The problem with conditional reproductive rights

The legalisation, funding and de-stigmatisation of abortion is debated on a spectrum, ranging from complete criminalisation to freedom to choose. 
In countries across the world going through this debate and process, and fighting to keep funding for organisations that support reproductive rights, there is prominent place on this continuum for those who would allow abortion in cases of rape and incest, but not complete freedom for women to have autonomy over their bodies.

There are parallels in the narrative from struggles on either side of the Atlantic. In the states, the fight to keep funding for Planned Parenthood and other organisations for the provision of reproductive rights has highlighted debates between people from opposing views on abortion rights, with many on both sides seeing new restrictions as a step to the permanent limitation of these rights.

In Ireland, the Repeal the 8th movement is fighting for the removal of a constitutional article preventing abortion, except where the life of the mother is deemed to be in danger. Issues with even this allowance include the fact that not even a suicide attempt by the mother-to-be seems to be proof that this woman’s life is at risk, and large amounts of red tape surround endless legislation to examine whether or not a woman, whose doctors say she will die, really qualifies. In the meantime, 12 women a day travel from Ireland to the UK to terminate pregnancies, continuing the historical impression that the solution to an Irish problem is to send it to England – as long as it’s not on our soil.

Both in the US and in Ireland, debates and legislation that limit women’s reproductive freedom do not limit abortion. They merely limit safe abortion and abortion for those who do not have the financial means to travel or pay for the procedure privately.

As the conversation on the topic develops as though women’s lives don’t hang in the balance, both sides attempt to portray their opposition as inhumane. Pro-choice campaigners and advocates press questions about abortion in the case of rape and incest. On that ever fluid spectrum, these cases are always met with sympathy. People want provisions for victims of sexual abuse. But, when a woman can’t even prove with medical evidence that her life is in danger, how could she ever be expected to prove that she became pregnant by sexual assault within the 12 week medical limit for abortion?
The fundamental issue in this equation is a profound lack of trust in women to make responsible decisions independently, that will not be to the determent of society. The concern that abortion will deteriorate the fabric of moral society or become an abused form of contraception, and the scepticism about whether a woman is to blame for her situation or not, displays an alarming trend of influential groups of people thinking of women as corrupt, unable to handle autonomy and unaware of any responsibility that they may bear.

Legal systems across the world have been established in ways that prevent conditional abortion. Allowing abortion solely in the case of rape implies that once the rape has been proven, the women has the right to terminate her pregnancy – but what happens when the process of proving the rape takes a number of years, long after pregnancy is no longer an issue and the woman has had the impact of the rape made permanent? We take years to prove rape because we do not trust women, resulting in women being put into traumatic situations far out of their control.

Abortion in the case of rape, in Ireland, the UK and the US, has implications beyond the extraordinary length of legal proceedings.  The laws of statutory rape across such countries states that any woman (or man) who is involved in penetrative sexual activity under the legal age of consent has been raped. In Ireland alone, on this basis, conditional reproductive rights for rape victims could potentially legalise abortion for any woman under the age of 17, or 18 in the case of the US. Despite this – would proof of rape still be necessary? Would complex legal proceedings arise as a result of the granted abortion that would lead to increased prosecution of men who have sex with underage women? What would happen if the man was also under the age of consent, with each of the pair having technically and legally raped one another?

Other hypothetically and complex questions that come to mind include whether each country and government, if conditional abortion rights for cases of rape were legalised, would revolutionise their legal systems in order to prevent rape trials exceeding the 12 week limit. Based on the historical treatment of women and their fragile rights to their own bodies – we highly doubt this would happen. And then – if the legal proceedings overran the limit and the child was born, would the state accept responsibility for this child, even financially? Something makes us doubt that too.