Orla O’Connor: Every woman needs access to reproductive healthcare during her lifespan
Published: Tuesday, October 25, 2022
The past number of years have been transformative for women’s healthcare in Ireland. Abortion is now available here at home. Budget 2023 has paved the way for a further roll out of the free contraception scheme. And there are efforts underway to transform the sex education programme into a modern-day curriculum which responds to the challenges faced by young people.
While we have much to celebrate, it will be crucial now that we build on these achievements. As we mark the 10th anniversary of Savita Halappanavar’s death this Friday, we must follow through on our commitment to develop and invest in a truly holistic healthcare model for women that responds to their diverse needs.
Every woman will need access to reproductive healthcare over the course of her lifespan. This should begin with comprehensive sex and relationship education.
Right now, Ireland’s sex education model is being reviewed, with the new Junior Cycle curriculum due for rollout in September 2023. Without adequate sex education, responsive to the needs and curiosity of children and teenagers, a void is developing which is all too easily filled by pornography, social media, and other potentially toxic sources of information.
We must provide our children with information that will help them develop healthy attitudes to sex, relationships, and their bodies.
It’s vital they learn about harmful gender stereotypes, or how to recognise coercive control and intimate partner abuse, and about the diversity of bodies they are likely to come across in their lifetimes. It is only by addressing head-on the misogynistic beliefs underlying sexual exploitation, domestic abuse, and violence against women that we will have a society that is safe for women and girls.
Learning about healthy sex and relationships early on will help women to make key decisions about their reproductive lives.
One of the most central and personal decisions a woman will ever make is if or when to have children. This decision goes to the core of her autonomy and agency in her own life. It stands to reason that better access to contraception will mitigate the risk of an unwanted pregnancy.
It has been really positive to see the move towards universal free contraception, which includes the most effective forms such as the coil and implants. The scheme must now be extended so women of all ages can benefit. Key to making the scheme accessible to all women will be easy-to-implement changes, such as phone consultations and pharmacist prescribing for oral contraceptives.
But crisis pregnancies will still happen, and as a society we must provide for women and girls who find themselves in this situation.
The repeal referendum of 2018 was a generation-defining vote, and women have been living in a new era of healthcare since abortion was introduced in 2019. But no other healthcare procedure has been the subject of a public vote, no other procedure continues to be so tightly regulated, and no other procedure carries a potential jail sentence for medical professionals.
71% of Irish people agree abortion should be treated like any other medical procedure and should not be a matter for criminal law. And yet, carrying out an abortion after the current legal limit of 12 weeks has the potential to make criminals of the medical professionals who are looking after us.
This self-policing is known as a chilling effect. It means that women in the most heartbreaking of situations, such as those who discover their child may not live long after birth, are denied one of their options in a time of great need. The World Health Organisation has been very clear in recommending that abortion should never be criminalised.
The WHO also recommends against a number of restrictions in Ireland’s abortion law, such as the mandatory 3 day wait and the cut-off after 12 weeks. They recommend instead that abortion should be available on the request of the woman or pregnant person who needs it. At the National Women’s Council we strongly support this view, because the person who needs an abortion is always the person who is best placed to make these key decisions about her life.
It’s clear that we’ve come a long way to providing holistic reproductive healthcare to women during their lifespans. But it’s also clear we still have a long way to go to make sure that every woman is equipped with the knowledge, the tools, and the healthcare she will need during her reproductive years.
Now is our moment to continue to redress years of secrecy and shame on sexuality and sexual and reproductive health, and to ensure all women and girls have the freedom to make decisions regarding their bodies and their lives.
Orla O’Connor is Director of the National Women’s Council (NWC).
This article first appeared on TheJournal.ie on 25 October 2022
Read NWC's Every Woman: Towards Reproductive Health, Choice and Care for All Report