Let’s talk about…Reproductive rights

Between NMH controversy and possible overturning of Roe v Wade, are our reproductive rights safe?

It goes without saying that the issue of unwanted pregnancy is one which has continually sparked contention in Ireland. Our history with the topic is one that has been muddied with injustice and misfortune; from the horrific treatment of both mothers and babies in baby homes in the past, to the practice of unsafe abortions up until more recent years.

  It’s also safe to say that one of the key influencing voices over the years in conservations surrounding unwanted pregnancy has been that of the Catholic Church. The impact Ireland’s history as a predominantly Catholic country has had, and the hold the Church maintained for so many years (and to some degree, continues to maintain) in defining our society’s morals and values cannot go understated. Even as recently as 2018, when the topic of abortion was at a point of peak political relevance due to the referendum on repealing the 8th amendment, the Church’s voice – and Catholic ideology in general – continued to wield significant political sway.

  As we all know however, in the end, the referendum passed – and with a 67/33 split in favour, no less. For the first time ever, Irish people were given access to safe abortion services, and this has meant a world of good in terms of legislating bodily autonomy, and for anyone who’s had to deal with an unwanted pregnancy in the past few years. However, it can do nothing to erase the damage that restrictive Catholic ideologies caused in the years previously.

  And so, given our country’s turbulent history when it comes to siding with the Church instead of respecting bodily autonomy, it’s understandable why there has been such controversy surrounding the ownership of the new National Maternity Hospital (NMH), a topic which has regained prominence in recent days.

  Ever since the location for the new hospital was agreed in 2016, the project has raised concerns over governance and the potential ownership of the hospital by a body controlled by the Catholic Church. The site of the proposed new hospital is owned by the Sisters of Charity, which has led to a lot of questions being raised about whether a Catholic ethos could influence medical practices at the publicly funded hospital.

  Both the Government and the Sisters of Charity have made assurances guaranteeing clinical independence within the hospital, but there remains a lot of valid concern regarding the ownership structure, plans not being adequately scrutinised, and why any room is being left for ambiguity when it comes to separating Church and State in the first place – especially in this case, considering how diametrically opposed Catholic ideology is to practices such as abortion and other services the hospital is set to provide, like gender-affirming surgery.

  At the time of writing, the controversy surrounding the new NMH is ongoing, and the matter is set to be discussed in more depth at a Government level in the coming days. It may yet turn out that the current plans for the hospital will be scrapped or amended in place of a more suitable and less controversial alternative, but the unease around the safety of reproductive rights in today’s society is not likely to go away quickly.

  One need only look across the pond to the US to see the danger that reproductive rights are in. On Tuesday of this week, news broke that the United States Supreme Court might overturn Roe v. Wade, a 1973 court ruling that protects a pregnant person’s liberty to choose to have an abortion under the US constitution.

  With the exception of Poland, Europe’s laws have been trending towards freer access to safe abortion in the past couple of years, but the potential overturning of Roe v. Wade presents a threat to this trend. Roe v. Wade was a landmark ruling for reproductive rights, enshrining people’s fundamental rights to health care and governing their own bodies, and it played an influential factor over the years in inspiring other countries’ fight for safe, legal abortion services. And so, the possibility of it being overturned is harrowing news for anyone who may one day find themselves facing an unwanted pregnancy.

  At the end of the day, reproductive rights are human rights. They form part of any just, compassionate, and secular society. The individual views of any one person, political party, or religious institution does not negate the fact that people deserve the right to choose what happens to their own body. Nor does it negate the fact that a lack of access to legal abortion does not result in fewer abortions; it just makes them unsafe and puts people’s lives at risk.

  The news of Roe v. Wade’s potential overturning, coupled with the ongoing NMH controversy, has been the cause of a lot of fear and unease in the past couple of days. We cannot return to an old-fashioned Ireland, where the Church has any influence over our healthcare, or where our legislation fails ensure our rights to our own bodies. Despite the disheartening news stories that have come out in the past week, we have to continue to advocate for the rights that protect us so that we don’t return to the way things were.