The abortion referendum is an empathy test for Ireland

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Something vitally important to the lives and health of Irish women is happening this month in Ireland. On May 25th, voters will finally have the chance to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, the one that has allowed the country to deny essential healthcare to generations of women.

I will be in Ireland for the vote and I hope to witness the end of a deep-rooted tradition of silencing and shaming women. This tradition has always been dependent on indifference to female suffering.

Well it’s harder to be indifferent when people start speaking their truth openly. One of the positive outcomes of the referendum debate is that so many Irish women and couples are coming forward to speak out about how the amendment has affected them. The referendum has become an empathy test for the nation.

Just like women in every country in the world, Irish women need abortion, preferably provided with compassion as early as possible in the pregnancy. But unlike women in most Western countries, Irish women are criminalised if they seek abortion. The same applies to women in Northern Ireland. So they have to travel in secret to Britain, if they can afford it, or they buy pills online and go through the termination without medical supervision, afraid to seek help if anything goes wrong.

The Irish abortion ban means fear and danger for Irish women, it means additional stress, delay and expense at a time of crisis. This is nothing less than punishment and it has worked for this long because it fits neatly with the cultural legacy of strict social control of women’s fertility.  

The Eighth Amendment of 1983 acknowledges the right to life of “the unborn” without any definition. It says that the state guarantees in its laws to respect, defend and vindicate that right, with “due regard to the equal right to life of the mother”.

This wording does not just mean that no regular abortion services can be made available in Ireland, it also enforces callous and dangerous restrictions in prenatal and maternity care when patients are at their most vulnerable.  

Currently, a pregnant woman or child with a physical illness or experiencing a medical emergency may only have a termination in Ireland if there is a “real and substantial risk” to her life if she does not have a termination. The same applies to suicidal women and girls. This law dictates everything from the management of miscarrying patients and cases of fatal foetal abnormality to the management of labour in mothers about to deliver full term healthy babies.

In the case of a miscarriage that drags on for days, doctors do not intervene as long as there is a heartbeat, no matter how unwell the patient is. They can only perform a D&C if the woman reaches the point where her life is in danger. Unless, as in the tragic case of Savita Halappanavar in Galway in 2012, they miss that window between extreme suffering and impending death and the woman dies of sepsis.

Suffering is fine. The woman may suffer any degree of physical or mental anguish but as long as her life is not in imminent danger, it doesn’t count. The woman’s health or wellbeing during or after pregnancy does not count. The unborn’s right to life trumps her right to safety or peace of mind from day one.  

The same rules apply to everyone, from a child of 12 in care to a 45-year-old mother of four, regardless of whether she is a rape victim, a cancer patient whose treatment must be suspended or someone with a serious illness made worse by pregnancy. Legally, nothing in the woman’s circumstances matters while she is pregnant. That this injustice has been tolerated for so long is simply staggering.

Switzerland, where I live, allows unrestricted access to abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and has one of the lowest rates of abortion in the world. The Irish abortion rate cannot even be accurately measured because it is shrouded in secrecy and illegality, even more so since abortion pills became available. You cannot help people if you criminalise them.

The Eighth Amendment was added to the Constitution in 1983 in a context where abortion was already illegal and there was no discernible movement to change that. At that time, up to 4,000 Irish women were travelling to England per year to avail of terminations. Those lonely journeys have continued and are still happening this month and every month.  

The amendment was a pre-emptive strike and a highly effective one too. The complicated realities of unwanted pregnancy, pregnancy loss, fatal foetal abnormality, pregnancy by rape, pregnancy with serious illness, child pregnancy – all of it disregarded in one stroke.

I was 11 years old when this happened. My parents campaigned against the Eighth then and my mother and sister carry on the fight now in the Together4Yes campaign. As a non-resident I can no longer vote in Ireland. But I am counting on my fellow countrywomen and countrymen to show they care and strike back for all our women and girls.

Repeal the 8th

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A Swiss woman of fire and fury

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This time sixty years ago, Iris von Roten was putting the finishing touches to her life’s work, a 600-page cri de coeur on the woeful position of women in Swiss society. A journalist and lawyer, von Roten put years of research into her book, Frauen im Laufgitter: Offene Worte zur Stellung der Frau (Women in the Playpen: Plain Words About the Situation of Women). In ruthless and unsentimental terms, she examined subects like equality in the workplace (or lack thereof), civil rights, domestic drudgery, motherhood and sexuality. This is a work of fire and fury, the product of a free spirit who all around her saw women in chains.

To give you a taste of von Roten’s style and themes, here is a short passage I translated from the opening chapter, “Female professional activity in a man’s world”.

“Every era has its favourite illusions, and one of the most cherished of our century is that of “the modern woman”, the professionally equal, independent and successful woman.

The “woman of today” supposedly has extensive professional fields open to her; in contrast to her grandmother she is active in every job at every level. Even the most prestigious and highly-paid jobs are not out of reach of the capable woman. Where such positions are not yet occupied by women it is only because no woman has yet deigned to clamber up and take the place that the progressive man is hurrying to offer her. Just like a young man, the young woman can attain the job that corresponds to her talents, standing on her own two feet. To wait for a man, to marry so as to be provided for, this is unknown to today’s woman. She marries purely for love, when and whom she wishes, which allows her to complete the work of art – the combination of job, housework and motherhood – running the show and “mastering life with a laugh”. Beside the modern woman stands the progressive man, filled with admiring awe for the proud swan that the ugly duckling has become. He has long ago freed his mind of prejudices and slowly but surely clears the way for the equality of the sexes in the life of the family, the economy and the state.

The reality, however, looks different in some places, and especially in Switzerland.”

You’ve got to love that sarcasm. I would like to see von Roten’s work gain wider recognition in the English-speaking world. Her radical book/manifesto is one of the leading feminist texts of the twentieth century and there is still a lot to learn from it.

For a brief update on the position of women in Switzerland today, check out this article I wrote for the current edition of International School Parent Magazine: Working mothers in Switzerland – something has to give. I’ll start you off here with the opening two paragraphs.

“Switzerland manages to successfully project two flattering but contradictory images side-by-side. On the one hand, it is a rural mountain idyll populated by wholesome country folk, and dotted with chalets, ski resorts and pretty medieval towns. On the other hand, it is a sophisticated economic hub powered by a productive and innovative workforce.

It is nice balance if you can spend your working hours in business Switzerland and your free time in bucolic Switzerland. But for women, it is certainly not easy if you are expected to raise a family in the traditional model while facing all the challenges of the modern workplace. Something has to give.” (Read more)

Carnival season is kicking off in Switzerland. It’s hugely popular but I’ve never really enjoyed carnival much, if I may admit that. I like the effigy (Rababou) burning in Fribourg because, after the long speech, it’s the only part where I don’t feel bored and cold!

Von Roten’s book came out in the autumn of 1958, a few months before Swiss men voted by a two-thirds majority to deny women the right to vote. She had hoped that her carefully constructed arguments would win hearts and minds. But instead of seeing her ideas analysed and debated, von Roten was personally attacked and villified in the media. Some even blamed her for the negative outcome of the vote. Most painfully, she was ridiculed at the Basel carnival, her fellow townsfolk having spent the winter preparing elaborate costumes and floats on the theme of her book.

But don’t let me ruin carnival for anyone. Depending on where you go, it can be spectacular and wild. If you have any good carnival tips or experiences to share, let me know in the comments. I’d also be really interested to hear your thoughts on Iris von Roten’s work.

Death of a great Swiss leader and suffragette

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I was very saddened to learn of the death of Marthe Gosteli, one of the leading campaigners for women’s right to vote in Switzerland, who died on April 7 at the age of 99. I had the honour of interviewing Dr. Gosteli in her home in December 2015. We sat in the front room of the pretty old country house in Worblaufen near Bern, surrounded by evidence of her life’s work – the archive of the Swiss women’s rights movement. The other evidence of her life’s work is that I as a woman had the right to vote when I was granted Swiss citizenship, also in 2015.

Dr. Gosteli impressed me with her sharp intellect and vigour, despite the frailty imposed by her advanced years. There was no doubt she was still a formidable woman. But she was also warm and welcoming.

In her capacity as president of the national umbrella body for women’s associations, Dr. Gosteli negotiated with the government in the lead-up to the 1971 vote. I think of her not only as a campaigner but as a leader. She helped lead the Swiss out of the dead-end in which they were trapped. Massive societal change was needed for women and men to recognise the full potential of women. There was even a counter movement of women’s organisations objecting to the political goals of Dr. Gosteli and her colleagues, and actively fighting against them.

We talk about positive energy a lot these days. Nothing can match the positive energy of Marthe Gosteli and her collaborators. The only time she seemed wistful in our interview was when she mentioned how she missed the camaraderie and friendships of those years. We can only imagine the tireless dedication and team spirit of these women, losing many battles before they won the war.

The real challenge for Swiss suffragettes was winning the argument with male voters who held the real power in the direct democracy system.  Swiss women would not get the vote until Swiss men in all cantons used their electoral power to grant it. Gosteli and her colleagues were fighting a battle on dozens of fronts: “Many people don’t understand why it took so long. We had to win on three levels – communal, cantonal and federal. Full political collaboration was only possible when we had the right to vote on all three.”

Marthe Gosteli worked for the Swiss Army press and radio division during the Second World War and later for the American Embassy information service, before devoting herself fully to the women’s movement from the 1960s. The only complaint Dr. Gosteli had, she said, was that the achievement of female suffrage had lost recognition in Switzerland.  “Huge work was done by many brilliant women in our country and no-one knows about it.”

May she rest in peace. Marthe Gosteli (22 December 1917 – 7 April 2017)

Disclaimer: I am a woman

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At the moment I am writing about women in Switzerland for the book, and trying very hard to be fair. I almost think this chapter needs a disclaimer: I am a woman but the word may not mean the same thing to you as it does to me.

We are all products of our culture and family circumstances, and I have to hold my hands up and say that my background makes it very difficult for me to approach the Swiss situation in a non-judgmental way. I believe that the subjugation of women is the biggest swindle in human history. Nothing in my experience has taught me that women are in any way less important or less capable than men, therefore I cannot and will not accept any arrangement based on this idea.

My family is full of inspiring women, going back more than a century. I grew up in a three-generation household where both my mother and grandmother worked full-time as teachers. My maternal grandmother worked as a cook before she married, and later farmed a smallholding, while bringing up nine children. Her sisters emigrated to America to work. A great-grandmother on the other side was a ‘deserted wife’ who trained as a nurse in England in the 1910s and went on to work as matron of an old people’s home. There’s another great-grandmother who had her own toy shop in Dublin in the 1890s. One thing all these women had in common was that, somewhere along the line, the men in their lives could not be financially relied upon, mostly through no fault of their own. The women learned through experience that having children and doing paid work did not have to be mutually exclusive (disclaimer within a disclaimer: I think looking after children without doing paid work is equally admirable, as long as it’s a choice).

I come from an all-girl family, which meant I never experienced the division of chores on gender lines that happens in some households. I was just as often asked to wash the floor as cut the grass or bring in the coal. The secondary school I attended was also all-girls with a long tradition of fostering female achievement. A woman became president of my country when I was eighteen, not to mention that women got the vote in Ireland at the foundation of the state in 1922 (in Switzerland it was 1971).

By the time I noticed that my version of what it meant to be a woman was not the norm, it was too late. The meaning of the word had set in my mind forever. Forget about ‘Frailty thy name is woman’, I will always believe that women are strong, capable decision-makers. That is why I don’t like the ‘Irish Mammy’ cliché, which portrays Irish mothers as simple-minded old biddies. Funnily enough there is no popular incarnation of the Swiss mother, like the Italian or Jewish mamma or the Irish Mammy. One saving grace at least.

Have you ever thought about what the word woman means to you? I’m curious to hear your thoughts.