Thorny women’s rights issues means all is not rosy in the garden

Friday, August 25, 2017

In the background briefings Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau received on all things Irish was there any mention of the Rose of Tralee? 

Well why not, given the week that was in it, and the fact that Mr Trudeau is clearly trying to get his head around how our reproductive rights have evolved.

I know, I know, it’s way too easy to have a go at the annual Rose extravaganza — a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. But you don’t have to be a social scientist to recognise there is an interesting link between our national lovely girls competition — a winner chosen as the embodiment of Irish womanhood — and the way women in Ireland are held not to be responsible enough to decide whether they wish to continue with a pregnancy or not.

I didn’t tune in this year although I did walk into the room at one point where it was being watched by my daughter.

Immediately I found myself transfixed by one of the Roses, an American I think, limbo dancing with incredible dexterity. Without even thinking about it I found myself sinking into an armchair to watch.

Immediately I was transported to a time in my head that was the week before the school holidays ended, with two wonderful nights of television where lovely, smiling, charming, exceedingly well intentioned girls were put through their paces by Gay Byrne.

Nowadays the Roses are even more confident and better educated and ambitious, and up for the laugh, and speak about things like mental health, but when you strip away the schmaltz they’re still up there parading their wares hoping to outshine all the rest.

Of course they couldn’t dare say they want to win because that would be seen as unladylike and against the spirit of the competition.

Wouldn’t it be some craic though if one of them said she’d really enjoyed her few days in Co Kerry but when all was said and done her main reason for entering was to win.

Holy moly that would cause more of a stir than Sydney Rose Brianna Parkins did last year when she raised the Eighth Amendment.

No doubt Canada has its own beauty pageants but the Rose of Tralee, is not just any old competition, it is part of our social fabric.

It’s the national crowd pleaser, going on for almost six decades now, beloved of families all over the country who settle in on the Monday and Tuesday night each year trying to guess which of this year’s line up fits the bill of the idealised Irish colleen.

As Brianna Parkins learned last year the Dome may be brimming with ladies in the prime of their reproductive years but any mention of lady parts and anything related to them is frowned upon.

So any briefing to Mr Trudeau that included a mention of how the Rose of Tralee fits into the Irish cultural landscape would surely prove highly illustrative for him, not to mention the other bit in our Constitution which covers the role of women “in the home”.

In a nutshell the apparent natural habitats for Irish females — in the home or in the Dome.

Happenings in Tralee were all literally and figuratively a world away from Mr Trudeau saying on Sunday, following a meeting with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, that giving women a choice on abortion is not just a women’s rights issue but one of fundamental human rights.

“On the issue of reproductive rights, I shared our perspective that such rights are integral to women’s rights and they are human rights and I asked him to look at it as a fundamental human right and we had a good discussion,” said Mr Trudeau.

For his part Leo Varadkar said he had updated the Canadian prime minister on “our plans to have a referendum on that in Ireland next year to give the people of Ireland the opportunity to remove our constitutional ban on abortion should they wish to do so”.

For all their chumminess and our Leo’s rather sweet apparent hero worship of his Canadian counterpart we know they are definitely not on the same page regarding abortion as “not just a women’s rights issue but one of fundamental human rights”.

Our Taoiseach has acknowledged that his view on the issue has shifted over time, but his own use of language at that same press briefing, clearly intending to separate himself from the fray, was noteworthy. He said he knew abortion was an important issue “for a lot of campaigners for women’s rights”.

Contrast that with Mr Trudeau earlier this year, during the announcement that Canada will spend C$650m (€440m) over the next three years to help fund sex education and reproductive health initiatives around the world, including money earmarked to fill the gap for abortion-related services left by US President Donald Trump.

“Like men, women should be able to choose when they want to start a family, how big their family should be, and who they want to start that family with.” He went on: “When women have equal power and equal weight and equal leadership influence, the kinds of decisions are better.”

It’s the sort of stirring, inspiring stuff that would definitely rule you out of ever grabbing the winner’s sash in Tralee, and words which Leo Varadkar, I suspect, no matter how much he evolves, would find himself choking on if he were to repeat them.

There are 100,000 abortions in Canada each year, and abortion is legal at all stages during pregnancy in Canada. It is also interesting to note that Canada in 2015 approved the abortion pill RU-486 for women up to seven weeks pregnant.

The pill has been available around the world for decades and is considered the “gold standard” in medical abortion; it was also mentioned at the Citizen’s Assembly as a way for women to avoid having to undergo a medical abortion once it is taken early enough in he pregnancy.

The abortion pill is approved in more than 50 countries with varying restrictions and is included on the World Health Organisation’s list of essential medicines.

It has been available to women in France and China since 1988. As it happens the roll out of the drug has been complicated in Canada, largely to do with the large size of the country, its many remote rural areas and also the manner in which it can be dispensed. But they’re working on the issues.

Interesting also to note that while he examined the border between Canada and the US we didn’t hear that Mr Varadkar spoke to any Canadian officials about the practicalities of their abortion services.

A bit like a Rose of Tralee contestant, I guess, he might have found it too distasteful.

Giving women a choice on abortion is not just a women’s rights issue but one of fundamental human rights

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