Why Gender Equality and Abortion are Two Sides of the Same Coin – A Blog by Meabh Butler
Abortion is a word which has a lot of baggage attached to it. Decision, choice, necessity. Murder, shame, expenses. Stigma, boats, aeroplanes. Criminal. Human right. Whatever name you give it, it is something that will continue to effect women worldwide. There is a whisper going through Irish media at the moment that is slowly beginning to rise in volume. Whether through a letter to the editor of The Irish Times, a debate on the television or a simple sharing of a post on Facebook, the conversation on abortion is happening in Ireland, and it is time that we all start listening.
There is a problem with the abortion debate in Ireland, and it is that the government are refusing to take a clear position on the matter. As someone who actively engages with the radio, newspapers and social media, the only person in government I have heard take a side on abortion, is Tánaiste Joan Burton. I am sure, or at least I would hope, that there are certainly many other members of government who have an opinion on abortion. Yet, to an average member of the public, this does not seem to be the case. There has been a deafening silence from all other parties.
Why is it, then, the political parties, that were so quick to celebrate and to encourage the people of Ireland to accept marriage equality, are shying away from the abortion discussion? This is where the issue of gender equality in Ireland comes right to the forefront of Irish politics, without our even realising it. There has been a spate of changes in the last 25 years or so in Ireland that has seen the country make leaps and bounds into a more liberal and accepting society: the change in Family Planning Laws in 1979, the law recognising marital rape in 1990, the divorce referendum in 1995, the marriage equality referendum in 2015. Many argue the changes reflect the separation between state and church in Ireland. The same can be said about abortion, but what differs with this issue is that it is solely to do with women.
Abortion is not at the forefront of Irish politics, because it is not deemed a ‘serious’ issue. The debate is not worth the political risk. Abortion, in its simplest terms, is about a woman’s ownership of her body. As it stands in Ireland, a woman’s body is no more than the property of the state. In a government which has consisted of an overwhelming majority of men since its establishment, it is no wonder that abortion is not considered an urgent matter.
In her introduction to Politics and Feminism, Anne Phillips (1998) makes note of the fact that, although we are moving forward globally in terms of equality between the sexes, this is not conveyed within the world of politics. Politics is, as she says, “business as usual”. Fiona Buckley (2013) also points out the harsh reality of gender inequality in her article Women and Politics in Ireland: The Road to Sex Quotas. She highlights that since the Irish government was established in 1922, only 92 women have ever been elected to Dáil Éireann. In 2013, a mere 26 women accounted for the make-up of Teachtaí Dála. Politically in Ireland, there has not been equal representation of women.
Without representation, it is incredibly difficult for anyone to feel equal within their society. If we look at our political representatives, it would appear that Ireland is only inhabited by middle-class, suit wearing, white males. The Dáil depicts an environment that is hostile towards women. It is undoubtedly a male sphere, an ‘old boys’ club’. We only have to think of two infamous incidents which epitomise how the Dáil engages with issues of what should be of utmost concern. The ‘LapGate’ incident in 2013, in which TD Tom Barry pulled Aine Collins onto his lap during a late night debate on abortion is one such example. Not only was this inappropriate, but Barry admitted to having been under the influence of alcohol. The matter of having a bar in the Dáil is a concern for another day, but the sheer light-heartedness and inappropriateness of the situation speaks miles about the government’s priorities.
Another example of the trivialisation of women’s issues occurred in 2011, when Sinn Féin TD Dessie Ellis proposed the question of how gender quotas would be appropriated to Independents. He was answered by an uproar of laughter, proving gender equality is clearly not taken seriously by the Irish government. In October 2015 Speaking on an abortion debate on Tonight With Vincent Browne, TD Ruth Coppinger made the point that our incredibly restrictive and harmful abortion laws correlate with our male dominated government. We must ask ourselves in earnest, if the debate was over what men could do with their bodies, would we really be having the same discussion?
Coppinger’s point is an important one to take note of. Ireland is not viewing abortion as what it is- a woman’s right and choice to do what she wants with her own body. Meryl Kenny (2007) makes the point that by viewing political institutions, such as the Dáil, through a gendered lens, it opens up the opportunity to see how gender norms are considered in these institutions, and makes way for an understanding as to why the government makes the decisions that it does. By understanding this, we can realise that gender is an important aspect that needs to be taken into account in all aspects of regulations, legislations, budgets and laws.
It is clear that there is a relationship between gender equality and the issue of abortion in Ireland. The fact of the matter, though, is that, despite being considered anything but urgent, Irish women are demonstrating their sheer desperation over the fact that they cannot access safe abortion methods. The silence within the media from the politicians, is being taken over by ordinary and everyday women who are sharing their ‘coming-out’ abortion stories. Something which they should not have to feel the need to do, but sadly find themselves with no other choice.
The recent attention surrounding the Abortion Pill buses only emphasises this. There has been much criticism from the Pro-Life Campaign, and Cora Sherlock, the deputy chairwoman of the Pro Life Campaign, was quoted as calling them “dangerous” and “inappropriate” (Kelleher, 2015). Whether these pills are dangerous or safe, is beside the point in this debate. Women are crying out for their right to their bodies. This only adds to the reason why the government need to repeal the eight amendment, and at the same time, why they are so terrified to do so. The constant shaming of ‘murderer’ and ‘criminal’ weigh a lot heavier on one’s conscience than words such as ‘choice’ and ‘right’. Alongside the fact that the issue of women’s bodies is not top of the list on Dáil priorities, it is no surprise why no one is dealing with this issue.
The Irish Family Planning Association state on their website (ifpa, 2014) that in 2014, 3,735 women were said to have left Ireland to have an abortion in the United Kingdom. Quite terrifyingly, 21 of these women were under 16 and so are legally considered children. These women and children are your friends, family, neighbours, doctors, shop assistants, dentists, girlfriends. In Ireland, these women and children are criminals. We need to bring them back from the periphery of society where the abortion shaming and stigma has pushed them. We need to allow them the right to a safe abortion, whatever their circumstances. So, in the words of The Simpsons’ Helen Lovejoy, “Won’t somebody please think of the children?” How on earth can we convince ourselves as a country that it is okay to call a 15 year old girl, the victim of rape or incest, a criminal and a murderer because she does not want to become a mother in this horrible, horrible circumstance. The argument of ‘protecting the life of the unborn child’ seems petty and futile in this circumstance especially when the person herself is only a child.
Let’s not, however, strip away the rights of Irish women with the arguments of specific circumstances, because at the end of the day, a woman’s body belongs to only her. No one else should be in charge of it. It is one of the most precious things she owns. There is a fault with the ‘Pro-Life’ argument simply in the name alone. Being ‘Pro-Life’ should mean wanting to protect and respect all life, including the life of the woman who is pregnant, the woman who has an established life for herself already, and who is fully capable of deciding whether she is ready to be a mother or not. Do not dictate her right on the basis of the possibility of life. Repealing the eight amendment will not affect you in anyway if you do not wish to have an abortion, something which will continue to happen whether you agree with it or not. We cannot continue to ignore our country’s issues by sending them on to England in the hope that it will go away. It will be one step further in viewing women as equal in Irish society. But how can this be achieved, when women are nowhere to be seen in Ireland’s political forefront? Until the Irish people are represented equally by their government, an issue such as abortion, will never be dealt with adequately. Do not take away the choice. Let’s give Irish women back their bodies.
Buckley, F. (2013) Women and Politics in Ireland: The Road to Sex Quotas, Irish Political Studies. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/07907184.2013.818537 [Downloaded: 01 September 2015].
Irish Family Planning Association (2014). Abortion in Ireland: Statistics. Available at: https://www.ifpa.ie/Hot-Topics/Abortion/Statistics [Accessed 7 November 2015].
Kelleher, O. (2015) ‘Abortion pill bus greeted with ‘abortion is murder’ placards in Cork’, The Irish Times, 25 Oct. Available at: http://www.irishtimes.com/news/social-affairs/abortion-pill-bus-greeted-with-abortion-is-murder-placards-in-cork-1.2405328. [07 Nov 2015].
Kenny, M. (2007) ‘Gender Institutions and Power’, The Author Journal Compilation Politics: 27(2), pp. 91-100.
Phillips, A. (1998) Feminism and Politics. New York: Oxford University Press.
I am a final year student from Dublin, studying English in UCD. Although writing and reading have always been at the heart of my interests, my time in college has helped me to become more aware of social issues of inequality and injustice. This is an area I hope to become more involved with after my degree.