The High Cost of Denying Women’s Autonomy

Ailbhe Smyth’s article, “Ireland: When Church Is State (Vol. XXXVII, No. 1), brought to mind another aspect of religious influence on Irish women’s rights. The Presbyterian church in Ireland has recently announced that girls and women faced with a devastating diagnosis of a fatal fetal abnormality, or who are pregnant as a result of rape or incest, must continue the pregnancy to term, with a view to adoption if necessary. There is an inherent contradiction in the denial of pregnant women’s autonomy and self-determination in the interest of fetal protection.

Autonomy, as it is readily framed by the antichoice movement, is not some airy notion predicated upon selfishness, whim or deviance; rather, it is the key to our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being—to our very survival.

On behalf of the Irish state, the medical profession in Ireland assumes a woman’s moral and physical agency from the moment of pregnancy through to birth. Consequently, the subjection of women to unnecessary medical interventions, practices and procedures that are not evidence-based, and to practices that are disrespectful of their bodily integrity and dignity, is rife. This is reflected in an unacceptably high and rising Caesarean section rate, currently at 30 percent nationally, by postnatal depression rates up to 28 percent and breastfeeding rates among the lowest in Europe. Far from fetal protection, the outcome of denying the human rights of pregnant women—to liberty, autonomy, bodily integrity and freedom from coercion—is preventable maternal and perinatal morbidity and mortality.

The repeal of the Eighth Amendment is the first critical step towards autonomy so that all women of reproductive age in Ireland are no longer consigned to second-class citizenship. Apartheid is at the heart of this law, whose wingspan goes far beyond abortion rights into the very depths of a paternalistic maternity care system, which deprives women daily of their human rights in pregnancy and childbirth. We say, “No more.”

PHILOMENA CANNING
Chairperson
Midwives for Choice
Dublin, Ireland

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