Irish left must champion women's rights

On May 9 the Irish high court finally ruled that a 17-year-old woman, 'Miss D', may travel to Britain, where she will have her pregnancy terminated. The case has been one of the most inhumane and shocking episodes in the struggle for abortion rights in Ireland. Anne Mc Shane reports

Miss D is four months pregnant. She and her boyfriend have been together for two years and were looking forward to the birth of their baby. She had been buying baby clothes and nappies. They attended her first ante-natal appointment on April 23, excited and happy. But it soon became clear that there was a problem. The scan showed that the foetus had a condition called anencephaly, which means that the brain had failed to develop. In Miss D's own words, "it had no head". Even if it survived until birth, it would not live longer than three days outside the womb.

You would expect that such a traumatic situation would be resolved without delay. That a termination would follow immediately. Unfortunately, however, there is no such facility in Ireland. The best Miss D could expect was to travel to Britain for an abortion. Easier said than done.

As she was in the care of the heath services executive (HSE), Miss D told her social worker and asked for help. Not only did he refuse to assist her: he contacted the police and told her that she would be arrested if she tried to leave the country. She was to be refused a passport and forced to stay and go through with the pregnancy. Finally in desperation Miss D went to the high court last week to ask for a ruling allowing her to travel for a termination.

This is not the first time a young woman has found herself pleading with the courts to be allowed to leave the country. In the 'X case' in 1992 a 14-year-old pregnant rape victim was prevented from leaving for an abortion. There was a public outcry and the supreme court was forced to reverse the decision - abortion ought to be allowed if there was a "real and substantial risk to the life of the mother", which was now to include suicide. This case was followed in 1997 by that of 'Miss C' - a 13-year-old victim of rape who found herself before the high court. She too was finally allowed to leave on the basis that she would be likely to commit suicide if she could not terminate her pregnancy.

In view of the "risk to life" condition, Miss D was referred to a psychiatrist, who found that she was deeply traumatised, but not suicidal. She blamed herself for the foetal disability and was anxious to travel to Britain without delay. She believed she should be allowed to go through this painful time privately and without humiliation and increased anxiety.

But her wish was not acceded to. Four teams of lawyers - including one appointed to represent the 'unborn' - argued their legal points before the high court judge for well over a week. The 'rights' of foetuses are protected under the Irish constitution on an equal basis with those of the mother (article 40.3.3). Therefore, obscenely, an appointed barrister argues the case for a foetus that would probably be stillborn and would certainly never survive, irrespective of the harm done to the mother. As the campaign group, Choice Ireland, put it, "The Irish government are defining women by their status as a uterine incubator rather than individuals entitled to basic human rights" (www.indymedia.ie).

Miss D has insisted that the decision should be hers to make - that she should have control over her own body. Her courage and defiance have won her tremendous public support. Many are aghast that the case was allowed to drag on as long as it was and that continuation of the pregnancy could even be contemplated. Women travel for abortion in their thousands every year with no court involvement. The fact that abortion is a criminal offence in Ireland does not stop women having one. Miss D's problem is that she had unwittingly fallen into the grasp of the state authorities.

Regular militant demonstrations in her support were organised by Choice Ireland outside the court. A counter-demonstration by the pro-lifers turned up one day, lining up with the usual placards emblazoned with cute, developing foetuses. The cruel irony of their protest seemed to escape them. But the use of these images - of presenting foetuses as children - has, of course, never been more than a cynical manoeuvre. The only concern of the pro-life campaign is to keep women in their place.

Unfortunately in Ireland this lobby still wields much influence. Successive governments have refused to legislate for even the limited right granted in the 'X' and 'C' cases. Both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are united in their support of church policy and refuse to submit to a recent referendum in support of the 'X' case. As one journalist remarked, Irish politicians constantly look nervously over their shoulders at "the black-robed men who take their orders from outside the state, from a 'superior power'" (Emer O'Kelly Sunday Independent May 6).

There is no doubt that Irish society is shot through with tensions on the question. It is an emotive and contentious issue. The shadow of the catholic church looms long. All main parties are busy trying to ignore the present crisis - they want to keep the issue out of the election campaign for fear of losing votes or favour.

This fear has also stymied the main left groups - at least until now. The Socialist Workers Party is standing three of its members as People Before Profit Alliance (PBPA) candidates in the May 24 general election. However, SWP comrades said at their March 10-11 Marxism school that they did not want to put off pro-lifers from joining the PBPA by making abortion rights a policy. The pressure from the present crisis, however, has resulted in SWP candidates issuing press releases in support of Miss D. But they need to go further and actually champion the right to choose in general, and make it a central part of their campaign.

The Socialist Party is also standing four candidates in the election. Again there is no mention of abortion rights in its election manifesto. It too will most likely respond in support of Miss D. But again this is far too little. The argument needs to be pushed into the centre of the election debate - it is a crucial national issue.

This case has put abortion rights back on the political agenda. We must make sure it stays there and not get sidetracked into arguments about foetal viability or 'special cases'. Choice Ireland - a new campaign with principles and dynamism - can become a mass movement (see http://choiceireland.blogspot.com). The distrust and sectarianism endemic in Irish campaigns must be fought. We need one, united campaign for a woman's right to choose.

What is remarkable about the Miss D case is not so much the reactionary attitude of the Irish state - we are all well aware of that - but the determination of Miss D to argue that her body is her own and it is only she who has the right to choose whether to end her pregnancy. As the slogan on a pro-choice placard so succinctly put it - "Keep your rosaries off my ovaries".