Women not Witches: Abortion in Northern Ireland / Kristen Sinclair

In Celtic mythology, the spirit of Ireland is commonly portrayed as a woman. Bygone nationalist symbols such as Róisín Dubh, Kathleen Ni Houlihan and the old woman of ‘Mise Éire’ personify the romantic view of the island embodied in the feminine ideal of Mother. Bríd, a Gaelic pagan goddess associated with fertility, later Christianised as St. Brigid of Kildare, is now one of Ireland’s patron saints. As a hallmark of Irish society, this concept of Mother Ireland, a gendered land to be fought for and possessed, requires male intervention to vindicate her sovereign rights. She is something of a supernatural being and incarnation of Ireland’s womanhood, a sacrificial heroine of the family. The ideal of Mother or virgin, further fuelled by the dominance of the church over the centuries, subdued women into becoming patriarchal stereotypes.

Centuries ago, Irish women who, among other allegations of heresy, did not fulfil this archetypal ideal, were often accused of witchcraft. Last recorded in Ireland in 1711, these women faced many ordeals, often trial by water. To determine if she was a woman or a witch, the suspect was tied to a chair or run under a boat; if she survived the drowning, she was a witch – if not, was a woman. The traditional belief in the synthesis of wife and mother as one indistinguishable entity is ruptured by any Irishwoman not fulfilling the submissive, motherly role historically expected of her. It has been so entrenched in the Irish subconscious that even today men control the political role of fighting for women’s rights on their behalf.

 “We are not witches but if the church and state insists / Then let us be the descendants of all the witches they could not drown,” declares Sarah Maria Griffin’s poem ‘We Face This Land’, an emotive accompaniment to Ireland’s pro-choice Repeal the Eighth campaign. When culturally Ireland is identified as a woman, namely Mother, bodily autonomy is still not a given right for her women even in the twenty-first century.

Voted into the Republic’s constitution by referendum as late as 1983, the anti-abortion Eighth Amendment equates the life of a pregnant woman, with that of an embryo or foetus, acknowledging “the right to life of the unborn …  with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother…”. Abortion is banned except where a woman’s life is in immediate danger, excluding cases of rape, incest or foetal abnormality where a pregnancy would have to be carried to full term. Thus, a pregnant woman’s life and health are distinct in a way that is completely unfeasible. This process criminalises girls, women and medical professionals who procure illegal abortions. Despite this, an Amnesty International poll shows 80% support for repealing the Eighth in the Republic.

Similarly in Northern Ireland, abortion access is forbidden under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, making Ireland one of the most difficult places in the world to obtain a safe and legal abortion. This draconian policy has frequently been criticised by the European Convention on Human Rights, and been declared incompatible with the Human Rights Act of 1998. The Abortion Act of 1967, which provides termination of an unwanted pregnancy to women in the rest of the UK, has not been extended to Northern Ireland, thus making distressed women risk up to fourteen years imprisonment. Only in cases where the mother’s life is threatened or continuing the pregnancy would pose serious long-term physical or mental problems, may the pregnancy be terminated at a private clinic. Despite consistent pressure on devolved political powers in the North to implement changes (with 69% popular support), effective action is yet to be taken.

For a nation represented by the image of a woman in its 1937 Constitution, the cultural notion of a woman’s duty as a mother has made traditional values part of public policy. The very same document that once banned contraceptives still places so-called ‘protective’ restrictions on Irishwomen like me today. As a result, pregnant people in Ireland have two options: travel abroad to access an abortion or be forced to go ahead with an unplanned pregnancy.

It’s shocking and saddening to think that eleven women leave Ireland each day to procure an abortion elsewhere, usually in England, Scotland or Wales. That makes 4,000 each people each year, and over 163,000 since 1980. This not only shames women but discriminates against those who cannot afford to travel to terminate a crisis pregnancy. What is a healthcare issue for our sisters across the sea is a frightening, stigmatised and often lonely journey to a distant hotel room and clinic - a procedure that should be available to us at home. Those in more desperate situations find themselves illegally ordering abortion pills online, resorting to dangerous ‘backstreet’ abortions or faced with the reality of having to give birth. The outcome of restrictive laws is not fewer abortions – simply later ones. In a majority Catholic country which has seen a gradual decline in religious conservatism in the last few decades (for example, Ireland’s historic marriage equality referendum last year), the crucifix is still not far from the stethoscope when it comes to women’s reproductive rights.

Whilst abortion is a deeply personal decision and should not be plagued by religious and political dogma or guilt, some struggle to see it as merely a welfare issue. No woman decides to terminate a pregnancy easily, and equating an embryo with the life of the mother is simply incorrect from a scientific point of view; 92% of abortions happen before fourteen weeks, and the rest are exceptional circumstances. Being personally opposed to abortion is not a problem, but projecting your own morals onto other people is not fair, helpful or compassionate. The time needed to determine if a foetus qualifies as abnormal, or to complete the legal process involving rape is simply too long. How about young women like me who could not cope emotionally or financially with an unwanted pregnancy, never mind jeopardising my education? Or Irish mothers on both sides of the border who already have children and would be unable to look after another? With the Dáil composed of 78% men and Stormont having one of the worst gender imbalances in Western Europe, none of these politicians will ever be pregnant or understand what it would feel like to cry helplessly over a positive test. I hope it’s a decision I never have to make, but having the choice to do so is important.

Until Ireland modernises its outdated abortion laws (as old as 155 years in the North), women like Savita Halappanavar will continue to die as she did in 2012, refused an abortion at a Galway hospital. Women like Sarah Ewart will continue to be refused an abortion even for a foetus with no chance of survival outside the womb. Women of all ages will continue to be harassed in the already stressful situation of having to visit a Marie Stopes clinic in Northern Ireland. Ireland’s single mothers, apparently still sinful witches in the eyes of her leaders, won’t stop having to hide taboo secrets. I can protest through joining the Feminist and Pro-Choice societies at my university in Belfast, and hope that one day my government will recognise my rights as a human being.

Why does a country personified as a woman in need like Kathleen Ni Houlihan, and which venerates women like St. Brigid, perpetrate such misogyny? Unlike in other countries, why are men making anatomical decisions for us? It’s time Mother Ireland took better care of her daughters, and trusted the singular Mother to have control over her own body. We Irishwomen are making our voices heard: let no more women be sacrificed, at home or across the water, for abortion reform that is long overdue and called for by public opinion. “A body is a body - not a house. Not a city. Not a vessel, not a country / The laws of the church have no place on your flesh,” concludes Sarah Maria Griffin’s poem, “Witches or women - these are our bodies which shall not be given up.”

Words by Kristen Sinclair / Published in Issue Two

Image: Barbara Kruger, 1989