“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.