THE SEIS­MIC IM­PACT OF RE­PEAL

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Savita Halap­panavar died in Uni­ver­sity Hospi­tal Gal­way in 2012. At 17 weeks preg­nant, Halap­panavar sought an abor­tion be­cause her foe­tus was un­vi­able and in­fected and she was mis­car­ry­ing. Halap­panavar also had sep­sis. The hospi­tal re­fused to give her an abor­tion, on the ba­sis that the threat to her life was in­suf­fi­cient to jus­tify it, in the light of the pro­vi­sion in the 8th Amend­ment to the Con­sti­tu­tion of Ire­land that the 'un­born' have an equal right to life to that of a preg­nant woman. On Oc­to­ber 28, 2012, Halap­panavar died of sep­ti­caemia af­ter the dead foe­tus was fi­nally re­moved.

Halap­panavar’s death caused a na­tional and in­ter­na­tional out­cry, draw­ing at­ten­tion to Ire­land’s bar­baric and pa­tri­ar­chal con­trol of women’s bod­ies. In 2014, the UN’s hu­man rights com­mit­tee chair and for­mer UN spe­cial rap­por­teur on tor­ture, Nigel Rod­ley, ac­cused Ire­land’s dra­co­nian anti-abor­tion laws of treat­ing women “as a ves­sel and noth­ing more.” His state­ment in­spired a ral­ly­ing cry among Ire­land’s pro-choice women and ac­tivists, who took to so­cial me­dia declar­ing #WeAreNotVes­sels. The same ac­tivists also started chant­ing “Re­peal” – a de­mand to re­peal the Eight Amend­ment of the Ir­ish Con­sti­tu­tion, which pre­vented abor­tion. And in 2018, we fi­nally did.

The fi­nal re­sults of the abor­tion ref­er­en­dum sur­prised many. Dur­ing the cam­paign, the some­what mis­guided re­quire­ment for “bal­ance” in the treat­ment of ref­er­en­dum is­sues in broad­cast me­dia – along with the pres­ence of Amer­i­can and Cana­dian anti-choice ac­tivists at­tempt­ing to sway the re­sult – sug­gested that Ire­land was still hugely di­vided on the is­sue: that it was men vs. women, ru­ral vs. ur­ban, old vs. young. But the re­sults were con­sis­tent across most de­mo­graph­ics and re­gions. 65% of all men voted for Re­peal; 70% of women said Yes. An in­cred­i­ble 87% of 18 to 25-year-olds voted for Re­peal. So did 63% of 50 to 64-year-olds. As these re­sults in­di­cate, the vote to Re­peal rep­re­sented a fun­da­men­tal at­ti­tude shift across the coun­try, based on a de­sire to cast off the so­cial and re­li­gious shack­les that had held back the drive to­wards equal­ity for far too long.

How­ever, there are gen­der-re­lated is­sues that we still have to ad­dress. Misog­yny was never ex­plic­itly men­tioned by Re­peal cam­paign­ers, for fear that the spec­tre of fem­i­nism might be a turn-off for po­ten­tial 'Yes' vot­ers. There was an em­pha­sis on 'hard cases', fur­ther dis­tanc­ing the ref­er­en­dum from the fun­da­men­tal is­sue that ev­ery woman is en­ti­tlerd to au­ton­omy over her own body, not just when a woman or a preg­nancy is in dan­ger. It has also been ar­gued that not ev­ery woman was rep­re­sented by the cam­paign: that those most af­fected sex­ual vi­o­lence, and by health com­pli­ca­tions dur­ing preg­nancy and child­birth, felt ex­cluded – in­clud­ing peo­ple who are queer, trans or non-bi­nary; women with dis­abil­i­ties; mi­grant women; and women of colour.

The lat­ter feels par­tic­u­larly odd, given how vi­tal Savita Halap­panavar’s tragic death was to re­vi­tal­is­ing the pro-choice dis­cus­sion in Ire­land, and how cen­tral her im­age and story were to the cam­paign. Re­peal­ing the 8th Amend­ment was un­doubt­edly an ex­tra­or­di­nary, ground­break­ing step to­wards equal­ity. But we now need to ad­dress these other is­sues of rep­re­sen­ta­tion head-on, to en­sure that equal­ity, au­ton­omy and pro­tec­tion aren’t just ac­ces­si­ble to a few, but can be shared by all.

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