parents to the UK for an abortion. They spoke to the police beforehand because her parents wanted to know if DNA from the foetus would be of use in prosecuting her rapist. The police, thus notified of this risk to unborn life, escalated their moral crisis right up the judicial chain of command, and the Attorney General of the day was called in to protect the life of the unborn child. He sought an injunction against the girl, which prevented her from leaving the jurisdiction. It was granted by the High Court.

The girl was known publically as ‘X’ to preserve her privacy while the state squabbled over her right to travel and her family challenged the ruling. It took a month before the Supreme Court overturned the injunction, and when they did it was on the grounds that the suicidal fourteen year old’s life was in danger. The Supreme Court decreed that she might indeed leave the country, because the fourteen year old victim of rape and of an injunction was suicidal.

We had another referendum after the X case. It was a three-part referendum, seeking our thoughts on the ‘substantive issue of abortion’, the legalisation of information about abortion, and the right to travel. The first was defeated, the second and third were
passed. The right to travel passed by 62%, the right to information passed by 60%.

As a fourteen year old at the time, I wasn’t sure I would ever entirely get over the fact that people voted against the right to travel. Thirty eight per cent of people who voted in that referendum voted against the right to travel to Britain for an abortion. Forty per cent of those who voted believe that copies of Everywoman should be appropriately redacted to preserve our holy ignorance. For years I looked at strangers’ faces and wondered if they were the people who believed it was morally right to force a teenager to carry her rapist’s baby to term. I wondered if they were the people who valued a foetus above my basic rights. If they had voted against the right for a woman to leave Ireland on a day when her country failed her completely, when her choice was between a boat to England or self-mutilation at home. Twenty years later, I’m not sure. But then, I live in Britain and I think that helps.

Irish women no longer get the ferry to Britain for an abortion. We’re much too civilised for that. These days, Irish women get a flight instead. The internet helps, as does the fact that information was decriminalised. But not all women in Ireland are Irish women, and there have been poorly reported rumours that backstreet abortion is now the option availed of by others now. Women who don’t have easy access to the internet, women who don’t have the money to take a trip to the UK, and, mainly, women whose immigration status is precarious and who fear they might not be able to get back through customs if they leave. Some days I wonder if this new descent into the gruesome reality of banning legal abortion will alter Ireland’s stance. I think they could lie the dead bodies of women from one end of O’ Connell Street to the other before moral consensus on the primacy of the unborn would be challenged.

From time to time Ireland talks vaguely about tinkering with the constitutional amendment, but is no hurry to run into those waters again. It is uncomfortable with abortion, more comfortable with seven thousand citizens each year relying on its former colonial power for medical services. So that’s what Irish women do. It’s what they’ll continue to do.

It would be nice if the past was another country, but twenty years later not a lot has changed. That said, we no longer take out injunctions against pregnant fourteen year old rape victims. Sometimes you take what you can get.

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