Women protesting in Dublin after the death of Savita Halappanavar. Photo: Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty
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The abuse of Irish women can go on no longer – abortion must be legalised

In Britain, women’s options are constrained and conditional, but there are at least options. In Ireland, there are none.

There are two stories in the latest set of statistics on abortion from the Department of Health. The first one is that, for women in England and Wales, abortion continues to become safer and more accessible. More abortions are taking place in the first ten weeks of gestation. That’s good because it implies that women are increasingly able to get the medical care they need as early as they need it. For the first time, medical abortions account for the majority of procedures – that’s good because it means that fewer women had to go through invasive procedures to end their pregnancies.

The abortion rate overall fell again as well. This is generally understood to be desirable, even if the “right” number of abortions we should be moving towards as a society is not necessarily “fewer” but rather “exactly the same as the number of abortions that women want”. The 1967 Abortion Act – as fudged, flawed and faulty as it is – is working for women, just about, just enough of the time. Women need better legislation, but while we wait for it, this will do, if we don’t think too much about the women it fails, if we don’t make the time to be appalled that abortion in England and Wales remains criminalised under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act and is only legal under the stringent condition that two doctors agree a woman knows her own mind.

And then there’s the other story, hinted at in the abortion rate for non-resident women, which increased slightly in 2014. Many of these women will have come from Ireland and Northern Ireland – just a short plane trip away, and in the case of Northern Ireland not even another country, but an entirely different kingdom when it comes to women’s rights and women’s bodies. In Britain, women’s options are constrained and conditional, but there are at least options. In Ireland, there are none: any pregnant woman in Ireland who wishes to decide what happens inside the borders of her own person must begin by leaving the borders of her country.

As the Amnesty report published on Tuesday puts it, women in Ireland are treated like “child-bearing vessels”. This is no hyperbole: a theocratic obsession with exploiting female flesh has led to Irish women living under one of the most restrictive abortion regimes in the world. In Northern Ireland, the 1967 Abortion Act has never been applied, and in the Republic of Ireland, abortion is covered by the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, which states that “the right to life of the unborn” is “equal [to the] right to life of the mother” – and note that under the Eighth a woman is legally deemed a “mother” purely by dint of being pregnant, whether she wishes to be so or not. She is instantly subsumed into her relationship to the foetus.

The result of this is that abortion is illegal in almost every circumstance apart from direct risk to the pregnant woman’s life. That means no abortion for victims of rape and incest. It means no abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality. No abortion for women whose health will be compromised by pregnancy as long as it won’t actually kill them. No abortion for women in violent or abusive relationships. No abortion for women who can’t afford to care for a child. No abortion for any woman unless it’s so she can be kept alive to fulfil the state’s ultimate expectation that she become a “mother”.

The atmosphere is one of fear. We know the names of some of the women who have suffered the worst of this brutalising system: Savita Halappanavar, who died of septicemia and E.coli after doctors refused to terminate the pregnancy she was miscarrying; Miss Y, a migrant who was compelled to continue a pregnancy resulting from rape, force-fed while on hunger strike and then subjected to a court-ordered C-section. But there are also all the other, unnamed women: the women who travel to England for abortions with the help of Abortion Support Network, and the ones who don’t appear in ASN’s figures at all because they pay their own way and make their own arrangements, making the lonely passage to be get the treatment that should be their right.

And then there are the ones who never make the trip at all. Not only is abortion restricted in Ireland, but even information about abortion is tightly constrained thanks to the Regulation of Information Act, which makes it an offence for doctors and counsellors to give complete information on accessing terminations. Mara Clarke, founder of ASN, explains that this creates an atmosphere of paranoia around pregnancy for both women and professionals: “In our experience, many women are too afraid to tell a practitioner that they are pregnant, and many more have had experience of being obstructed by clinicians… We do not know if the lack of informed care was because clinicians were afraid of repercussions or if they were against abortion – but either way it is no way for medical professionals to behave towards patients in distress.”

One thin sea stands between possibility and life for women, and helplessness and fear; between being approximately a person in the eyes of the law, and being a container. The abuse of Irish women must go on no longer. The Eighth Amendment must be repealed, and women in Northern Ireland must be given the same rights as every other woman in the UK. The right to abortion is a human right, and until women in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are afforded both that right and the means to exercise it, it is clear that their governments see them as something less than human.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.