A reply to Senator Mullen on #repealthe8th

Much discourse of late has centred around the tone of the pro-Repeal movement in Irish life. We are accused of shrillness, of militance, of creating conditions hostile to the conduct of a ‘mature conversation’. To a certain extent, I understand. The question of where we should be and where we should be going, taking in all the elements of drafting legislation and medical regulation, is a complicated one, as evidenced by the multiple manners in which it is formulated and answered worldwide. Irish society has some difficult debates ahead of it between now and the calling of a referendum on the Eighth.

But are we really losing middle Ireland? If it’s the Ireland Ronán Mullen seems to live in, clearly we are.

I choose not to believe in that Ireland.

I choose to believe rather in the thousands and thousands of people who gathered to March for Choice in Dublin last weekend. I choose to believe in the writers of the #knowyourrepealers tag on twitter, which showed the range of ages, genders, backgrounds, life stages, and experiences involved in this campaign. I choose to believe in the majority of Irish people who want abortion decriminalised and believe that women should be offered choice over their own bodily autonomy. Are we reflective of this Ireland? Unequivocally yes.

Which Ireland do you choose to live in?

However, while there’s a platform given to the minority who cling to the Eighth as absolute, it’s sometimes necessary to spend time rebutting their more outlandish statements. Today’s article from Senator Mullen certainly fell into that category, failing to acknowledge context and facts in several areas. This is a reply to those particular points – let’s have that mature conversation now.

– Yes, three organisations received funding from the Open Society Foundation for their advocacy of sexual and reproductive health in Ireland. They’re Amnesty International, the Irish Family Planning Association, and the Abortion Rights Campaign. This is not news. These are organisations which produce open financial reports. Rather than protesting that an overseas funder gave money to them, perhaps it might be appropriate to reflect on Ireland’s situation being bad enough that philanthropists outside the country feel reproductive justice here is worth supporting.

– On that point, something else that seems to disappear in these pieces: the Eighth Amendment is not just an abortion issue. It affects the broader field of reproductive justice, which includes all issues relating to sexual health, pregnancy, and birth. The Eighth takes agency away from pregnant people and their doctors when it comes to all decisions around how the pregnancy is managed, how the pregnant person behaves and approaches medical decisions, and even the choices made by social workers around pregnant clients in crisis. Abortion is only one of the choices open to someone dealing with a crisis pregnancy. The pro-choice movement acknowledges this; it’s in our name. We support choice. The anti-choice advocates’ fixation on abortion when it comes to the Eighth is a severely limited viewpoint.

– The March for Choice received some coverage on RTE. However, all 20000-30000 of us were ‘balanced’ by also giving time to one spokesperson from the “Pro-Life” campaign. As for the amount of people there, it’s always difficult to estimate exact numbers at collective gatherings, so here’s some documentary evidence instead. Also, no mention of the Youth Defence gatecrashers with the ‘Abortion for terminally ill babies’ placard, wearing a Repeal jumper and attempting to usurp our message?

– Abortion campaigners are frequently asked where we’d draw the line. Full disclosure: this writer’s viewpoint is ‘as early as possible, as late as necessary’, however I accept that Ireland will most likely follow the removal of the Eighth with a more gradiated piece of legislation. I have a legal background; I believe that as it stands, Ireland is in breach of its voluntary international commitments to human rights. I think the international-human-rights-compliant draft legislation written by a group of feminist legal academics in 2o15 is a good potential model for the kind of legislation we can conceivably expect post-repeal.

– I am not a doctor, but a small amount of research has led to finding this report by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists on foetal awareness. They conclude that: the majority of abortions in the UK are performed between 7 and 24 weeks (page 14); that a foetus does not have sufficient nerve development for the possibility of feeling pain before roughly 24 weeks (pages 3-10); and it is unknown whether it is ever ‘conscious’ enough in utero to feel ‘noxious stimuli’ or pain (page 10). While there are some automatic responses to stress or sensation which can be interpreted from ultrasound images, there is no evidence for these having a biological basis for interpretation as ‘pain’. They also state that an anaesthetic given to the pregnant person before a surgical/D&C abortion procedure will transfer to the foetus (page 17), so in the very unlikely event it does experience negative sensation from the procedure, it will be anaesthetised by this. Another article from the British Medical Journal suggests that the nervous system for negative stimulus response is not fully developed until 26 weeks; however, as a matter of brain and psychological development, it cannot be said that even at this stage, a foetus will experience what we know as pain.

– Thousands of lives have not been saved by Ireland not having abortion. In order to save a life, the life must already be in existence. The unborn, as Irish law has it, is best described as a potential. This was even expressed in the X case itself, where McCarthy states that:

The right of the girl here is a right to a life in being; the right of the unborn is to a life contingent; contingent on survival in the womb until successful delivery.

– Simon Harris is correct in saying that there are mental health consequences for people having to travel for terminations. Source? The people who’ve travelled, including the incredible people of Terminations for Medical Reasons Ireland, who have done this under the hardest of circumstances.

– Which brings me to the final section of this article. I am not going to speak over the already-expressed reaction of Gerry Edwards from TFMR to this treatment of the trauma losing a wanted pregnancy caused his family and those who also advocate with TFMR. I support their cause 100% and it is hard to imagine the kind of mindset necessary for the linked response to generate no sympathy from the reader.

From the objective viewpoint, however, I will say the following: it is possible for a foetus to be both ‘a clump of cells’ from a biological viewpoint, and a much-wanted future baby from a parent’s viewpoint. Many of the people whose foetal remains are therein described as ‘debris’ were at that point making funeral arrangements and coping with loss. They did not have ‘sick unborn bab[ies]’. They had pregnancies which would never make it to term. They would never have that baby. It was not a matter of ‘car[ing] for’ an unborn baby. The choice was between living with the knowledge that that foetus would never grow into a child while waiting for it to stop developing in utero, or to terminate the pregnancy and allow the processes of grief and reclamation of one’s body to begin.

Whether that emotional investment is made or not does not depend on the existence of the foetus, but on the psychological state of the pregnant person. It is possible to understand that to some constituencies terminations are a medical decision to return one’s body to a non-pregnant state, and to others they are the end of a wanted pregnancy and a sad loss. Equally, it should be possible to consider pregnancy psychologically as sometimes a joyful occurrence, and sometimes as an unwanted physical state of the body.

No matter what your psychological state regarding the pregnancy is, and no matter how you feel about the choices and decisions ahead of you, you deserve choice. You deserve for your doctor to be able to have an open conversation with you and to lay all of your options on the table. You deserve to make that choice free of emotional and legal coercion and manipulation. You deserve better, in other words, than many of your elected representatives are willing to give you.