Ireland’s abortion laws have come under scrutiny in a report entitled ‘Women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights in Europe’ by the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights this week. Its release is timely, since The Citizen’s Assembly will today finally decide whether the Eight Amendment should be repealed or replaced. If the decision is made to repeal the amendment it will be a marker of significant progress for women, whose medical procedures should not be the subject of political and religious debate.
Women’s health and bodies have long been treated as something of a public issue. Bishop Alphonsus Cullinan weighed in on the HPV vaccine debate earlier in the year, calling the vaccine a “lifestyle issue” that encouraged teenagers to have sex.
At the time, Simon Harris said that people shouldn’t put bishops and medical information in the same sentence. While Harris’s comment is fair, it is relatively easy for individuals with no connection to the Church to dismiss opinions from members of the Catholic clergy in relation to women’s health. It isn’t as simple for other members of the population. For one thing, many look to the Church for guidance and spiritual advice, and while this is their choice and not necessarily a cause for concern, it is worrying when clergy members weigh in on medical issues of which they have little understanding.
The Citizen’s Assembly for the Eighth Amendment discussed the issue of sexual health education last week, and have called for improvements. They said that, although there is a mandatory Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) programme in place, a school’s ethos may influence how the course is delivered. Since there are no limited guidelines from the State on how sex education is taught, many parents may be in the dark about what their children learn.
There are so many Catholic schools with a Catholic ethos in the country that many children are likely to receive sex education through the conservative lens of the Church. The institution has long been responsible for attaching shame and stigma to sex, and particularly for shifting the responsibility of what they perceive to be sexually immoral onto women. The widespread incarceration of unmarried mothers is the most significant example of this, but it is not the only one.
There are also rogue pregnancy crisis agencies springing up that the government have been trying to crack down on. These agencies deliberately distribute false information to women to prevent them from having abortions. The agencies have been operating for years, often without the consultation of medical professionals, and have been unregulated by the State. When a reporter for The Times went undercover as a pregnant woman seeking advice at one of the agencies last year, she was told by a counsellor that foetuses feel more pain than adults, that there is a link between abortions and breast cancer, and that it will increase the likelihood that the woman will be abusive to future children – none of which is true. The fact that such biased groups exist to give women misinformation about their health choices when they are vulnerable and looking for help is incredibly worrying, and quite invasive.
How bizarre would it be for rogue agencies to purposely give the wrong information to men considering vasectomies? It’s almost comical to think that something so ridiculous could be allowed to happen, or something so violating to men’s rights be embedded in a country’s constitution. Of course, a vasectomy is not the same as an abortion, yet it also doesn’t carry the same life-threatening, health-damaging, life-altering, or traumatic consequences for the person denied the procedure. It seems normal to many people for women’s bodies to be ruled over in this way because the boundaries women can set for their own bodies have been eroded for so long.
It is a problem that seems to permeate almost all of society. It’s worth noting that when we discuss sexual health and sexual morals in a public or political context, it focuses on women’s bodies. Men are rightfully allowed privacy when it comes to their sexual and reproductive health and choices – as long as they are mutually consensual – but women are not afforded the same dignity. Women are punished with slurs when they desire sex and called prudes when they don’t. If a woman is sexually assaulted she is still often reprimanded for what she was wearing or why she a llowed herself to be alone with a man, or alone at night. It is also why many women know that they cannot rid themselves of the sexual advances of some other men until they say they have a boyfriend. Because the man in question respects the boundaries of a man he has never met but does not respect the boundaries of the woman in front of him telling him ‘no.’ If women put up boundaries, especially when it comes to sexual autonomy, they are often mocked and ignored.
The same is true for women’s sexual and reproductive health. Yet a woman’s body is not a public place. Not everybody’s opinion on it is relevant. If the State does introduce more rigorous, medically informed, regulated mandatory sex education to schools it will be a welcome step. The introduction of consent classes would be a welcome element also – one that will reinforce the idea that women should always be able to outline their own boundaries in relation to their bodies.
The influence of education should not be underestimated. The HPV vaccine, thanks to an information campaign launched by the HSE this year, has already seen an 11% uptake rate, despite dramatic drops in recent years due to the spread of misinformation by certain groups and ‘moralising’ about sexual freedom from certain members of the clergy.
A decision by the Citizen’s Assembly to repeal the Eighth Amendment will have a significant impact on sex education in Ireland. It may also help us stay out of reports about human rights abuses.