Why the Eight Amendment affects all women

If there is one thing that Philomena Canning of Midwives for Choice would like you to know, it's this: the 8th Amendment is not just about abortion.

"The nation considers that the 8th Amendment is about abortion, that's all we ever hear about" says Midwives for Choice activist Philomena Canning. "But the 8th Amendment is about so much more. We need to expand our conversation to the impact of the 8th Amendment on every last pregnant woman - that is the 60,000 women or so annually who choose to continue their pregnancy.

"It suits the anti-choice side that the debate would be restricted to abortion. Abortion is not our focus. Our message is the impact of the 8th Amendment on women who choose to continue their pregnancy."

Midwives for Choice formed in January 2016. This came about, says Canning, because of their "everyday lived experience as midwives and women."

"We have recognised for years the problems that the 8th Amendment presents to us as midwives, and to women who continue their pregnancy to childbirth. It was very critical to us to take a stand in relation to the 8th Amendment."

Canning is a passionate advocate for quality of care during every stage of pregnancy. The 8th Amendment, she says, denies women the right to informed decision-making during pregnancy.

"The consequence of the 8th Amendment is that a woman, once she becomes pregnant until the moment the baby leaves her body - her right to informed decision-making is denied."

This plays out on the experiences women have during labour and childbirth, Canning explains. "Quality in care during maternity is absolutely access to skilled clinical care - that's a given. But quality in maternity care is equally defined as compassionate care that is based on the principles of human rights. That is, the right of every single woman to informed decision-making. That means giving women the right to give or withhold their consent. The 8th Amendment denies women the right to withhold their consent.

"As a consequence of that, our maternity care system is centralised in hospitals. Hospital labour wards are busy places and require a system where the labour ward is managed efficiently and effectively, so that the bottleneck of the labour ward is averted. That system requires the active management of women in labour. This is based on routine procedures such as the induction of labour; the acceleration of labour by breaking a woman's waters; having their oxytocin drips; episiotomy; and cutting the umbilical cord once the baby is born to speed up the delivery of the placenta. These are the procedures that our hospital-based system of maternity care relies on for the efficient management of numbers.

"Now, if you look at the likes of AIMS Ireland, they've run a survey of women's experiences of maternity care. You'll find that what women have been complaining about for the last three decades is that they are being coerced in labour and birth into compliance with these procedures. This is what the 8th Amendment facilitates - it facilitates the coercion of women into compliance with procedures that are not in the interests of the individual woman, but in the interests of the system."

This is what we need to consider when we vote in next year's referendum, says Canning.

"We need to see abortion in its place. Right to abortion is very important, but there is a much bigger picture here. We've got to start talking about it so that when people go out to vote on the 8th Amendment, they are not specifically going out to vote on abortion. They ought to be going out to vote on the impact of the 8th Amendment on every single last pregnant woman."

The anti-choice side has argued that repealing the 8th Amendment will ultimately result in women requesting abortions up to birth, despite the fact that late term abortions are restricted and very rare. Canning argues that the 8th Amendment and abortion are different issues.

"We need to repeal the 8th Amendment and deal with abortion separately. That's the only way forward - repeal the 8th Amendment in its entirety. I hear talk about 'partial repeal' - any amount of foetal protectionism in the constitution is not going to change the status quo. We've got to take it out so that it stops impacting on all women, and then we deal with abortion and what the nation wants or doesn't want to do with it."

Ronan Mullen recently argued that Savita Halappanavar would not have died if abortion was legal in Ireland, because she wouldn't have been pregnant in the first place. Mullen's position seems to be that no woman will chose motherhood if given the option of abortion.

"Oh God help us! Where is he coming from with this? That is just so extreme it closes the ears of every last human being. The anti-choice side has a message - 'Love Them Both'. They are using that cosy image of the mother and baby pair in order to diminish the pro-choice side. I'm sure that's effective for a lot of people. They are appealing to something that we all fundamentally believe at an instinctive level."

Canning argues that the reverse is true; that instead of "loving them both", the 8th Amendment has negative effects that ripple through society.

"How women are treated through pregnancy and childbirth either empowers them, or it can cause damage and lasting trauma. It puts them at risk of birth trauma, post-natal depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. The 8th Amendment undermines parents by putting the health and welfare of the unborn in the hands of the state. Anything that threatens the health and welfare of the mother, threatens the family and the community, and ultimately, society."

 

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