At just 11 years old, a Paraguayan girl, a child, has just given birth. After she was raped by her step-father, she was denied an abortion and yesterday morning, she delivered a healthy baby girl by C-section. When the case came to light in May this year, she was 10 years old and 22 weeks pregnant. 10 years old. But her case is by no means the exception. According to government figures, 684 Paraguayan girls aged 10-14 gave birth last year, most of them victims of sex abuse and rape. It is a horrific situation and a gross human rights violation. It also speaks loudly as to how the Paraguayan government views women and girls – as sub-human. But before we try and comfort ourselves with the idea that things like this could never happen in countries like ours, take some time to think again.
This is a Catholic country. Those are the words that Savita Halappanavar was told when she went to the University Hospital Galway in Ireland. At 17 weeks, Savita was miscarrying the foetus and asked for a termination which she was denied. Why? There was still a foetal heartbeat and her life didn’t seem to be any danger. Under the Eight Amendment, “the right to life of the unborn” is “equal [to the] right to life of the mother”. Request after request for an abortion were made but they were all ignored and a week later, Savita died from septicaemia and multiple organ failure.
The 1967 Abortion Act was never extended to Northern Ireland, meaning that abortions are only allowed in exceptional circumstances. I don’t know what the government considers to be exceptional, but abortions are not allowed in cases of rape, incest, fatal foetal abnormalities, homelessness or poverty. And in Ireland, the laws are so draconian that even when a woman, pregnant as a result of rape, attempted suicide and went on hunger strike, she was force-fed and forced to have her rapist’s child by a court-ordered C-section.
It is very easy for us assume that these things aren’t happening just across our shores, or in the case of Northern Ireland, within the same country. But this is happening to women every day. Every single day there are women whose decisions will be policed by a state who have taken it upon themselves to control and own our bodily autonomy. In England and Wales, we have the 1967 Abortion Act, but a woman must convince two doctors that she knows her mind before she can have an abortion. Never mind the women that have been failed by this law and will be failed by it. Never mind that abortion remains criminalised under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act.
Since Abortion Support Network was set up in 2009, they have helped over 1,500 women. Of the 1,500 women they have helped, nine made the journey to England for an abortion, only to find it was too late for them to have abortions and they had to return, still pregnant. A further 36 women were suicidal; 15 self-harmed or tried to self-abort; 62 were pregnant as a result of rape; 35 were dealing with fatal foetal abnormalities; 26 needed a visa to travel; 90 were dealing with mental health issues and 71 were dealing with serious medical conditions. As shocking as these statistics are, they only scratch the surface because ASN does not ask women how they become pregnant or why they want an abortion. These statistics are only what some of the clients have chosen to disclose themselves.
Thousands of women make the journey from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland because of their reproductive needs. Thousands of women who are seen by the state a vessels designed for the sole purpose of housing a foetus, regardless of their own wishes or desires. It is not only upsetting but unjust that women are still not treated like human beings who deserve a say in what happens to their body. Having a baby is a life-changing event and I mourn for all the women who have had their choices and bodily autonomy stripped of them.
When Mara Clarke of ASN spoke to Sarah Ditum for the New Statesman, she said: “The fact that abortion is criminalised changes abortion from an issue of personal morality and choice to one of economy and class.” Even for those who can afford it, this is a cruel situation. No woman facing the decision to have a termination should be forced to do so alone and in a strange place, hundreds of miles from home.”
By all means, be angry at the way that women and girls are treated in Paraguay. But don’t shake your head at the situation in Paraguay because you feel superior and are relieved that things are done differently here. Don’t. Because that is not the case. Today, at least 12 Irish women came to Britain for an abortion. Tomorrow, there will be 12 more. There will be women in England and Wales that fail at convincing two doctors that an abortion is the best thing for them. A woman’s lack of choice is a global epidemic. And until women are given full control over what happens to not only to their wombs, but their bodies, then there will be no such thing as equality.
Editor’s note: this article originally stated that the woman forced to have a court ordered C-section was from Northern Ireland – this has been corrected.