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Poverty shapes abortion

The values informing the Constitutional recognition of the special place of women in the home shape the politics of Irish motherhood today.

A woman in poverty is damned from two perspectives when it comes to pregnancy. She can’t afford to continue a pregnancy but she can’t afford to stop it either. Constitutional reform; investing in women; trusting women; reversing austerity; treating all mothers equally; addressing poverty, low pay and childcare and all the other social and economic issues – are part of the politics of motherhood and choice in women’s lives.

In our ‘Repeal the 8th’ debate we need to make links to a different section of the Constitution, Article 41.2. This prioritises a woman’s domestic role over her labour market participation by unambiguously implying that a woman’s place is in the home. Repeal the 8th needs to make links with the reality of a contemporary politics of motherhood based on Article 41.2. The values informing this Constitutional Article are still widely and deeply held and shape the politics of motherhood today. They are reflected in current policies on child income support, lone parents, homecare tax credit, tax individualisation and childcare.

Economic independence and women’s access to, and control of, economic resources are key to understanding women’s choices and the barriers to women’s choices. Crisis Pregnancy Agency research has established that economic factors mediate a woman’s pregnancy in complex way: “the balance between the ‘value’ and the ‘cost’ of a child is important in shaping fertility decisions”.
Poverty and financial dependence impede women’s ability to act on a range of choices, not least those associated with reproductive health including her right to choose to have a child.

Poverty is a barrier to having children as it may make it impossible to pay for food. 10% of Irish people experience food poverty. They have problems meeting basic needs including health, housing, and children’s education. Austerity has made people more likely to experience poverty and the recently loosened purse strings have yet to dispense much to those who need resources most.

Precarious jobs, bogus self-employment, if-and-when contracts, casual hours, low-hour jobs and internships all make pregnancy a non-viable option. Young people, women and migrant workers are most likely to have such jobs. Being pregnant and an employee is precarious. There has been an increase in unfair dismissals of, and discrimination against, pregnant women. Being self-employed and pregnant is often the foundation for stress and poverty.

Poverty, and related lack of access to economic independence act as a constraint on a woman’s capacity or right to choose not to have a child.

The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) argues that the high cost of prescription and non-prescription contraceptive items interferes with the right of men and women on low incomes to obtain affordable contraception and to enjoy their right to adequate reproductive health. Cost deters young adults from using contraception. The need to get a GP for renewal of a prescription for a contraceptive pill acts as a further barrier.

Once a woman living in poverty falls pregnant, accessing the finance needed for an abortion is a barrier. Borrowing from informal or formal sources, money lenders or credit unions, is rarely an option. Austerity has acutely affected the extent and depth of financial exclusion. Small-scale debt is now part of many households’ day-to-day finances. There is little capacity to absorb unexpected one-off costs. Informal sources of credit are exhausted.

Money lenders (legal and illegal) and other forms of high-cost credit are used when conventional credit is no longer available. Such sources offer loans at exorbitant interest rates and often with far more serious risks. Credit Unions’ ability to make small-scale loans accessible is diminishing, due to increased regulation and a change in the Credit Union ethos.

A 2016 study found 43% of women using at-home medical termination of pregnancy through online telemedicine, the abortion pill, could not afford to continue the pregnancy. Indeed 34.6% struggled to cover the £70 donation. These women were also more likely to lack emotional support.

Financial control is another restraint. Some women in well-off households do not have access to their own income or control of their own time or space.

To make choices to get pregnant or avoid pregnancy real, women need the practical capability to implement those choices. Debates must reflect this or lose relevance.

by Mary Murphy