News broke in Ireland over the summer that an immigrant woman who had previously been denied an abortion was subjected to a forced Cesarean section at just 26 weeks after her pregnancy became unstable as a result of a hunger strike. The case, and the anonymous patient, have revived the fiery debate over abortion rights in Ireland, but it also touches upon immigration rights and the global fight for reproductive autonomy — lest you think this is an issue limited to conservative Catholic countries, a woman in Florida earlier this summer found herself in a similar position.
Needing a C-section at 26 weeks is any pregnant woman’s worst nightmare, because it usually means that something is going very, very wrong with the pregnancy and the fetus needs to be removed immediately to address a serious health issue. Sometimes the mother has a medical condition that necessitates a swift end to the pregnancy to save her life, and sometimes the fetus develops a medical issue. In either case, a 26-week-old baby is classified as premature, and faces serious risks to survival, although outcomes in premature births are much better than they once were — survival rates are as high as 90% in some regions, but complications can continue to be high. The nightmare scenario gets even worse when it’s a pregnancy you didn’t even want, and someone is compelling you to get a C-section.
In the case of this anonymous patient, she requested an abortion earlier in her pregnancy on the grounds of emotional distress, taking advantage of a new Irish law designed to provide a mechanism for women in need to access abortions. Her request was made at eight weeks, well within the first trimester, citing her suicidal ideation, but the request was denied — and when she went on a hunger strike, authorities took action, and decided to take the fetus by force. Disturbingly, the three-person panel involved in the abortion decision included two doctors who agreed that the procedure was necessary — and one who refused, insisting that the pregnancy be carried to term or until the fetus could be delivered via C-section. Just one man stood between her and her much-needed abortion.
Her immigration status is an important aspect of this case, as Ireland, like other countries in Europe, is facing growing anti-immigrant sentiment and she may have been discriminated against when seeking assistance. Advocates are concerned that her limited grasp of English may have interfered with her ability to understand all the options available, including the possibility of traveling to England for a termination (though she might have faced financial or other limitations that could have made this option difficult). While her identity is currently protected, she could become a symbol of the fight for abortion rights, like Savita Halappanavar, who died after developing sepsis at 17 weeks of pregnancy in 2012 — even when her pregnancy went into crisis, doctors refused to provide an abortion.
In this case, the anonymous patient experienced a double violation at the hands of the Irish government. First, a panel of officials controlled her right to access an abortion, limiting her bodily autonomy by denying her a basic human right. Then, when she went into deep psychological distress — concerns about which had led her to ask for an abortion in the first place — her autonomy was violated again when she was subjected to a surgery she didn’t consent to. (She was offered the choice between ending her hunger strike or receiving the surgery — which is hardly a true choice made of free will.)
She was used as little more than an incubator for a baby, her own humanity thrust aside. Furthermore, the child’s status remains unclear — will officials take the child on the grounds that she’s an unfit mother? Will a relative step up to take custody? How will issues of custody be dealt with, especially given the charged environment of Ireland’s scandalous history of forced adoptions?
While conservatives may claim this as a victory ‘for the life of the child,’ pro-choice advocates are concerned about what this means for pregnant women in Ireland, including those who need abortion services to terminate unwanted pregnancies and miscarriages. More troublingly, though, many people didn’t pay attention to the case at all, because it involved the rights of an immigrant, and immigrants are viewed as second class, with bodily and social rights that are less important and less imperative than those of citizens.
This case is terrifying not just because it was a gross breach of reproductive rights, but because it illustrated the profound contempt many nations have for immigrants. Keeping a woman terrified, confused, and upset to force her to carry a pregnancy is a horrific tactic, yet it’s one that the government clearly thought it could get away with because of her immigration status. Pushing back on this case requires acknowledging that this is an intersectional issue. It’s not just about the fact that a woman was forced to carry her pregnancy not just against her wishes, but against the expressed opinion of a board of medical professionals.
It’s also about the fact that an immigrant, a member of a vulnerable population, was abused and exploited by the Irish government in the name of protecting a baby — just immigrants are abused on a daily basis across the West on the grounds of protecting nations from the apparently terrifying and ominous influence of strangers.
Image: Ireland, Francesca Guadagnini, Flickr