Reviewed by Peadar O’Grady, Doctors For Choice

In her sublime prochoice polemic, Pro; Reclaiming Abortion Rights, American author Katha Pollittmasterfully demolishes the antichoice arguments against abortion while challenging the prochoice movement to address its own weaknesses.

The situation for many American women is similar to that of women in Ireland.  Faced with the difficulty of accessing an abortion locally they have to travel far from home, with all the additional cost, stress and indignity this incurs. Despite federal law allowing for abortion up to 24 weeks into pregnancy, restrictions to that right and closure of clinics means women living in many parts of the United States have as little local access to abortion services as women in Ireland.

Pollitt is clear on the political importance of abortion:

“…Reproductive rights are not a distraction from the important, economic issues. They are an economic issue: Without the ability to limit and to time their pregnancies, women will always be disadvantaged at work and subordinate to men…This is not about ‘life’. It’s about treating women as potting soil. It’s about control.” (pp. 112-114; Kindle Edition)

and the gross hypocrisy of societal norms:

“Motherhood is the last area in which the qualities we usually value— rationality, independent thinking, consulting our own best interests, planning for a better, more prosperous future, and dare I say it, pursuing happiness and dreams— are condemned as frivolity and selfishness.” (p29; Kindle Edition)

She is clear too on the role of conservative religious and political organisations in attacking women’s rights:

“Today the Republican Party is not only the political home of the anti-abortion movement but of opposition to just about everything on the women’s rights to-do list: broad access to contraception; comprehensive sex education; equal pay legislation; same-sex marriage; the Violence Against Women Act; CEDAW, the international women’s equality treaty; paid sick leave; raising the minimum wage; and of course the Affordable Care Act. Like all anti-feminists, they claim to revere motherhood, but what they seem to mean is stay-at-home married motherhood (p. 132)…The ten states where women’s status is lowest are solidly Republican, with churches wielding a lot of political and cultural power.” (p155).

She is, not surprisingly, clear on the reactionary role of the Catholic Church and not fooled by the liberal pretensions of its leadership:

“As I write, Pope Francis, Time’s Person of the Year, is being hailed across progressive media, including The Nation, where I am a columnist, as a force for economic and social equality— as if he can speak for equality as the head of a hierarchically organized church that bars women from the priesthood, and thereby from all authority; that deprives women of the right to control their fertility, even if that means grave injury and even death; that shames divorced people and denies marriage to gays and lesbians; and that has protected pedophile priests all over the world for decades and has yet to come to terms with the true extent of that crime.” (p112)

Pollitt argues, I think correctly, that the pro-choice side are too reticent in advocating for abortion services as a social good:

“I want us to start thinking of abortion as a positive social good and saying this out loud.” (p. 20)

We are too reliant on liberal reformists (such as, in the case of the Irish Pro-choice movement, the Labour Party) who repeatedly and inevitably sell out:

“For far too long the pro-choice movement was either complacent or defensive. It relied on brilliant lawyers and sympathetic judges, while abortion opponents built a grassroots movement and took over political offices from zoning boards and school boards to the legislature itself. It sold itself too cheaply to the Democratic Party, even when the Democrats were seeking out anti-abortion and anti-feminist candidates to run in conservative districts.” (p199)

And on the economic side Pollitt is clear that a one-sided approach to choice is insufficient and restricting the movement:

“…Sex education, birth control, and abortion are not enough. It’s not enough to say you have the right to avoid a harsh life by not having a child…What if…the choice is being a woman with children and a minimum-wage job and a woman with no children and a minimum-wage job?If the pro-choice movement’s only focus is on helping women not have unwanted children, instead of also on making a fairer, more just society, then reproductive rights can feel like reproductive deprivation, as if motherhood is reserved for the prosperous…The missing piece— the right to mother, as well as the right not to mother— is one reason why the pro-choice movement looks so white and so middle-class, even though women of color and poor women have far more abortions per capita and less ability to travel to distant clinics as nearer ones are forced to close.” (p198)

Pollitt’s  arguments and suggestions are well timed.  We can’t fight for abortion rights effectively without also taking a stand on related issues of economic and political injustice. The Pro-choice side must make clear demands on such crucial issues as repealing the reactionary 8th amendment and on meeting the need for abortion with actual abortion services (including the abortion pills Misoprostol and Mifepristone)-  but also for a better response to poverty and oppression including decent public services such as health, welfare and childcare services.

Buy the book, come to the meeting, join the movement.

Katha Pollitt is speaking on Friday March 20th at 7pm at an ARC event: “Too Loud a Silence” in the Teachers Club, Parnell Sq west.


Cowardice colours abortion debate

by Peadar O’Grady

(Edited version published in Sunday Business Post  15 February 2015; Full version below)

The positive public response to TD Clare Daly’s bill this week was understandable given the overwhelming support for women and their families who have experienced a fatal foetal abnormality. Similarly, the positive emotional public response to TD Richard Boyd Barrett’s moving account of parental love, distress, searching and loss, demonstrated the abundance of understanding, generosity and kindness in Ireland during this debate. Less easily understood was the government response to Daly’s bill.

The government’s key defence, that the bill was unconstitutional, was undermined by the fact that it refused to publish the attorney general’s advice; offered no response to the contrary advice of 43 legal experts as well as a former attorney general; and, unbelievably, offered no concrete proposal to amend the constitution by repealing the Eighth Amendment.

However, it was Minister for Health Leo Varadkar’s speech to the Dáil last December that confirmed the popular suspicion that political cowardice, not principle, rules government policy on abortion. Varadkar was responding to Clare Daly’s previous bill, which proposed to do just what is required: repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. The Eighth Amendment is now Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution. By giving a foetus in a pregnancy an abstract right to life “equal” to that of the pregnant woman, the amendment, in an equally abstract way, takes the decision whether or not to have an abortion away from that pregnant woman.

However, in actual practical situations, the Eighth Amendment is routinely bypassed by more than 4,000 women a year in Ireland who travel abroad for abortions, the right to travel for an abortion also being a constitutional right.

The clear hypocrisy of this legal and social reality has lead many to recognise the need to repeal the Eighth Amendment, especially for those unable to travel abroad for an abortion. This perverse form of human trafficking is an affront to human dignity, as recently recognised by the United Nations.

In his speech Varadkar concluded that: “Speaking today as Minister for Health, and also as a medical doctor, and knowing all that I do now, it is my considered view that the Eighth Amendment is too restrictive.”

He went on to argue in favour of abortion as an option to protect the health – as distinct from the life – of a woman, and for abortion as an option in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities.

Much was made in media accounts of the controversy this speech caused within the Fine Gael party, with Enda Kenny distancing himself from the comments – saying, incredibly, that Varadkar was speaking “in a personal capacity” when he had addressed the Dáil as Minister for Health. Varadkar had in fact said in his speech: “Ministers for Health do not just represent their own private views; they are guardians of the nation’s healthcare.” Actually, the news is not that repealing the Eighth Amendment to improve access to abortion is a popular view. The news is that conservative establishment figures like Varadkar are beginning to admit it and relate to it.

Of course, politicians changing their views in the light of experience and public debate is to be welcomed, but the implications of Varadkar’s statement are far from clear.

Varadkar also said that: “I consider myself to be pro-life in that I accept that the unborn child is a human life with rights. I cannot therefore accept the view that it is simply a matter of choice.” Later in the same speech, he says, in relation to his acknowledgment of the need for a referendum, “But it is not my right to impose my views on others, and the government has no electoral mandate to do so. That is a decision that cannot be rushed.”

This position is problematic, in that arranging a referendum does not impose one’s view on the electorate but offers the electorate the opportunity to decide what to do. It contradicts his stated pro-life position, which involves imposing his views about the rights of a foetus on others by force of law, however contradictory or hypocritical that law is. Only the proclaimed ‘pro-life’ position does this.

The ‘pro-life’ (or ‘anti-choice’) position can accept a woman’s decision only as long as she decides to continue a pregnancy, but attempts to use the law to force its view on her when she chooses to have an abortion.

This is not true of the pro-choice position, which supports the right of a woman both to be supported to be able to continue their pregnancy or to choose an abortion.

When Varadkar spoke as Minister for Health, he said that he also spoke “as a doctor” and as such he would recognise that if a doctor can see what the problem is and is empowered to assist with its effective resolution, then he or she is ethically obligated to take action. As the doctor in this case, Varadkar clearly agrees that a vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment in a referendum would effectively resolve the problems caused by this restrictive law.

Dithering, procrastination and excuses are not an appropriate response and can only serve to reinforce the increasing public contempt for political cowardice among their political representatives.

Dr Peadar O’Grady is a founder member of Doctors For Choice and a member of the steering group of the Coalition to Repeal the 8th Amendment