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Violation after violation: why did Ireland force a woman on hunger strike to bear her rapist's child?

As an onlooker to this case, what strikes me is the constant traffic of foreign objects through this woman’s body, imposing foreign wills. 

Protests over the death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012. Photo: Getty
Protests over the death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012. Photo: Getty

When do women in Ireland get to say “no”? Today we find out that the answer is “never”, not really – not if a man has other ideas and the state decides to enforce his use of a woman’s body. The story reported in today’s Sunday Times is a catalogue of violation. First, a woman was raped (violation one). She sought an abortion but apparently doctors obstructed her from getting the treatment she needed (violation two); although many Irish women travel to the UK in this situation, the woman in this case could not because she was a foreign national with uncertain immigration status, and her limited English likely compounded her vulnerability.

Desperate at this stage, she expressed suicidal intent and went on hunger and fluid strike: the Health Service Executive (HSE) obtained a court order under the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013 for the forcible rehydration of the woman (violation three). Finally in early August, a certificate was issued allowing for a medical procedure to be carried out upon the woman: the next day, the baby was delivered by caesarean (violation four), at 24-26 weeks gestation, which is the very cusp of viability. The baby is still receiving medical care. The condition of the woman has not been reported.

The provisional nature of their control over their own bodies is a fact that women in Ireland negotiate day after day, a drag of inconvenience that can matter more or less depending on what resources you have to resist it and how urgent your condition is. For some, it’s a matter of shopping around to find a GP who doesn’t insist on checking what your husband thinks of your contraceptive routine; for some, it’s a plane ticket to a London clinic to get the abortion you can’t get at home; for some, it’s eating baked beans for dinner while you save up for that ticket; for Savita Halappanavar in 2012, it was death, when doctors refused to terminate her pregnancy even though she was having a miscarriage that lead to her contracting a fatal infection.

In fact, the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act was introduced in response to Halappanavar’s death, and public horror at the evident lack of regard for a woman’s health and survival. There is, however, one severe problem with the Preservation of Life During Pregnancy Act: in accordance with the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution Act 1983, the life of the foetus is considered to be a “human life” as much as the pregnant woman’s and accorded equal rights. In the section on termination for suicidal women, the 2013 Act reads:

(1) It shall be lawful to carry out a medical procedure in respect of a pregnant woman in accordance with this section in the course of which, or as a result of which, an unborn human life is ended where—

(a) subject to section 19, three medical practitioners, having examined the pregnant woman, have jointly certified in good faith that—

(i) there is a real and substantial risk of loss of the woman’s life by way of suicide, and

(ii) in their reasonable opinion (being an opinion formed in good faith which has regard to the need to preserve unborn human life as far as practicable) that risk can only be averted by carrying out the medical procedure”

In other words, what happened to the woman in today’s case was not only absolutely barbaric, also appears to have been absolutely within the remit of the law: if “the need to preserve unborn human life as far as practicable” is a statutory obligation, why not ignore a woman’s pleas for safe, elective termination and force fluids in her instead? Why not surgically extract the foetus as soon as it has the potential of independent life? The foetus was even supplied with its own separate legal team by the Irish courts, in a dramatic illustration of the tussle for control of the female body that takes place during pregnancy. She becomes just a resource to be commandeered by the state on behalf of that “unborn life” which is inexplicably so much more valued than the ex-utero life of the traumatised woman.

And what trauma. As an onlooker to this case, what strikes me is the constant traffic of foreign objects through this woman’s body, imposing foreign wills. The penis of the rapist who forced himself into her. The nasogastric tube stuck into her nostril and down against her resisting throat. The scalpel of the doctors who cut her open, their hands in her belly, the moving horror of another body within your restrained flesh. The unbelievable awfulness of being compelled to provide life to the child of the man who raped you. And the terrible silence of voicelessness, a woman with no tongue that would let her be heard. This is the violence the Irish state imposes on women. This is why Irish women are campaigning to “Repeal the Eighth”: because women know that we are human, and none of us should have to live under a law that says otherwise.

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