Tuesday, October 20, 2009

How Long Can We Continue To Dodge The Abortion Issue?

The Sunday Times (Irish Edition)
Sunday October 18th 2009

• How long can we continue to dodge the abortion issue?


A Colorado woman has been receiving death threats since publishing her memoir, Testimony of an Abortion Addict. Well, I don't imagine that Irene Vilar made the decision to reminisce about her 15 abortions in 17 years in the expectation of attracting a Pulitzer rather than a Howitzer.

The abortions, according to the 40-year-old mother of two girls, were motivated by spite against her "controlling" husband. It began when she was 16, and her husband was 50. He didn't want children. It became her routine to "forget" to take her contraceptive pills, become pregnant and get an abortion. How such a cycle of self-abusive behaviour was meant to exact revenge on her husband is a mystery but, then again, any woman who submits herself to 15 abortions needs not only her conscience examined, but her head too.

Irene Vilar is a gift to the anti-choice lobby. Such case histories of cold-blooded self-centredness are ripe for vilification; a favourite tactic of anti-choice campaigners.

I can still hear the hearts of the majority moderates in the pro-choice corner hitting their shoes in 1992 when Albert Reynolds, then the taoiseach, invited Sinéad O'Connor to his office for a chat before announcing a referendum on women's rights to travel for an abortion, and to access information about it. Those were the days when the Irish editions of Cosmopolitan came with blank pages where advertisements for abortion clinics appeared in the British editions, and the printers of the state's telephone directories feared criminal prosecution if they displayed phone numbers sought by desperate women.

By parachuting enfant terrible O'Connor into the debate, Reynolds became vulnerable to accusations of treating a life-and-death issue as a rock-star lifestyle choice. Then, he over-compensated by threatening that, if the electorate rejected his proposed amendments to the constitution, he would legislate to give effect to the landmark Supreme Court judgment in the X Case.

The X Case is the big, bad wolf. Even 17 years later, it can still make Mother Ireland quake in her boots. Under that judgment, abortion is legal in this country. It may be performed where there is a threat to the life of a pregnant female, including the danger of suicide. But just you try asking for an abortion in an Irish hospital.

Official Ireland is shamelessly lily-livered.
We have come through two Lisbon referendum campaigns in which Coir, one of the most vocal anti-treaty groups, propounded that the EU was itching to impose abortion on Holy Catholic Ireland. Most voters have the smarts to recognise scaremongering, but what was most demoralising was the spinelessness of politicians who dared not even challenge the deceit head-on. Don't mention the A-word, was the governing dictum.
It's understandable that politicians want to bury their heads in the sand after several of them had their homes and constituency clinics picketed by anti-choice activists (Fianna Fail withstood the invasion of an ard fheis), and Catholic TDs have been warned they risk excommunication for expressing support for abortion. The silence of the lambs in Dail Eireann would convince a visiting Martian that there's a consensus in Ireland that abortion under any circumstances would never be tolerated by the people.

Not true. Two years ago, after Miss D was sanctioned by the High Court to travel abroad for a termination on learning her baby would not survive outside her womb, a poll showed that two-thirds of people backed abortion when life was unviable after birth.

Yet, in the same year, when Enda Kenny said that, if elected taoiseach, he would not enact abortion law, no dissent was raised. It was a chilling measure of how effectively the moral majority has been gagged.

If Ireland is forced to legalise abortion, the order could come sooner rather than later from the European Court of Human Rights under the auspices of the Council of Europe. Three Irish women, backed by the Irish Family Planning Association, are arguing that their rights were infringed by the state ban. The women-named as A, B and C- wanted to have their pregnancies terminated after, respectively, suffering an ectopic pregnancy, receiving chemotherapy for cancer, and having children taken into foster care because of financial issues. They claim the criminalisation of abortion stigmatises women, increases feelings of guilt, impedes access to follow-up care, contravenes their right to life, and is discriminatory on the basis of gender and financial status.

Reports of the case on anti-abortion websites characterise the three women as having "travelled abroad to have their children killed". No wonder they insist on remaining anonymous.

The fault line in the abortion debate is the fear of being labelled pro-abortion. It strangles candid dialogue. It is a fear that has been exploited by the anti-abortion lobby, which pigeonholes as "pro-abortion" anyone brave enough to assert that it can be a necessary evil in certain circumstances. Even the supposedly radical Greens, when renegotiating the programme for government, did not address the issue, but found time to propose that the nation amend the constitution's enshrinement of a woman's place "in the home".

It is time we grew up. We cannot dodge this issue forever. Even by discussing it, society can benefit. There was a time when women who suffered miscarriages were treated with cruel insensitivity. They were told by well-meaning professionals to get over it. I know of one couple who were handed the remains of their dreamt-for child in a Calvita cheese box.

While the abortion debate polarised society, it also exposed the hypocrisy of a nation that, out of one side of its mouth, cherished the unborn and, out of the other side, treated children born dead as unworthy of normal human courtesies. Nowadays, prayerful respects are the norm in hospitals following miscarriages.

Every year, about 6,000 Irish women travel abroad for abortions. As recession bites, we can expect that number to rise because financial means, like it or not, is a strong motivating factor. More test cases will come before the courts.

We could avoid much of the inevitable hurt by taking our courage in our hands, along with our destiny. Is it so heinous to say that a 13-year-old girl made pregnant by rape is entitled to have abortion available as an option? Were we to try talking about this, our maturity might surprise us.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Pro-Choice Lobby Urged To Go Beyond Abortion Issue



THE PRO-CHOICE lobby must progress its argument beyond abortion rights to include the rights of marginalised women to have children and keep them, a leading US campaigner on the issue has said.

Loretta Ross, founding member of the SisterSong organisation based in Atlanta, said there were disabled, poor, homeless and ethnic minority women whom wider society often judged “unfit to have a child and if she has one, to parent that child”.
Addressing a conference on reproductive justice, hosted by the Irish Family Planning Association and the UCD Women’s Studies Centre in Dublin yesterday, she said: “We need a new framework beyond the abortion arguments”.

“The saddest thing I think is when a woman chooses abortion for a child she really wanted to have, but couldn’t have because she doesn’t have healthcare, or she’s in poverty, or homeless, or she’d be kicked out of school, or she’d face violence from her family or the father.

“Women are blamed and while we have to fight for the right to abortion and family planning many women have to fight for the right to parent.”

She said if there was adequate support for mothers contending with disability, poverty, ethnic minority status, “many wouldn’t need to fight for abortions anyway”.
Aoife Dermody, co-founder of feminist group Lash Back, said that for many marginalised women the pro-choice campaign was irrelevant “luxury”. Their concerns were around “fears their kids might be taken into care, around housing, or childcare”.

Rosaleen McDonagh, Traveller and disability rights campaigner, said there was an assumption Traveller women were sexually repressed.
She said disabled women were mothers, carers, lovers and yet were viewed as dependent and were infantilised by wider society, and often judged as asexual. This was wrong.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Guardian: A is for Abortion

•A is for abortion

Branding women with a 'scarlet letter' won't reduce abortions. As a global study shows, contraception and education are key

In Nathaniel Hawthorne's masterpiece The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne is forced to walk amid her small, Puritan community wearing a red "A" on her chest for the social crime of having sex outside of the bounds of marriage. Some things in America haven't changed as much as we'd like to believe.

A new law scheduled to take effect in Oklahoma would establish an online, publicly accessible database of information about every woman in the state who sought or had an abortion. While it would not require doctors to report the names and addresses of patients seeking or obtaining a legal medical procedure many conservative lawmakers think should be outlawed, the 37-question survey would (among other things) establish the women's race, age, education level and county of residence.

Women would be required to disclose if they are state employees and what method of insurance, if any, they are using for the procedure. It would require women to specify the number of pregnancies, children, miscarriages and previous abortions they've had. And it even asks for the length of the pregnancy and whether the women were using birth control when they conceived.

The surveys would all be sent to the Oklahoma health department, where state employees would aggregate the data into a searchable, sortable database and make it available to "researchers" online.

Aside from the fact that a woman working for the state health department could, in fact, have her survey reviewed and posted by her own colleagues (and have her identity compromised to her co-workers), there are other privacy concerns. In Cimarron County, for instance, the US census says that there are 2,500 residents, among them 18 African-Americans, 32 Native Americans, five Asians and 485 Latinos. If there is, say, only one 35-year-old African-American woman in the county with a college education who seeks to have an abortion, the fact that she did so will be immediately apparent to her neighbours – and to the anti-abortion protesters whose tactics include individual threats and harassment.

Legislators who passed the law are open about their motivations. They want to use the questionnaire and the online database to stop women from having abortions. Seemingly, they don't care whether they do so by intimidating women, allowing others to harass them or by making it difficult to obtain medical care. But the absence of any political will to do so through comprehensive sex education, economic support or a dedication of law-enforcement resources to protecting women from rape and sexual abuse seems rather telling about the anti-abortion movement's priorities.

A new study published by the Guttmacher Institute this week shows yet again that anti-abortion advocates' obstructionary tactics do little to reduce the prevalence of abortion. The decline in worldwide abortion rates is almost entirely due to a decline in unintentional pregnancy through access to contraception and education – and there's no correlation to the legality of abortion or not.

Making abortion illegal or difficult to obtain doesn't reduce its prevalence in a country. It simply increases the health risks to the women who seek them anyway. The only proven way to stop women from having abortions is to help them make their own choices about when to become pregnant.

Unfortunately, anti-abortion advocates are no sooner going to turn into pro-contraception advocates than they are to adopt the children that result from forcing a woman to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term. As the pro-choice movement has often charged, they don't care about making it easier for women to avoid unwanted pregnancy or carry a child to term despite her economic circumstances. Their focus is on the foetus, and the foetus alone.

Republicans like to tout themselves as the party of limited government, and, this summer, town halls in Oklahoma and elsewhere echoed with the refrain that the government should never, ever come between its citizens and their doctors. But when it comes to reproductive health decisions, it seems, Oklahoma Republicans are proud to stand between their female constituents and their doctors, scarlet letters at the ready, and be the party of a limiting government.

BBC News: Bans 'Do Not Cut Abortion Rate'

Bans 'do not cut abortion rate'
BBC News

Most safe abortions are carried out using vacuum aspiration
Restricting the availability of legal abortion does not appear to reduce the number of women trying to end unwanted pregnancies, a major report suggests.

The Guttmacher Institute's survey found abortion occurs at roughly equal rates in regions where it is legal and regions where it is highly restricted.

It did note that improved access to contraception had cut the overall abortion rate over the last decade.

But unsafe abortions, primarily illegal, have remained almost static.

The survey of 197 countries carried out by the Guttmacher Institute - a pro-choice reproductive think tank - found there were 41.6m abortions in 2003, compared with 45.5 in 1995 - a drop which occurred despite population increases.

Nineteen countries had liberalised their abortion laws over the 10 years studied, compared with tighter restrictions in just three.

But despite the general trend towards liberalisation, some 40% of the world's women live amid tight restrictions.

On some continents this is particularly pronounced: well over 90% of women in South America and Africa live in areas with strict abortion laws, proportions which have barely shifted in a decade.

Researchers also noted that while liberalisation was a key element in improving women's access to safer terminations, it was far from the only factor.

Even in countries where abortion is legal, lack of availability and cost may prove major obstacles. In India for example, where terminations are legally allowed for a variety of reasons, some 6m take place outside the health service.

The costs of unsafe abortions, which can include inserting pouches containing arsenic to back street surgery, can be high: the healthcare bill to deal with conditions from sepsis to organ failure can be four times what it costs to provide family planning services.

In the developed world, legal restrictions did not stop abortion but just meant it was "exported", with Irish women for instance simply travelling to other parts of Europe, according to Guttmacher's director, Dr Sharon Camp. In the developing world, it meant lives were put at risk.

"Too many women are maimed or killed each year because they lack legal abortion access," she said.

"The gains we've seen are modest in relation to what we can achieve. Investing in family planning is essential - far too many women lack access to contraception, putting them at risk."

Double Dutch

Western Europe is held up as an example of what access to contraceptive services can achieve, and the Netherlands - with just 10 abortions per 1,000 women compared to the world's 29 per 1,000 - is held up as the gold standard.
Here, young people report using two forms of contraception as standard.

Even the UK, which has a relatively high rate, fares well in comparison to the US, where the number of abortions is among the highest in the developed world. The institute says this rate is in part explained by inconsistencies in insurance coverage of contraceptive supplies.

In much of eastern Europe, where abortion was treated as a form of birth control, abortion rates have dropped by 50% in the past decade as contraceptives have become more widely available.

And globally, the number of married women of childbearing age with access to contraception has increased from 54% in 1990 to 63% in 2003, with gains also seen among single, sexually active women.

But there were still significant unmet contraception needs, and a lack of interest among pharmaceutical companies in developing new forms of birth control that provide top protection on demand, the institute said.

Josephine Quintavalle of the anti-abortion Comment on Reproductive Ethics said stopping women falling pregnant in the first place was an area where minds could meet.

"Abortion - back street or front street - is not the answer. Ensuring women have the means to end their pregnancies is not liberating them - they should be able to make real choices before they fall pregnant in the first place," she said.

"But that shouldn't necessarily mean taking pills every day. There will always be problems with access and cost, particularly in countries where people struggle just to buy food.

"What we need is to better understand our fertility - if there are just 24 fertile hours in a month, we need to work out a cheap, effective way for women to know when they can fall pregnant. That would be freedom, and that's what we should aim for."

1997: Poland re-instated law outlawing abortion except when mother's life at risk or she had been raped
1998: El Salvador outlaws all abortions even when mother's life at risk
2006: Nicaragua similarly eliminates all grounds for legal abortion
Every year, an estimated 70,000 women die as a result of unsafe abortions - leaving nearly a quarter of a million children without a mother - and 5m develop complications.