Author: Cat Boyd
CULTURALLY speaking, I am Catholic and I have never been ashamed of saying it. I belong to a community in Scotland that suffered anti-immigrant discrimination, a national legacy that many people still refuse to own or accept. That’s why I’m occasionally reluctant to criticise the Church. I don’t want to reinforce the middle-class myth of Scottish secularism, the idea that we’re all happy being Jock Tamson’s bairns until someone waves a tricolour or a Union Jack.
But sometimes I’m truly and openly ashamed of the backward traditions bolted on to my heritage. This Friday, Irish voters have the chance to repeal the 8th Amendment, one of the world’s most repressive and intolerant anti-abortion laws. May 25, 2018, could be an enormously important day for women’s rights worldwide. Everyone in Scotland, particularly those of us with dual heritage, should show solidarity with Irish people fighting to end a thoroughly unpleasant barrier to freedom. To paraphrase Dr Gogarty, it’s time Ireland found some better way of loving God than by hating women.
Between 1980 and 2016, a total of 170,216 women gave Irish addresses to abortion clinics in Britain. That situation alone is bad enough. I’ve heard from women who have made that crossing. The stigma of travelling to another country, often alone, under cover of darkness, to have a procedure that most of your political leaders have branded shameful and indeed illegal, all of this can be brutal and potentially life-changing.
However, if you’re poor and can’t afford the journey you face a traumatic choice that will doubly define the rest of your life. You must choose between committing a criminal act that you must hide from prying eyes or being forced to give birth against your will.
The latter is a body horror scene that only the most twisted science fiction authors could conceive: giving birth to a child conceived during rape, your body violated twice, once by your rapist and the second by the state, your organs treated as little more than vessels for breeding. But that’s reality for women only an hour’s flight from Glasgow.
This shouldn’t need saying, but anti-abortion laws don’t work. The countries with the fewest abortions are those with the most progressive abortion laws. This paradox is easy to explain: repressive laws promote wider taboos and ignorant attitudes about regulating our bodies, which is linked to more unwanted pregnancies. Statistically, if anyone really wants to reduce the number of abortions, the best tactic is to promote knowledge, respect and sexual freedom for women.
In countries without these freedoms, ignorance and hypocrisy are followed by last-minute desperate measures. I’ve mentioned the Irish women who travel to England, Scotland and other European countries to get abortions. There’s also the terrifying back-alley tradition and, increasingly, there’s pills ordered over the internet. Taken under medical supervision, these are safe, but self-administered, taken at the wrong time, they are potentially very dangerous.
Pragmatically, then, anti-abortion is a self-defeating cause. But we need to go further than that. Even if the laws worked, and they genuinely succeeded in reducing the incidence of abortion by force, they would still be immoral.
Ultimately access to abortion is about who controls and owns women’s bodies. As soon as the decision is seized from women’s hands, whether by the state or medical institutions, we no longer have that freedom. The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture has rightly remarked that Irish women, denied access to abortion, are treated as “vessels and nothing more”.
The idea that the state has the right to manage women’s bodies is fundamentally dystopian. Mixing ancient taboos with thoroughly modern techniques of medicine, policing and surveillance, it’s shameful that it was tolerated for so long. That’s why everyone should pay attention. There’s a growing awareness of how shamefully states have treated women, but in historical terms these are recent traditions. All Western states were complicit in the modern medical-patriarchal complex.
That’s why Friday’s referendum isn’t just about Ireland and Irishness. In Scotland, we must be very wary of the trope of Irish backwardness, not just because of its anti-immigrant history, but because it becomes the crutch of a particularly Scottish complacency. Our reputation for advanced thinking is a recent one. The Section 28 controversy is less than two decades old. We’ve come a long way in a short time.
And let’s not imagine that we’ve won the argument here. By asking for an abortion, a woman still opens herself to bigoted character judgement from doctors, the legal profession, her family and even friends and neighbours. In Scotland, first, she must confront the system’s assessments, and second, she faces society’s “slut-shaming”.
According to the dominant narrative in Britain, abortion is a tragic necessity. And so it is, when society allows it to be a lonely, criminal or degrading process. But a truly free society, a society that had fully shaken off the whispers and gossip, the backward taboos that keep women submissive, wouldn’t imagine abortion as a tragedy.
For any society to be fair and equal, women must control their own bodies. I will be supporting and praying for my Irish sisters on Friday.
No matter what happens, we’ll continue to fight for women everywhere to be seen as people, not empty vessels.