On Thursday 11 July, Ireland passed an abortion law legalising abortions for women if a woman’s life is under threat.
The critical part of the legalisation bill that I take issue with is the specification that a woman’s life must be threatened by the continuation of the pregnancy, including by threat of suicide, and that neither rape nor a woman’s values, interests and wants are given any consideration in the matter.
How positive a step towards women’s rights has the Irish government made if it considers death to be the only valid release clause from an unwanted pregnancy? By its own words, the state is content to withhold the power of a woman to control what happens to her own body to the point that she resorts to suicide as a final act of control. This is an act of a government that has no respect for its women.
Anti-abortionists need to recognise that suicide is not the only way a woman’s life can be destroyed by an unwanted pregnancy, and that failure to acknowledge this fact is a failure to acknowledge the value and personhood of women.
Imagine a medical student. She is in her first year of university when she is brutally raped and subsequently falls pregnant. Suddenly, any plans or aspirations she may have had – to finish her degree, begin her career, help hundreds of sick people, and start on the road to achieving any number of anticipated life-goals – are blown out of the water. The life she would have had is terminated, for better or worse, before a physiological threat to her life even enters the picture.
On top of this, this woman then has to face a number of oft unappreciated, sometimes grim, realities of pregnancy.
When carrying a foetus, a woman’s body is no longer her own, it becomes unpredictable, even uncooperative. She may get nauseous for weeks on end, feel exhausted, physically and mentally, her changed body may well prevent her from doing many of the things that she finds important or enjoyable, she might even lose her job.
She then faces uncountable hours of labour, the threat of post-natal depression, or other, non-life-threatening consequences of childbirth. But most importantly of all, she has to take responsibility for a human life, even if this takes the form of putting that child up for adoption.
Even with the smoothest of pregnancies, the changes it wreaks on the mother’s life will stay with her for ever. To assume that the threat posed by pregnancy to a woman can be such a simple, black and white, life or death calculation is insulting and sexist.
Historically men have been permitted, if not encouraged, to take out threats to their valued way of life, whether in the form of a household intruder or a war-time enemy. It is viewed as a necessary and sometimes honourable act, even if it means harming an unwitting assailant.
Yet when the threat is to a woman’s valued way of life in the form of an unwanted pregnancy, the threat is ignored and the woman is refused powers to protect herself. This sends the misogynistic message that a woman’s only real purpose is as a mother, and her life could not possibly have as much value and meaning to herself and society as that of the undeveloped foetus.
It is time opponents of abortion realise that the debate surrounding the legalisation of abortion is not simply a question about the biological health of the mother, or the imagined potential of the foetus. It is about the complexities of a human life, and respecting a woman’s intelligence, autonomy and desire for fulfilment as having equal status and complexity as any man’s.