Women must have jurisdiction over their own bodies

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Protesters in Ireland call for the Eighth Amendment to be repealed. [Sandra/Flickr]

It is hard to believe that in 2016, we are still fighting for a woman’s right to bodily autonomy, but the unfortunate truth is that the situation for women across much of Europe has stagnated, or even worsened, writes Caroline Hickson.

Caroline Hickson is executive director of the International Planned Parenthood Federation European Network.

Most recently, Polish lawmakers have just committed to pursuing a citizens’ initiative that could lead to a total ban on abortion in Poland, even in cases of rape or incest. This is a catastrophic step backwards for women’s rights.

In my native Ireland, the government continues to bury its head in the sand as public pressure mounts for a repeal of the Eighth Amendment, the constitutional provision which underpins Irish law stipulating that abortion is a criminal act – even in the case of rape, incest or a fatal foetal abnormality.

Access to safe and legal abortion is a fundamental human right, and although in Ireland we have come a long way over the past few years, our constitution still equates the life of a woman to that of an embryo. Women have died in Ireland after being refused life-saving abortion procedures. The time has come to acknowledge that the life and health of a pregnant woman has much greater value than that which our constitution gives it.

Last Saturday, tens of thousands gathered across 22 countries to call for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment, in solidarity with Irish women.

In 1983, when the referendum was passed, I was a schoolgirl, living a comfortable middle-class existence. I didn’t think very much about the family down the road with 17 children they probably couldn’t afford to feed, or remark that these children were having children of their own while still in their teens. This was the kind of thing that was taken for granted in Ireland then.

That same year, a classmate left school suddenly. Rumours abounded but it was never openly discussed.

The following year, in a neighbouring county, a 15-year-old girl called Ann Lovett managed to carry a baby to term, apparently without anyone noticing, or if they did, they did not consider it their place to speak out. Until it was too late – and both she and her baby died of hypothermia after she gave birth alone in a graveyard near a statue of the Virgin Mary.

“It’s not our business.”  Silence, collusion, pretence – if we don’t talk about it, it isn’t happening. That is the hallmark of the Ireland I grew up in. And nowhere is that more evident than in our hypocrisy around abortion. We don’t allow abortion in Ireland, yet we know that over 165,000 Irish women have had abortions abroad since that first referendum – 3,451 travelled last year alone.

Until recently, these women were just numbers. It is easier for the state to ignore them that way. But now we’ve reached the point where silence is no longer possible. Women across Ireland are speaking out, talking about their own very personal and painful experiences of having to travel for abortion. They are demanding change, loudly and openly, so others do not have to experience what they did.

Thanks to their bravery and to the support of so many people for the repeal the Eighth campaign, we have stopped colluding. We are breaking the silence and tackling our country’s hypocrisy head on.

Last year, the Irish people showed how citizen action can lead to a new kind of Ireland.  When people voted for Marriage Equality, they stood for an Ireland that values its citizens equally, that upholds human rights and that is finally sweeping away the cobwebs of a society that was not allowed to think for itself. It’s time to break through the next hurdle. Women must have full jurisdiction over their own bodies. No institution has the right to interfere.

Today, on the global day of access to safe and legal abortion, we must fight with and for women across Europe, whether it is to repeal the Eighth Amendment in Ireland or stand up against the Polish government’s egregious move to attack women’s rights. We must strive to create a Europe that recognises and fulfils the right of women to make the choices that determine their health, their well-being and their futures.

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