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.

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.