Editors’ Note: The article below has been submitted to the Alliance by MERJ, an organization of migrant and ethnic minority women who fight for women’s reproductive rights and wish to reach out to more Middle Eastern and North African women.
May 14, 2018
We are MERJ, a self-organised, grassroots group of migrants and ethnic minorities fighting for reproductive justice in Ireland, North and South. Our members are people from all countries in the world as well as from Irish minorities, such as the Traveller community. Reproductive justice is about all aspects of our reproductive lives including sexual health and maternity services as well as real access to abortion as an integrated part of reproductive healthcare. It is critical that we migrants and ethnic-minorities make our voices heard in this movement because we are disproportionately affected by the Eighth amendment.
On May 25th, a national referendum will take place in Ireland to decide if the Eighth amendment will be removed from or retained in the Constitution. Introduced in 1983 via a referendum, the Eighth amendment criminalises abortion by equating the life of the pregnant person and the life of the fetus. As a consequence, the termination of pregnancy is considered a murder and is punishable by 14 years of imprisonment – and so is abortion through the medical pill, which is illegal in Ireland.
A national pro-choice campaign has asked for decades to remove the amendment in order to allow women living in Ireland to access appropriate health care at home. Our chance, won by the restless mobilisation of women, is only a couple of weeks away.
All we have right now is the Thirteenth amendment, which gives the right to travel to access health care (including abortion) abroad. Statistics speak for themselves: in 2016, more than 3,200 women have travelled for termination from Ireland to the UK (source: http://www.thejournal.ie/how-many-irish-travel-to-uk-for-abortions-3986043-May2018/). The ban on abortion does not prevent terminations from happening, it just outsources the problem – and leaves behind those who do not have the economic means to travel or who, simply can’t travel.
In fact, not all women can leave Ireland. The Thirteenth amendment does not help many migrants, documented or not, or people living in Direct Provision (the Irish reception scheme for asylum seekers, consisting in locking them up in centres with no right to work, movement, and even no right to cook one’s own food) who do not have freedom of movement. The narrative of Irish women forced to travel for an abortion is a popular one, but it does not reflect the reality of many migrants who experience crisis pregnancies. No one should have to travel to access basic healthcare denied them by the state, but nor should people be forced to give birth because they don’t have the means or legal status to travel for a needed abortion.
Abortion pills are a safe yet illegal option for abortion seekers who can’t travel. But the procurement of these pills carries a 14-year jail sentence. For migrants with precarious legal status this means possible deportation. Thankfully organisations like womenhelp.org and needabortionireland.org continue to risk their own freedom to help people who can’t travel get the abortion pills. This is a vital service and we urge people to support it in any way you can.
We are well aware of how migrant women are disproportionately affected by the Eighth. While the Eighth amendment is an enormous barrier to accessing abortion and reproductive health services in Ireland, in fact, so is homelessness (which disproportionately affects migrants), so is poverty, so is lack of sex education, so is Direct Provision, so is the border regime and so is institutional and structural racism. Bimbo Onanuga, a Nigerian national, died in 2010 because of a massive internal bleeding after induced birth: while she asked for help, she was not believed by the medical staff and, basically, left to die while transported from one hospital to the other in Dublin (http://aimsireland.ie/aims-ireland-calls-for-a-hiqa-review-into-the-death-of-bimbo-onanuga-and-the-catalogue-of-sytematic-failures-in-basic-care/).
It’s no coincidence that the 2 most high-profile cases in the fight over abortion access in recent memory have been about migrant women of colour: Ms. Y and Savita Halapanavar. Migrant women account for 40% of all maternal deaths in Ireland, while migrants make up less than 13% of the population. Let us not forget Savita, let us not forget Bimbo Onanuga, Dhara Kivlehan, Malak Thawley and the countless others. And let us not ignore the role that racism plays in access to reproductive healthcare, on both a state and individual level. Yes we are fighting so that no one else will have to suffer the same fate, but we must also fight for justice.
Technically, abortions can be performed in certain circumstances like rape, or if the mother’s health is in danger, but that requires piles of evidences that delays the procedure until it is often too late. Because any medical intervention that might put the life of the foetus in danger is illegal, medical professionals will not be so quick to intervene. If the possibility of losing their job or going to prison is at the end of that intervention, their instincts will tell them to wait. Because if women’s health equals motherhood, then birth will be a priority. As Jane Xavier, MERJ spokesperson, said, “Abortion services are an important part of reproductive healthcare, but it is broader than that. Reproductive healthcare includes maternity services and sexual health services as well. Many migrant women have been denied access to basic and free procedures such as the cervical smear test if they do not possess a PPS number (the national ID number for social security)”.
In Ms. Y’s case, an asylum seeker who arrived in Ireland in 2014 pregnant as the result of rape. Waiting forced her to carry the pregnancy to term. She tried to reach the UK to access termination – but was arrested and brought back to Ireland. Although she was suicidal, medical staff preferred to delay any decision regarding a possibile abortion, forcing her to give birth eventually.
In Savita’s case, waiting was a death sentence. When she reached the University hospital in Galway looking for assistance in 2012, she was eight months pregnant and in deep pain. She was not assisted because of the Eighth amendment, developed sepsis and died because of it three days later. While she and her husband asked the doctors to save her life, they were repeatedly told that they couldn’t because, ‘this is Ireland’.
And yes, this is Ireland, the land of Magdalene laundries, Tuam infants and women mass grave, the Eighth amendment and direct provision – a land that has for long hated women and girls and migrants. This is your Ireland. But it’s also our Ireland. We will stand shoulder to shoulder with Irish women and people in the fight to make Ireland a more just place, for all. However, our mission will not be over after the May 25th referendum, as racism and unjust migration regulation will remain in place. Then, we should not be forgotten. This is what solidarity looks like.
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