Women’s Rights as Human Rights: Local and Global Perspectives
Strategies and Analyses from the ICCL Working Conference on Women’s Rights as Human Rights (Dublin, March 1997)
Edited by Niamh Reilly

Reproductive and Sexual Rights
By Ailbhe Smyth

I want to begin by quoting three clauses from articles in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, to remind ourselves that they are there for our use and benefit as women:

All human beings . . . are endowed with reason and conscience’ (Art. 1).

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and the security of the person’ (Art.3).

Everyone – ‘without distinction of any kind’ (Art.2).

You might think that the two sets of rights I am talking about today – reproductive rights and lesbian rights – are poles apart from one another. But of course they are no such thing. Each raises issues of the most fundamental kind for women about our bodies and our sexuality, and each is centrally about our human right to liberty.

What does liberty mean for a woman? What do we need in order to "be free and equal in dignity and rights" (Art. 1)? What do we need if those words are to translate into realities, if they are to become more than fine political speech?

A woman’s freedom depends on many interrelated factors – adequate shelter, food, economic independence, physical and mental integrity, well-being and safety, social and political agency. And it depends on other far less tangible things too, such as creative and imaginative expression, sexual and emotional intimacy, friendship, love. To be free, we need to be able to make rational, informed decisions about the shape and meaning of our lives, and so long as we do not have the power of self-determination, we do not enjoy the right to liberty to which all human beings are entitled. There can be no liberty for a woman who is not free to say "I make decisions for myself about my reproductive body. ["My body, my right" as Shireen Huq told us last night.] I decide whether or not I will have children, how many, and when." There is no liberty, and often no safety and security, for a woman who is not guaranteed reproductive self-determination and health as her fundamental human right. Nor is there liberty for a woman who is not free to determine and express her sexual identity, and specifically, in a heterosexist world system, to say, without fear of repercussions of any kind, "I am lesbian". There can be no real freedom where there is social, cultural and political invisibility, self-censorship, fear, homophobia and discrimination. There is therefore nothing abstract about rights and freedoms in either of the areas I’m talking about – they are our everyday realities in the most personal and immediate ways. So I am going to speak personally, because at the end of the day (and at the beginning and in the middle of every day), our human rights are about what happens to us, as people, as women, what we can achieve, how we can not only survive, but flourish in freedom in every aspect of our selves and our lives.

More than fifteen years ago now, a young Irish woman who is very dear to me became pregnant without intending to. She had been using contraception, but for some reason or another it failed. There is nothing unusual about this – it happens to women of childbearing age all the time, all over the world. And however safe, comprehensive and accessible reproductive health care provision becomes (and we have a long, long way to go for that to be achieved in this country, or almost anywhere in the world), it is going to go on happening. "Unwanted pregnancies may decline, but they will not vanish altogether."

This young woman went ahead with her pregnancy because she didn’t see herself as having any option – she had to go ahead, whether she wanted to or not, and indeed she did not. She was just eighteen, and in no position financially or socially to raise a child – and certainly in no state of mind or maturity to take on the responsibility of raising a child on her own, the man having disappeared like snow off a ditch. She had to go ahead because the legal, social and cultural prohibitions against abortion in this country were so total and powerful that even the very notion of ‘choice’ was unthinkable and unspeakable for her. Her baby was adopted. This was not a "decision" she made in any real sense of that word, implying some ability to choose freely between one option and another. Her baby was adopted, because there was nothing else she could do. And she was devastated.

I don’t really know how she dealt with that, and she had to deal with it almost entirely on her own. I don’t really know how she thinks and feels about it now, because she doesn’t talk about it. I do know I will never forget the pain on her face, the pain that held every bone and muscle in her body tight and rigid, when I saw her a very short while after the adoption. I will never forget it because it was terrible and cruel, and because no woman, anywhere, should ever have to go through that.

I was committedly pro-abortion – pro-choice if you prefer that term – before this happened – but in my head more than my heart. Seeing that young woman’s experience made me incandescent with anger. I am still angry about how we continue in Ireland to deny women the freedom to make our own reproductive decisions, because of the absence of adequate sex education (or any at all), and because there is still not easily accessible, safe and free contraception for all women throughout the country. I am deeply angry at how we turn our backs on women’s needs by pretending that information and the "right to travel" are somehow enough for a woman who decides rationally and in the fullness of her own conscience – that she needs an abortion. A leaflet and a plane ticket are not an abortion. And they most certainly do not ensure the reproductive well-being, liberty and dignity which women are entitled to, as self-determining human beings. The reality is that at least five thousand women here in this country need an abortion badly enough, every year, to make a demeaning, bleak journey to England to get one. How many more don’t go because they have no money, no information, no support – no sense of a choice?

I want to urge us today to pledge that we will work in solidarity for women’s right to full reproductive well-being and freedom, in Ireland and throughout the world, including the rights to comprehensive sex education and reproductive health services, to free and safe contraception, to decide freely to be sterilised or not, to have a safe, legal abortion or not, and I call for an end to all laws, customs, attitudes and practices which interfere with women’s right to full reproductive self-determination. I want to speak even more personally now, and to say that when I came out as lesbian over ten years ago, I really didn’t come out at all, except, I suppose – and then quite timidly – within the lesbian and gay community. I didn’t come out to my family and to very many of my heterosexual friends, or at work or in other aspects of my "public" life, because I didn’t feel free to say I was lesbian, knew it would have a negative effect on my life, knew it would be too hard for me to say it – and as Inez McCormack has just told us, no woman has to be a heroine. It did indeed have an impact on my personal life, which I still cannot talk about in public, because it is still too painful. It has affected my working and public/political life too, although I have learned to live with that more easily, and to see it, in some ways, as even politically useful.

The fact is, I still don’t find it easy to stand up in public and say "I am lesbian", even though I am a middle class, white, settled woman with a well-paid, high-status job. These powerful privileges give me advantages and protections in all other parts of my life – but not here. I can be, and sometimes am, ignored, marginalised or discriminated against because I am lesbian. Yet my lesbian sexuality is an important part of my identity and the woman I am, and I want that to be acknowledged and valued in the same way as all the other connected parts of me.

Because of persistent and strategic feminist, lesbian and gay activism over many years, we are certainly making progress in this country, with new equality legislation coming on stream. But we all know that laws are often inadequate and are in any case never enough in themselves to radically change the deep-rooted myths and stereotypes, the attitudes and behaviours which maintain homophobia and discrimination.

For more than a quarter of a century, lesbians in Ireland have been to the forefront in the struggle for rights for all women. It is now time, and more than time, for all women – and I am speaking directly to heterosexual women – to fight actively to achieve full rights and freedoms for lesbians – because the liberation and liberty of any and every woman, whoever and wherever she is, matters – must matter – to all of us.

Ailbhe Smyth is director of the Women’s Education, Research and Resource Centre, UCD.

Next | Back to the Table of Contents