Politics, periods, and the patriarchal policing of womanhood

Georgia Marsh discusses abortion in Northern Ireland and how it reflects the wider problem of the silenced women voice.

On March 30th, Donald Trump hit headlines again with yet another controversial outburst. After previously targeting Muslims, Mexicans and Fox News political correspondent Megyn Kelly, Trump shifted the focus of his hate-fuelled fire to the pro-choice movement. In a televised interview with MSNBC, the Republican frontrunner, businessman and full-time orangutan claimed that “there has to be some form of punishment” for those seeking abortions should the practise become illegal. He did not state whether or not he plans to criminalise abortion if he is elected President, yet, unsurprisingly, these comments received widespread criticism from liberals for his unrelenting hatefulness and from conservative groups for his wishy-washy vagueness.

Trump has since retracted his statement and clarified that if abortions were to become illegal, it is the doctors who perform them who should be punished. Nonetheless these dangerously sexist views, spouted from the mouth of someone who dominates the public eye, incite violence against women; the kind of violence that occurred five months prior when a police officer and two civilians were shot and killed by a pro-life extremist at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs.

While the rest of the world watches the clownish nature of the US political race unfold, we in Britain can rest assured that we do not uphold such ridiculous views. We are the pinnacles of modernity – a progressive, liberal nation who are world leaders in advocating human rights and equality. Comments like Trump’s could only be regurgitated by a UKIP minister, or someone of the like, as abortion is an issue that could only cause that amount of controversy on the loony side of the Atlantic. Not with us, right?

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On April 4th Belfast crown court convicted a 21-year-old woman who pleaded guilty to inducing her own abortion by purchasing pills online to prompt the miscarriage of an unwanted child in 2014. After her housemates informed the police, she now faces a three month suspended sentence: she has been criminally charged for having an abortion. This is not a recount of Medieval Britain or the 1950s, nor is it foreseeing the future of Trump’s America – this is a reality of ‘civilised’ Western Europe.

As a citizen of Northern Ireland, this woman – like hundreds of others who annually cross the Irish Sea to legally terminate pregnancies – was not entitled to an abortion unlike her counterparts in England, Scotland and Wales. In the same court two days later, a mother was trialled, but adjourned, for supplying similar drugs to her daughter in order to assist her in provoking a miscarriage. This proves that there is an emerging epidemic in Northern Ireland: women are left having to resort to extreme measures to exercise their reproductive rights.

Although the Women’s Health Organisation deems these pills to be an “essential medicine”, there is nothing safe about a woman aborting a foetus at home without any supervision from a medical professional. Though the law against abortion intends to protect women’s health, restrictive abortion laws are more likely to put women’s health at risk. By punishing what the law sees as promiscuity and sexual immorality, women’s bodies are subject to dangerous alternatives to clinical and proper medical procedures. Delivering criminal sentences only terrorises women and their human right to choose; only safe, legal abortions can promote women’s health.

Policing abortion laws so rigidly proves fruitless: if a nation such as Northern Ireland wishes to discourage abortions, sex education needs to be inclusive and of a higher quality. Contraception should also be available at easy access. Militant opposition to abortion cannot amend cluelessness to sexual health – it only creates fear and ostracises women whose options are limited.

Northern Irish law states that abortions are only permissible if the pregnancy carries a threat to the mother’s life, whereas abortion laws in other British territories allow abortions for physical, mental, economic and social reasons. Yet, unlike in most other European Union countries, abortion in the UK and Finland is not available on request. In Spain, Portugal, Cyprus and the Czech Republic, economic and social reasons are unacceptable and, in Malta, abortion is illegal under any and all circumstances. However, in the remaining eighteen EU countries, abortion is available when a woman believes she requires one – control is handed over to her.

The Abortion Act was passed in the UK in 1967 after prolonged lobbying by women’s rights activists. This law granted all decision making to doctors and was only passed to act as a solution to the rise in illegal and unsafe abortions which were greatly impacting public health. Though this had changed by the 1990s, a British woman’s body was, and still is, being policed for her by the men who make the laws; our legal freedom, as with billions of other women around the world, is restricted to a set of patriarchal beliefs and values.

This is not a phenomenon exclusive to the 1960s in Britain. Over the past couple of years, protests over the tampon tax have reached a boiling point. Not only do we have to pay for tampons (the average British person who menstruates spends £18,000 on sanitary products in their lifetime. This is just to control something they cannot help.) but they are taxed as a non-essential luxury product. On 17th March, the BBC reported that George Osborne was in talks with the EU to scrap the tampon tax. Although the movement to abolish the tax was spearheaded by women, only Parliament – a group of, almost entirely, old privileged white men – are given the final say in whether or not taxation would continue.

Women spoke up and were heard, but at the end of the day, our issues, such as abortion and menstruation, are still being monitored and supervised by men. Women’s political and personal freedom is not just affected by the crap coming out of Trump’s trap, it is being violated on our own turf, and we should be outraged about it.

Image by April Bates

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