Peripheral Thinking and Abortion Care

By Ruth Fletcher

‘Peripheral thinking’ seems to me to be one useful framework for identifying what states do when they respond to residents’ practices of travelling away for care.   States take a variety of actions when their residents cross borders for care; actions which produce, stigmatise, ease, regulate and represent that flow all at the same time pulling it in different directions. If we want to understand better the effects of those actions and perhaps even how to steer them, we need a way to differentiate between them while acknowledging the transnational space they occupy. Here I want to distinguish between three different kinds of peripheral thinking that inform such state actions – inverted, tangential and circular – in order to consider further how best to respond to the spaces for engagement that they open up. My reflections work out from the example of state actions and transnational care flow with which I’m most familiar, that of Irish state practices as they contribute to women’s outward flow for abortion care (Fletcher, 2013).

Inverted peripheral thinking

When states adopt law and policy that support travel for care whose provision is restricted at home, one kind of peripheral thinking they use to justify their actions takes an inverted form. They claim that the failure to provide the particular care at issue is actually evidence of a central role in international care provision and not a peripheral role.   In arguing that Ireland is an international leader in care for the ‘unborn’ and in maternity care more generally, the state has often represented its failure to care for pregnant women as a success. This is a familiar if crude form of thinking, which Barrett (1992), drawing on Marx, called the ‘camera obscura’ version of ideology.   The periphery represents itself as central to the delivery of care (to the ‘unborn’), with the effect of negating a peripheral role and obscuring failures in care delivery (to pregnant women).

Tangential peripheral thinking

But inverted peripheral thinking is not the only rationality that states use when they play a role in generating outward flows for abortion care. They may turn authoritarian in restricting or punishing travel for abortion care (Fletcher, 1998), but that is relatively rare. It is more usual for states that are peripheral to the provision of abortion care to end up accommodating use of that care to some extent because their residents compel them to. In the 1990s the Irish state famously compromised on its anti-abortion position by constitutionally recognizing freedoms to travel to and receive information about abortion care abroad. Since then the Crisis Pregnancy Programme has developed a network of predominantly pro-choice counselling agencies throughout the Republic of Ireland which provide free pregnancy counselling and post abortion check ups.

In a two-tier health system where many people pay fees to attend a general practitioner, the provision of free pre- and post- abortion care, with all its limits, is significant. In using regulatory techniques such as public funding, training and communication to normalize travel for abortion care, the Irish state demonstrates tangential peripheral thinking. Here the peripheral thinker does not want to become core as care provider, but instead approaches the core provision of abortion care sideways.   Peripheral thinking develops tangential connections with the core provider of abortion care by taking on activities which are a key part of abortion care, but are themselves on the periphery of that care, namely the provision of information, counseling and check ups. Tangential peripheral thinking then is conscious of being at a distance from core care provision, and does not want to become core. Rather tangential thinking connects periphery and core care providers by taking peripheral care activities, which are needed for the provision of core care, as the object of its attention and facilitation.

So far, civil society critics of Irish abortion policy have focused on the discriminatory and hypocritical aspects of this kind of tangential thinking (e.g. ARC, CRR, DfC, ICCL, IFPA, WHRA). Travel policy has discriminatory effects and is not an adequate means of the state meeting its public responsibilities, because the less mobile will be less well served. Abortion travel policy is hypocritical because it cedes its domestic anti-abortion moral stance and supports access to abortion on grounds that would not be legal within the territory. But these critiques can retain their truth while we also recognize that travel policy has some positive effects from a feminist perspective.

We can welcome the way that this public recognition of women’s use of abortion care has likely contributed in some way to increased tolerance of abortion.   Opinion polls now regularly reveal greater levels of support for abortion than the state is willing to entertain in domestic provision. Although, as in many other countries (e.g. Sanger, 2014), Irish women are far from feeling free to speak openly at will about their abortion experiences, there have been several initiatives which tackle the association of abortion with stigma in the public sphere (Enright, 2014). The state’s tangential peripheral thinking has opened up (and indeed arguably resulted from) spaces for feminists and pro-choice advocates to engage and push the state further towards recognizing and serving women’s needs.

Circular peripheral thinking

A third kind of peripheral thinking that we see in Irish abortion travel policy takes a circular form and argues that there is nothing the state can do to change its own practices. Here the state argues that its own rules, or the views of the people, prevent it from acting to cure some harm or wrong that it cedes is in contravention of international human rights norms. There was a particularly spectacular example of this kind of peripheral thinking evident in the state’s response to the UNHRC during Ireland’s review under the ICCPR in July 2014. The Minister for Justice and her staff faced hard-hitting criticism by the HRC members for the failure to protect women’s civil and political rights in relation to abortion but also more generally (e.g. Cahill, 2014).

Representatives of the Department of Justice responded by relying on Article 25 and the right to vote to say that past abortion referendums meant it could not do any more legally to bring Irish abortion law into conformity with the Covenant. As Enright tweeted during the hearings (I’m paraphrasing), “to recap, the Department of Justice has just argued that Parliament can vote to inflict inhuman and degrading treatment on women”. Much was made at the time of this failure of the state to recognize that this ‘tyranny of the majority’ type argument contradicted the whole premises of the state’s claimed commitment to human rights, and indeed HRC member Mr Shany asked the state party to withdraw the relevant statement.

But here the point I want to make is that this way of thinking is a circular denial of sovereign power to make and interpret law. This state is so embedded in the periphery of abortion care that it can’t even imagine the possibility of proposing a referendum which would liberalise abortion provision, rather than restrict it (see further Flinterman’s comments). A state which refuses to act in legislating for abortion care (except when forced to by the ECtHR in ABC) on the grounds that its own legal rules so prevent, or that the people would not tolerate such action, has a strange understanding of its own legal power and moral responsibility.

In representing itself as a passive effect of its own legal authority, the state adopts a circular form of peripheral thinking which renders it eternally peripheral to its own power in a spectacular act of legal misrecognition. Of course, the state could introduce a Bill to remove Article 40 3 3. It could decriminalize abortion. It could promote an interpretation of Article 40 3 3 that recognizes substantive differences between pregnant women and fetuses, and permits domestic abortion in a way that would likely reduce the outward flow. But it chooses not to.

Conclusion

States, particularly the Irish state, have actually been quite creative in responding to their residents’ practices of travelling abroad for care that is restricted at home. They have used a range of regulatory techniques that have effects on cross border care flows. In the case of law and policy on abortion-related flows, these different techniques present challenges and resources to those of us who wish to make abortion access easier. First of all, we need to throw our net more widely when we try to capture legal tools that have an effect on women’s abortion practices. The legal instruments which restrict women’s access on the territory of the nation-state are significant. Inverted peripheral thinking, which denies harms to women while celebrating care of the ‘unborn’ as a marker of international leadership, arguably takes care and international norms seriously, but requires redirection.

But as women’s cross-border abortion practices illustrate, norms of domestic restriction are not the only legal instruments that are significant. Regulatory measures that promote non-judgmental information and counselling and provide public funding do acknowledge extra-territorial abortion use and attempt to reduce harms to travelling women. Working with such tangential peripheral thinking may provide further opportunities to destigmatise abortion and promote a harm reduction framework. And finally, the kind of circular peripheral thinking, which sees the state deny its own power to have an impact on care flows, provides welcome opportunities for reminding the state that women are not the only ones who bear public responsibilities for care provision.

PS I wrote this before the news of the recent abortion refusal case broke.  My initial thoughts on that failure in abortion care are here: http://humanrights.ie/constitution-of-ireland/contesting-cruel-treatment-ruth-fletcher/

If you would like more information about civil society’s campaigning responses to this case and more generally please see: http://www.abortionrightscampaign.ie and https://www.facebook.com/pages/Speaking-of-Imelda/571659212932533

Comments welcome.

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