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Opinion, Comment & Reviews
Ireland and abortion
  Still time for women to have a say
By Eileen Fegan, School of Law, Queen's University, Belfast
14 February 2001

The next two weeks are crucial for the future of women in Northern Ireland. February 28th is the deadline for the submission of comments on the content on the new Bill of Rights which will provide the framework within which our legal and political battles will henceforth be fought - possibly for generations and centuries to come.

While legal rights by no means are the only solution to the pervasive discrimination and systematic disadvantage of women, their absence often provides a symbolic 'free for all' in institutions of power. Indeed, the extent to which women may even have a right to life in the province is currently under question. Last week Justice Sheils' justified a sentence of three years probation for a man who had battered his sister to death by saying: "[I]t is clear from the evidence that your sister had a very sharp tongue." It is hard to think of a clearer example of women's inequality which, I have argued elsewhere permeates legal, social, cultural, economic, religious - and of course, political - spheres. This is why the process of consultation on the Bill of Rights is so critically important for women's interest groups and political organisations.

Symbolically and materially, unfettered and effective control over their reproductive capacities is necessary for women 's enjoyment not only of equal rights, but more importantly, of 'equal personhood'. The term, used by American academic Drucilla Cornell, includes the 'chance to imagine oneself as whole' - referring to the fullest potential women might reach if they were not 'constrained in their imagination of who they are or might become by an imposed gender hierarchy'. That is, by rules, practices and beliefs which limit your expectations simply because of your sex. With women entering higher education and particularly, disciplines like law and politics in greater numbers it is time for serious reflection on what we are all losing when half the population's potential is constrained by a legal system which makes their most intimate decisions for them.

The prohibition of abortion assumes that it is better for a woman to become an unwilling mother than to become the person she would determine for herself were the freedom hers. And in doing this it does not even consider the quality of life, which follows for the mother, the unwanted child, nor the society, it enters.

When women's reproductive capacity is automatically considered to override all their other capacities, the consequences are social as well as individual. It makes us think of equality in terms of wasted opportunities, not just for individuals, but for society as a whole - and ours cannot afford to continue this loss.

Just considering what women might achieve if encouraged to explore their fullest self-expression (in addition to the vast array of knowledge and skills they acquire through mothering), is enough to support the view that they must play a full and active role in the new self-governing Northern Ireland - and that it will undoubtedly be impoverished if they don't.

Needless to say, there are religious sensibilities at stake here, but these are arguably being well enough considered by the multitude of groups involved in the consultation and drafting processes of the Bill of Rights. Art 10 of Human Rights Act guarantees the freedom to express these views publicly whatever stance is taken on reproductive rights. Otherwise, it is unlikely that anyone will be forced to have - or perform - an abortion here against their wishes. It is well known that large numbers of Northern Irish women travel to Great Britain every year to terminate pregnancies legally. Is it necessary to require women to endure this financial, physical and psychological burden in order to protect others' religious beliefs? Is it offensive to treat these women as equal and responsible moral citizens in deciding their own life path - for which they ultimately are answerable? Unfortunately, some will say it is, but the legal system does not have to keep its force behind them.

The religious arguments traditionally put forward to preserve the nineteenth century legal prohibition of abortion (it was first prohibited by legislation in 1803) in Northern Ireland are becoming increasingly irrelevant. They depend too much upon 'the church and state' association, which has often been the source of violent conflict here. Moreover, any attempt to entrench a right to life for 'the unborn' should consider the Republic of Ireland's current unworkable constitutional position. It is simply not possible to honour the equal right to life of a foetus and of its 'mother' when her life is endangered by the pregnancy. However, what is needed in the Bill of Rights is a commitment to ensuring a decent standard of life for the children we already have and their mothers - for statistically they are the poorest members of society.

With increasing prosperity, immigration and the return of emigrants this is rapidly becoming a more secular and liberal state. The changes this has brought are not merely demographic and economic. They are also political - and not in the old, worn out 'Troubles' sense of the word. Since women are participating at higher levels and in greater numbers in public and economic life, it is becoming more obvious that to continue controlling their reproductive decision is incompatible with the ideals of equal opportunity such as that espoused in the Good Friday Agreement. It is a signal that women are only participating in the new legal and social institutions because a chivalrous patriarchal order has deigned to allow them - up to a point: the biological one. Because of course, that is where 'Nature' speaks for itself.

A serious commitment to equality in the forthcoming Bill of Rights would make it no more natural, moral or necessary in religious terms to prohibit abortion for women than it than would be to ban heart surgery (or any other life saving or prolonging treatment) for men. Justifications for an outright ban on abortion from different sides of the old political divide in Northern Ireland have one thing in common. They do not see women as equal and fully participating members of this society, nor do they appreciate the need for them to become so in future. The Women's Coalition and other groups however represent a more hopeful and positive vision for the future of Northern Ireland - one which is not divided along the sectarian lines which have kept us in a state of near tribal warfare for over 30 years.

Women's groups and political organisations need to mobilise on this issue now because they represent the only real experts when it comes to the effects of regulating women's reproductive capacities. It is time for the law to reflect the fact that reproductive freedom is essential to women's substantive equality.
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