Papa Don’t Preach, Repeal the 8th


There are some stories you really don’t want to be inspired by but this week I have been inspired, induced even, to write, by the appalling case of the HSE taking an adult woman to the High Court in an attempt to force her to have a C-Section.  The judge had the good sense to refuse the HSE any such application because he said it would amount to a “grievous assault” on her person. If you haven’t already read the details of the case you will be interested to know that the unborn child had its own legal representation in the court. Which brings me neatly to the point of this piece. The 8th amendment does not just affect women who want to have abortions. It does not just affect rape and incest victims  or parents of unborn babies diagnosed with FFA. The 8th amendment to our Constitution affects all persons who engage with the maternity services offered by this state. All persons. When an unborn baby has separate legal representation to its mother – a mother who wants this baby very much and a baby still occupying its mother’s womb – then surely the notion of equal right to life of the unborn becomes absurd.

Amid all the noise of the #repealthe8th campaign and its pro-life opposite #savethe8th (and no I’m not tone policing) the unforeseen consequences to maternity services and their primary users – WOMEN- have gone largely unnoticed . I’ve been Pro-Choice since I was a teenager but you might be reading this as a pro-life voter. You might be reading this as somebody who really doesn’t know how to feel about what is perceived as an abortion referendum. I encourage you to visit the AIMS website and see what it’s like to be pregnant under the shadow of the 8th amendment. Ireland needs to realise that the repeal of the 8th amendment is for all of us. A woman can be taken to the High Court to be forced to have a major abdominal surgery because of the 8th. That must not be allowed to continue.

I am a veteran of 3 Caesarean Sections. When I read the phrase “grievous assault”, my blood ran cold and my uterus contracted because that’s how I felt. Assaulted. I was not too posh or too old to push. During my first labour I was told that if I didn’t push the baby out by 5.30pm the doctor was going to come in and give me a section.  I was lying on a bed strapped to a heart monitor with a clock ticking down the next 30 minutes. I was tired, drugged and scared and was in no state to make a stand.  I consented to a section. The notion of that consent was completely compromised by the behaviour of the medical staff that day. But they had the 8th amendment to back them up. I had nothing but a vagina that was dilating too slowly..

Pregnant with Baby Number 2 five years later  I resigned myself to the “treatment” as I called it. It had taken me 5 years to risk the treatment a second time.  On a clinic visit  I refused to be admitted to a ward for high blood pressure. I had been fine at my GP appointment and I knew it was anxiety related.  The midwife had assured me I would be fine but when the registrar and another doctor arrived everything changed. The door was blocked.  It was in a very small exam cubicle. I had nobody else with me and I was extremely intimidated. I tried to explain that my blood pressure would only go up even higher if I was admitted because I was terrified of the hospital and I had another child at home. The registrar screamed at me that I was killing my baby and that my liver would explode. I wondered was I hallucinating. I wasn’t. I was in a very small hospital room surrounded by 3 people I’d never met before. I realised they did not see me Niamh. They did not know Niamh. They saw a problem to be solved, a difficult woman refusing to do as she was told. I literally fought my way out of that room. I went pure Limerick on their medical arses and roared my way out of there. I still don’t remember how I got home. I have a vague memory of the Junior Doctor following me to the carpark. I think he was worried about me. He didn’t like what he’d witnessed. Later on after the birth of Baby Number 2 I read in my notes that I was a “difficult patient”. I was not a negligent parent. I was under the care of my GP who understood my fear and supported my decision not to be admitted. The hospital saw a “difficult patient”who did not consent to treatment. Again they had the 8th to back them up. The 8th gave them authority to describe a grown woman as difficult simply because she wanted to go home.

One year later I was back for Baby Number 3. My lovely GP had phoned ahead to the clinic for me. He also armed me with a letter to show the doctor, any doctor, that I had severe anxiety related to the hospital and it was to be taken into account when reading my blood pressure. The booking midwife was lovely. She put it all in my notes. I never saw her again. The doctor looked at the letter and said ” if you don’t like hospitals then you shouldn’t be here having babies”.  I asked for a different doctor. You can imagine the rest. Once again I’d marked my own card. The maternity equivalent of Asking For It. I wasn’t allowed a trial of labour for Baby Number 3. They would NOT allow me to attempt a natural delivery so I had an elective section. I am down in the statistics as having chosen that operation. At no time when I was pregnant did I actively chose to give birth by abdominal surgery. My choices were handed to me by medical staff.  I survived the third birth with my sanity intact by leaving Niamh at the gates of the hospital on the day I went in. My Grandmother had told me to put myself into the arms of the Blessed Virgin. I didn’t quite do that but I knew what she meant. Niamh was left at the gates and I collected myself on the way home.

The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of Ireland is the ultimate patriarchal tool. It allows the state to treat women as children, incapable of consent. Our pregnancies are a matter for the Constitution. We don’t complain because we are grateful to have survived and brought home a healthy baby. We give birth in battery farms where the midwife has no power and the Doctor’s rule is law. My Grandmother might not have had access to contraception but she had more choice than I did about where to give birth. Under the Eighth Amendment Women cannot say NO. They can only say YES. We need to think about that. Ireland might not be ready for abortion on demand but we are way past ready to look after our pregnant citizens properly.