The 8th Amendment not only affects those who need a termination, but also those who continue their pregnancy.
The HSE’s National Maternity Strategy states that while ordinarily a woman has the right to refuse medical treatment, ‘where there are implications for the health or life of the baby, as defined by her team of health care professionals, then the HSE’s National Consent Policy recommends that legal advice should be sought’.
In September 2016, the HSE applied for a court order allowing it to use “reasonable and proportionate force [or] restraint” to perform surgery on Geraldine Williams, who was 40 weeks pregnant.
Ms Williams had previously given birth by Caesarean section to three children and wished to have her fourth child by natural birth. The HSE argued its case based on the unborn’s right to life under the 8th Amendment, saying that complications could arise during a natural birth.
During the court case, Ms Williams was not present, as she was in hospital, and the foetus was given separate legal representation.
The judge found in favour of Ms. Williams’ right to make the decision to refuse a Caesarean section, stating that the increased risk inherent in a natural delivery did not justify “effectively authorising her to have her uterus opened against her will, something which would constitute a grievous assault if done on a woman who was not pregnant”. Ms Williams went on to have a Caesarean section as a fully consenting adult.
Liam Herrick, director of ICCL said:
“The judge in this particular case decided that the risk to the unborn did not warrant the invasiveness of this procedure against Ms. Williams’ will. However, another judge could have decided differently. The 8th Amendment leaves open that possibility. Ireland has a cruel history of denying women and girls the right to informed consent during pregnancy, as we know from women who suffered non-consensual symphysiotomies. It’s time for us to remove the last vestige of that culture of coercion: the 8th Amendment”.
Ms Williams’ case is illustrative of the fact that, on becoming pregnant in Ireland, women no longer have the same decision-making power over their own bodies. Indeed, the threat of being brought to court is often enough to convince women to submit to medical procedures they do not actively want.
Philomena Canning, Chairperson of Midwives for Choice says:
“Geraldine’s case is unusual in that she was not threatened with court, she was actually brought to court. In a paternalistic maternity care culture, rooted in a model of blanket medical policy that fails to respect the right to informed consent, more usually women who do not consent to routine procedures and interventions are threatened with a High Court order. This approach in and of itself tends to ensure the compliance of vulnerable women at full term pregnancy or who are actively labouring.”
According to several studies, pregnant women in Ireland are frequently denied the option of refusing tests and invasive procedures during labour.
Ms. Canning says:
“For the wider context, we can look to the survey involving some 3,000 women by AIMS Ireland in 2014-2015. Half of the women surveyed had been denied the opportunity to decline a treatment or atest of procedure during pregnancy (49%). There are similar statistics during labour and birth (50%).”
ICCL is calling for a yes vote to protect consent during pregnancy and birth.