what we owe each other

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Sisters marching for Repeal, September 2016 and March 2017

The essay below was written by my sister, Lara Cassidy. She came to me for editing help, we worked on it together and then I offered to publish it here, because I stand by it and I want as many people as possible to read it. I admire her clear-headed approach to this issue and I think it may be helpful to voters who are still undecided on how will they will cast their ballot on Friday.

– Marianne

Dear friends, family and acquaintances. Maybe you already know how you’re voting on Friday. Maybe you’re undecided or maybe you don’t intend to vote at all. Wherever you stand, I wanted to ask you one last time to consider what this vote means for us, both as individuals and as a nation.

First off, I want to acknowledge that this referendum is not just a medical or legal dilemma. Emotions are running high, no matter where you stand on abortion. And that’s ok. Birth, life, death: these are emotional issues, and it’s important to acknowledge that. The debate around this referendum has asked us to interrogate our core values. It has asked us what guides the decisions we make and what decisions we would allow others to make. It asks what we believe we owe each other and the society we live in. It has asked many of us to question what we believe to be our own inalienable rights and freedoms.  

This is the question at the heart of the debate: does one human’s right to life trump another’s right to bodily autonomy?

I believe the majority of people on both sides of the debate would agree that both rights – the right to bodily autonomy and the right to life – are sacrosanct and central to human dignity. In the vast majority of cases, people are contentedly both pro-life (do no harm to your fellow humans either directly or indirectly) and pro-choice (my body is mine to do with as I wish).

Pregnancy is a unique physical relationship between two humans. Only fifty percent of the human population have the potential to experience it, and there is no easy analogy to explain it to those who can’t. Pregnancy is also one of the only spheres where these two basic human rights regularly come into direct conflict: when one human life cannot sustain itself without the body of another, which right takes precedence?  And more importantly, should that precedence vary on a situational basis or be subject to a blanket rule?

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on being worthy of abortion

Patient sitting on hospital bed waiting

A few weeks ago, I was at a family gathering and someone brought up the topic of abortion. A living room full of women, ranging from early twenties to late sixties, proceeded to drunkenly debate the issue into the wee hours of the morning. One of those women, who we’ll call “Jemima”, is a former NHS doctor. She informed us that, throughout her career, she had routinely refused to sign forms for women seeking abortion because she did not approve of their reasons for wanting one. She spoke with particular scorn about a woman she had refused on the grounds that she was wealthy and married, with two children already, and so could surely provide a loving and stable home for a potential third child? The idea that there were almost certainly considerations of which Jemima was not aware – or the novel concept that her patient simply did not want to be pregnant and her reasons are her own – didn’t enter the equation. Jemima insisted that, as a Catholic, she should not have to sign off on a procedure that goes against her beliefs.

I was appalled that it is (apparently) legal for medical professionals to engage in this sort of gatekeeping, especially in a country with relatively liberal abortion laws. And perhaps that’s naïve of me, but given what I know of the UK, I assume (I hope) that woman went on to find a GP who doesn’t refuse treatment on religious grounds and was able to get an abortion, having only been mildly inconvenienced by Jemima and her anti-choice views.

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an open letter to Larissa Nolan

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Mo chorp, mo rogha = My body, my choice. Protestors block O’Connell Bridge in Dublin City Centre on International Women’s Day 2017. Image via thedailyedge.ie

Dear Larissa Nolan,

I’m writing this open letter in response to your article, published in the Irish Times on 8th March 2017, entitled Why The Repeal The Eighth March Will Backfire. I thought this was an odd article to feature on International Women’s Day, especially considering the day’s events were indisputably dominated by the Repeal Movement across the country, but of course, you are not responsible for the Times’ editorial choices.

In your article, you admonish Repealers for failing to listen to dissenting voices and to engage with women like you, women “in the middle” who do not see abortion as a clear-cut issue. You say that this is the reason a referendum would fail. However, having engaged with your words to the best of my ability, it seems that – even though you place more value on life in the womb than I do – we both believe that the Eighth Amendment is a draconian and inhumane piece of legislation that needs to be repealed. You identify as pro-life, but you also say:

“I do not judge anyone who has ever come to the decision that an abortion is the best choice for them at a given time. That is their own business, borne out of their own individual circumstance.”

As a commenter points out, this sentiment is the essence of pro-choice.

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A letter to the Citizens’ Assembly

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Photo by Justin Farrelly, via Independent.ie

Dear Members of the Citizens’ Assembly,

I am writing to you as a private citizen of the Republic of Ireland to express my strong support for a referendum on the Eighth Amendment of our country’s Constitution.

Like every other woman of child-bearing age in our country, I have never been afforded the opportunity to vote on my reproductive rights. The Eighth Amendment was signed into law five years before I was born. I am now twenty-eight years old. I have recently moved back to Ireland with the intention to settle here permanently, after five years of living and working abroad – the inevitable consequence of graduating at the height of a recession. Despite all its flaws and faults, I love my country and I believe in our ability to constantly better ourselves as a nation. If I ever decide to raise a family, I want to do it on Irish soil.

However, while living abroad as an Irish citizen, our country’s blanket ban on abortion has been a source of shame for me. I spent two years working in a United Nations organisation in Geneva, Switzerland. I was there in 2014, when the UN Human Rights Committee conducted its fourth periodic review of Ireland. A committee of eighteen human rights experts formally called for Ireland to hold a referendum on abortion.

Working within the UN system, many of my colleagues became aware of the findings of the Committee’s report as a matter of course. Several dropped by my desk to ask me to clarify the criticism: surely Ireland didn’t have a blanket ban on abortion? Even in cases of rape? What about fatal foetal abnormality? I was forced to explain, many times in the course of one week: “Yes, my country would force a rape victim to carry a resulting pregnancy to term. Yes, my country would force a woman to carry a dying foetus to term, even if her health is at risk. Yes, abortion is still a criminal offence in Ireland.”

Many of my colleagues came from countries plagued with their own state-mandated human rights abuses. They were all uniformly shocked that Ireland, a so-called “developed” country was still, in 2014, dragging its collective feet on such a basic issue of human rights.

That was 2014. It is now 2016 and nothing has changed. I am intimately familiar with the varied and valid criticisms that can and should be levelled at the United Nations, but the fact is that Ireland remains a member of this organisation by choice. It is both arrogant and ludicrous to claim membership in a group while disregarding its most basic tenets.

I also want to strongly affirm my belief that abortion access should not be restricted to cases of rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality, and that whatever legislation replaces the Eighth Amendment should reflect this. I do not believe a woman’s right to access abortion should be offset by how much she has suffered. Like many women in my generation, I am single, sexually active, and unsure if I ever want children. I do not believe that consensual sex is the same thing as consenting to becoming pregnant, nor do I believe that childbirth should be treated as a sort of fitting punishment for women who openly enjoy sex. This insidious line of thinking is preserved and perpetuated by the Catholic Church, an institution with an utterly dismal track record of abusing the women and children unfortunate enough to fall into its care.

I do not believe abortion is murder. Nor do I believe that the majority of self-identified “pro-life” advocates believe that abortion is murder, as most, when pushed, will not agree that 200,000 Irish women should currently be serving life sentences in prison for this crime.

I believe that women are the experts on their own lives and their own bodies. I believe that the decision to end or to continue with a pregnancy belongs to no one except the pregnant person.

Above all, I believe that in a country founded on the principle of fair representation of the interests of all its citizens, I should have the opportunity to express my views by voting in a national referendum. I believe that democratic process on this issue is long overdue. It was overdue two years ago when I had to explain, shame-faced, to colleagues from all over the world, that pregnant people in my country do not have the right to basic bodily autonomy.

I sincerely hope I never have to feel that kind of shame again.

Thank you all for your time and your consideration.

Yours faithfully,

Marianne Cassidy

a better way to be anti-abortion

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Schoolchildren protest outside Leinster House in 1992 supporting the right of X, a 14 year-old rape victim, to travel for an abortion. Photograph: Eric Luke, via The Irish Times

The evidence is clear and plentiful: making abortion illegal does not reduce abortion rates. In countries where abortion is severely restricted or completely illegal, the procedure is usually unsafe, traumatic and sometimes fatal for the women who seek it, but they seek it all the same, despite risks to their health and threats of prosecution and imprisonment.

Of course, if you live in Ireland, you don’t need a peer-reviewed study to tell you this. Our country is a live illustration of the trend. Every year, at least 3,500 Irish women (that’s an average of nine women per day) spend time, energy and money travelling to the UK to obtain a safe, legal abortion. Those who are unable to travel continue to turn to illegal “abortion pills” or even more drastic measures to end unwanted pregnancy – we’re not sure about their numbers, but it’s safe to assume they are not negligible.

For those of you who call yourselves “pro-life”, your one and only campaign point seems to be preserving our Constitution’s Eighth Amendment at all costs. I’m sorry to inform you that your time and effort is sadly misplaced. Ireland is not and has never been “abortion-free”. Our blanket ban on abortion does little, if anything, to deter most women from ending unwanted pregnancy. And thanks to proximity of the United Kingdom and the 13th Amendment, most women in Ireland can access safe legal abortion if they really need to. (If they have the money, of course. And hold a passport that allows them to move freely between the UK and Ireland. And if they are healthy enough to travel. And not restricted by disabilities. And not younger than sixteen. And not trapped in abusive situation at home.)

All the evidence suggests that repealing our Eighth Amendment and replacing it with clear and humane legislation on reproductive rights will have a negligible impact on abortion rates among Irish women. Honestly, if you are truly invested in reducing abortion rates, preserving the Eighth is a bit of a damp squib.

But thankfully, there are lots of straightforward health and educational policies that are proven to reduce abortion rates! If you truly care about the welfare of Irish women (despite the frequently misogynistic tactics of your campaigns), there are plenty of ways to support them that don’t involve shaming or criminalizing them. If you are truly “pro-life”, there are many worthwhile causes that could use your voice behind them.

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savita

Source: The Irish Times
Source: The Irish Times

My country was dragged into the international spotlight last week. Because, not to put even remotely too fine a point on it, Ireland killed a woman. This news made me feel physically sick. This happened so appallingly close to home that for a while I couldn’t process it.

How close to home?

I was born in University Hospital Galway. Both my parents have worked there at various points in their lives. It is where my mother had her mastectomy. I worked in the foyer coffee shop for a summer when I was a teenager. This time last year, I sat with my dad in the intensive care unit, listening to a machine do his breathing for him and wondering if he would ever open his eyes again.

I spent significant stretches of my life in the same hospital that took Savita Halappavanar’s life.

I have been trying to write something about this for over a week. At first I was too angry, then I was too upset and ashamed of my country to form coherent sentences. The details of the case have been well-covered (here and here and here for anyone who missed it) so I’m not going to reiterate them again. I think it is extremely clear – to me, to Ireland and to the rest of the world – that there is no reason on this earth that Savita Halappavanar, a 31 year-old dentist from India, should not have survived her miscarriage and gone on to live a full and happy life with her husband.

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