Pregnant Women Are Mere Vessels Under Irish Law

“I am not a vessel” has become a popular mantra for Irish reproductive rights advocates after Sir Nigel Rodley, chair of the UN Human Rights Committee, chastised Irish law for treating women who are raped and subsequently denied abortion and forced to carry a pregnancy to term as “a vessel and nothing more.” But in a country where an embryo has the same constitutional rights as a woman, we know that women are considered mere vessels, and never has this been more vividly demonstrated than in last week’s revelations about the forced pregnancy, forced hydration, and coerced cesarean section of a survivor of rape who was seeking asylum in Ireland.

Following the enormous public outcry after the preventable death of Savita Halappanavar, who was denied a life-saving abortion, the Irish government was put under huge pressure to address the lack of clarity in the law about when and why an abortion could be legally provided. However, the day they changed the name of the draft legislation from the “Protection of Maternal Life Act” to the “Protection of Life in Pregnancy Act,” I predicted that nothing would change. It was clear that the Eighth Amendment—which “acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother”—would prevail.

Even if you could believe, in principle, that a fetus or even a zygote should have the same value and the same legal protections as a woman, it is clear that in practice the rights of a woman and her fetus will sometimes be in competition—when a woman’s life is threatened by the continuation of her pregnancy, as it was for Halappanavar; when urgent and vital medical treatment for the woman carries risks for the embryo; or when the pregnancy is causing suicidal intent. In these situations, the state or the medical profession has no choice but to come down on one side or the other. We have to ask why, time after time in Ireland, the fetus’ rights have trumped those of the woman?

Facts are still emerging in the most recent case reported in Ireland. It seems that a woman, pregnant as a result of rape, sought an abortion at eight weeks of pregnancy. She was denied an abortion, despite meeting the legal criteria (two psychiatrists confirmed that she was suicidal and therefore theoretically eligible under the new act). Perhaps because of her immigration status, she was unable to do what so many Irish women do, which is to beg and borrow to fly to England or the Netherlands for a privately funded abortion. Lied to and obstructed, when she finally realized she would not be permitted an abortion she went on hunger strike, refusing food and water. Doctors were awarded a court order to forcibly hydrate her. Subsequently they sought a court order to force her to have a live delivery by cesarean section against her will. Finally—clearly under duress—she agreed to the procedure. The whole process was aimed at delivering a baby—albeit so prematurely that the baby bears the risk of living with serious developmental and physical disabilities.

I once debated with an anti-choice campaigner who declared that one day society will have the technology to keep a “baby” alive outside of a woman’s womb after a couple of months. No woman, he asserted, would begrudge continuing the unwanted pregnancy for just a few weeks until their fetus could safely complete its gestational development in a machine and then be adopted by a deserving childless couple—could they? Of course we know they could. Moreover, 15 years later no such technology exists. In fact, neonatologists think that at 24 weeks, regardless of technological advances, we have pretty much reached the limits of viability determined by the physiological development of a fetus and can only hope to improve outcomes for babies born at or after that point.

However, for fundamentalist anti-choice campaigners these facts present no obstacle—after all, we have women to carry children to term, whether they like it or not, even when doing so threatens their health and lives. On Monday, August 18, on BBC Radio Ulster, anti-choice guest David Quinn lamented that the woman at the center of last week’s controversy had her cesarean section at 24 weeks and was not forced to continue the pregnancy until she could deliver a healthy, fully developed baby at 40 weeks: “A truly ‘pro-life’ culture would have looked after the mother until longer into her pregnancy, so as to ensure that the baby was going to be a healthy baby when delivered.”

This is the logic of the anti-choice movement and the Irish legal and medical profession that saw this young woman only as a walking incubator, rather than a human being of flesh, blood, and feelings. International law, policy, and convention and common sense tell us that women are not simply wombs to be commandeered in the service of childbearing. Until the Irish government repeals the Eighth Amendment and replaces the new unworkable law with policies that facilitate rather than obstruct access to abortion, women will continue to be seen simply as means to an end: vessels.

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  • cjvg

    I hope the EU will now finally follow through and level sanctions against Ireland, or eliminate their membership altogether!

  • conversate

    Irish pregnancy flowchart:

    Does the Catholic Church show any sympathy here? Don’t make me laugh. It simply piles insult on top of injury: the newest Catholic bishop of Ireland, Kevin Doran, Bishop of Elphin, saw went public with his opinion that the woman should have been forced to stay pregnant for longer:

    [Doran] said the church has always taken the view that legislation “certainly doesn’t resolve the concerns”.

    “You are creating greater risks for the child by terminating pregnancy at an early stage,” he said. He also said: “I don’t think that anybody has established the right of a mother to terminate the pregnancy because she feels that she’s at risk of suicide”.
    The Bishop described the early delivery of the baby as “not without its difficulties” and “simply not a healthy option” given that the normal period of pregnancy is somewhere around 38 – 40 weeks.
    He said to terminate the pregnancy at 24 weeks with a caesarean “places the child more seriously at risk”. The Bishop questioned what assistance the State provided the woman with her psychiatric problems.
    He said he has seen “nothing to suggest that there is a good reason why” the pregnancy could not have progressed to full term.

    Indeed; the good Bishop has no problems with having the woman strapped down for another 11 weeks or so, force-fed while the fetus gets older.

    • VeggieTart

      Of course they don’t show sympathy. There are several cases I’ve heard besides that of Savita Halappanavar where they show shocking disregard for the health of pregnant women over their concern for the fetus.

      • Ivy Mike

        That is where the anti-choice mentality inevitably leads, every time.

        To them, women lose all rights to autonomy, to plan their families, etc, as soon as soon as they conceive, regardless of how the conception occurred.

        It is how they WANT it.

        • VeggieTart

          It’s more sickening when a nine-year-old girl is raped, and the Catholic Church’s concern is for the fetuses, not for the girl herself.

          • catseye

            The fetuses, even the rapist, but NEVER the woman, not even a 9-year-old girl.

    • J.D.

      Bishop Doran’s POV is repulsive. He clearly sees that woman as nothing more than a brood mare to be penned up (or in this case, tied down) until she birthed the pwecious baybee, no matter what damage it and this whole disgusting debacle did to her. Sickening!

  • fiona64

    On Monday, August 18, on BBC Radio Ulster, anti-choice guest David Quinn lamented that
    the woman at the center of last week’s controversy had her cesarean
    section at 24 weeks and was not forced to continue the pregnancy until
    she could deliver a healthy, fully developed baby at 40 weeks: “A truly
    ‘pro-life’ culture would have looked after the mother until longer into
    her pregnancy, so as to ensure that the baby was going to be a healthy
    baby when delivered.”

    No, sir. A truly pro-life culture would not have demanded that a born, sapient, sentient *woman* suffer further humiliation. This rape survivor was victimized *twice.*

    • conversate

      Yep. Tie her down, basically.

    • VeggieTart

      She was victimized over and over again. Every day that she was required to continue that pregnancy, when she was forcibly hydrated, when she was coerced into having a C-section. And now she will probably be forced to care for this baby she never wanted.

      Interesting that this anti-choice male didn’t lament what the woman went through, only that she wasn’t forced to carry the fetus for another four months. Guess they do care more about the fetus than the pregnant woman.

      • fiona64

        Of course they do. The anti-choice movement is inherently misogynistic.

  • Ella Warnock

    Coming soon to a catholic hospital near you here in good ol’ murica.

  • almond_bubble_tea

    It’s very telling that Lie Action News and other anti-choice media are not covering this story in detail and certainly not from the viewpoint of the mother.

    LifeNews did mention a rally to support the premature baby

    but said NOTHING in support of the mother, nor cared about how distraught the mother was.

    Why do forced-birthers and anti-choice people insist that:
    – the spawn of a rapist is always blessed by God?
    – it’s fine to force living, sapient grown women to be incubators and vessels regardless of how life-threatening a pregnancy can be for the woman? Or the that fact that 9 months of pregnancy can be a living hell for someone who does want to remain pregnant?

    It never fails to amaze me that they can’t imagine women who actually become sick from pregnancy and don’t enjoy being pregnant. Not every woman experiences a problem free pregnancy, or think motherhood is the greatest thing since sliced bread.

    • Ella Warnock

      Quite frankly, many of them experience more schadenfreude if she has a difficult pregnancy and doesn’t think motherhood is all that great. That’s what she gets for enjoying sex, after all.

    • Ivy Mike

      They’d much prefer no one even heard about this story. Actually, Ireland approaches their ideal fantasy of a so-called “Culture Of Life”. You’d think they’d publicize it’s wonders a lot more than they do.

      Could it be that they know how disgusted most Americans would be if they knew just where the fetus-worshippers’ hoped-for policies and laws would lead?

      Women, raped, impregnated, and strapped to a bed, forcibly fed and hydrated, until birth. This, they think, is “holy” and “life-affirming”.

      • P. McCoy

        Boycott travelling to Ireland and Northern Ireland if they will not respect the bodily and mental/emotional autonomy of women, plain and simple. Concerned citizens of said countries should be taking this issue to the World Court in the Netherlands.

        • Jawine Westland

          Interesting point but the EHRC doesn’t cover NI…as we are part of the UK, but access is possible in the rest of the UK and the geographic borders don’t count.

          There *may* be a cause for discrimination based on gender/income, but this is a much harder play to do.

          • P. McCoy

            NI may be part of the UK, but it is similar to the Republic in regards to abortion and similar to Croatia and Slovenia in terms of discriminating against same sex marriage. The World Court as well as the head of the EU have to get involved and see to it that rights in both areas are as vital as was the struggle against apartheid. All we can do is to encourage that our tourist or educational currencies do NOT go to countries that disrespect our freedoms to the point of risking our lives-boycotts would make a strong noise in that direction.

          • Jawine Westland

            The ban on gay marriage is going to be overturned soonish, as people are getting fed up and it’s open to legal challenges (gay couple moving from England is all of a sudden not married here…) so the UK, as a whole, may tell NI to “wise up”.

            Unfortunately as I explained above, the EHRC counts NI as part of the UK, I’m going to be blunt about this, but unless somebody dies/gets mutilated first nothing will happen.

            The geographic distinction doesn’t count. Like in Canada, where access isn’t available everywhere. But, again, the people in NI are slowly getting fed-up and I don’t see this last another 40 years.

          • P. McCoy

            Well, at least any progress for NI is good. Thanks for the information.

          • Arekushieru

            Yeah, part of the problem is provinces like New Brunswick and PEI. They’re also the reason that women can’t access free abortion care no matter what province or territory they are currently in.

          • canaduck

            We basically can’t get abortions in NI, though–we still have to travel over to the mainland to do that. So it’s barely better than in the Republic, though of course there is the border issue that we don’t have to deal with.

          • Jawine Westland

            Yep, totally agree and unfortunately the border issue isn’t case enough for the EHRC however…

            Alliance for Choice/Belfast Feminist network (see Facebook) are campaigning for change, and Abortion Support Network can help if women need funds.

      • catseye

        In the town of Tuam, workers dug up an old septic tank on the grounds of what used to be one of the infamous “Magdalene Laundries” (baby mills). It was full of the remains of a couple hundred full-term babies. “Pro-Life”, huh?

        • Ivy Mike

          I read that heartbreaking story. The final total was closer to 1,000 dead, some infants, some older children, some were fetuses.

          Most showed signs of abuse, neglect, disease, or infirmity. This was a crime against all possible decency and human rights. There are probably more such holes throughout the RCC’s spheres of influence.

          Things such as this, as well as the sexual abuse, and all the other sordid, savage acts the RCC is responsible for over the centuries, make me wonder how any functional human being could regard their dogma about sex and childbirth as anything but worthless.

          • catseye

            The only good thing is that these obscene atrocities are coming out in the open.

  • conversate

    So that whole, viewing a pregnant person as a vessel thing…

    An Alabama couple has been charged with raping a 17-year-old relative multiple times in an unsuccessful attempt to impregnate her so they could keep the baby, prosecutors said Monday.

    In Ireland, she’d be forced to remain pregnant (if indeed she had been successfully impregnated)

  • Hypatia

    Your right about there being no real comment from the Prolifers on this, it shows how their policies would value women. The only opinion piece I have seen is from Dr Ruth Cullen in the Irish Times entitled ‘All eyes should be on the baby’.

    • J.D.

      Yes, where ARE the ‘pro-life’ talking heads? Why aren’t they telling us how wonderful and life-affirming all this crap is? How much they care for women? Or are they hiding because they know we can all see how utterly full of bovine excrement they are?

      *crickets chirping*

      • Nessie

        Describing anti-choicers as being full of bovine excretment is an insult to bovine excretment. Animal manure is an excellent feterilizer, as well as a source of renewable methane fuel. Anti-choicers only nourish and power ignorance.

  • Nessie

    All the Anti-choicers who are pledging “support” for the rape baby(I put support in quotes because I have yet to hear any anti-choicer offer to foster the baby or help pay for its medical care): what have they done to support all of the wanted premature babies? Do any of them buy food for the nurses and docters? Do they offer comfort and support for worried parents?

  • Virginia

    “Looked after,” as in “imprisoned,” “force-fed,” “forcibly examined,” etc. and then sent home with a baby she doesn’t want.