This month, a horrific crime focused national attention on violence against women in Ireland. Ashling Murphy, a 23-year-old primary school teacher, was killed as she went for a run in Tullamore, Co. Offaly. Her alleged attacker has been charged with murder.
While the full details of the investigation will not be publicly known until the trial, this shocking event has opened up a wider discussion around violence against women in Ireland.
Violence against women is an incredibly difficult issue to tackle, with multiple difficult questions to address. Why do some men commit these acts? Are there psychological, social and cultural factors which contribute to the problem? How could we address these? How can we best support women who are subjected to abuse? How can we tackle the stigma and shame that some women feel when they are abused? What role can the legal system play in preventing violence against women, and punishing those who commit it? Can men who commit these acts be rehabilitated? How?
There are so many facets to the issue that those of us who could just avoid it (i.e. who are lucky enough not to have experienced this kind of violence ourselves) can feel overwhelmed and just stay on the sidelines, leaving it to other people to solve the problem. It’s the same sort of let’s-not-think-about-sad-scary-things logic that tempts us when we overhear an acquaintance’s conversation with a partner that sounds scary and cruel, but we don’t know how we could possibly bring it up, so we just hope for the best and leave someone else to have the awkward conversation.
Of course, there are lots of other issues that various pro-life people and organisations see as being closely linked to being anti-abortion (or more broadly, promoting the rights of humans pre-birth) – environmental protection, death penalty abolition, migrant rights, anti-euthanasia/assisted suicide, fighting disability discrimination, animal rights, veganism, war… and there are lots of debates to be had about what other political positions should follow once you accept the most basic and widely accepted reasoning for why abortion is wrong, i.e.:
“all humans have rights by virtue of the fact that they are human, therefore a human being has the right to not be killed from the moment they begin to exist.”
On the other hand, not every organisation can be up-to-date and involved in every issue – and that goes for individuals too. At the Minimise Project, we have a diversity of views among our members and supporters around all of the issues mentioned above (and lots more). What unites us is our central mission of better conversations about abortion and promoting policies to reduce the abortion rate in Ireland, so we focus on things that are directly related to that. Some pro-life advocates might think, “while stopping violence against women is a worthy cause, so is stopping climate change and curing malaria, and we don’t talk about those when we’re doing pro-life stuff – let’s just focus on abortion here”.
But those of us who think and talk about how we can support pregnant women and reduce the abortion rate must also have at least a basic engagement with the scourge of violence against women in general, and its most common form (domestic or intimate partner violence) in particular.
It is not an optional extra. It is vital because it directly affects whether we are able to help women in crisis pregnancies and protect them and their preborn children from violence.
We know that in most cases of violence against women, the perpetrator is someone close to the victim – most often a husband, partner or ex (as in the case of Nadine Lott, whose former partner was convicted of murdering her last year).
When pro-lifers seek to support women in crisis pregnancies, we will inevitably encounter women in abusive relationships. A key tactic of abusive partners is to isolate their victims – by cutting them off from family and friends, preventing them from keeping steady employment or pursuing educational opportunities, reducing their financial independence, and so on. Horrifically, some will even get their partner pregnant as a tactic to emotionally manipulate her and increase her dependence further. It would be irresponsible not to be aware of this possibility. Anyone who has contact with women in crisis pregnancies should be trained in spotting signs of abusive and coercive relationships and how to help women protect themselves and their babies.
Of course, in many crisis pregnancies a key part of supporting mother and baby would be supporting her relationship with the baby’s father and helping them as a family unit, but there will be cases where that is not what is called for. Similarly, since becoming pregnant can increase a woman’s dependency on an abusive partner, physical abuse can start or escalate further at this time. Well-meaning pro-lifers advising “getting the father involved” or “working on the relationship for the baby” could be actively harmful.
Pro-lifers also need to grapple with the reality of not just physically violent, but also emotionally abusive and coercive relationships. We need to engage with the fact that a woman who is in an abusive relationship and is trying to leave might easily view a pregnancy as a tie to her abuser and be afraid of having to maintain contact and even co-parent a child with someone who is abusive. Offering a woman in these circumstances nappies and bottles is not going to empower her to continue her pregnancy and parent her child – legal advice and an advocate who can help her seek safety or barring orders might be what she needs instead. And when we know that charges for breaching such orders doubled from 2019 to 2020 but the majority were struck out, withdrawn or dismissed, pro-lifers need to be the ones pushing for a better system.
These conversations are difficult and there are no magic solutions to solve the problem. But violence against women exists at every level in Irish society and tackling it is a moral imperative. We know pro-lifers care about protecting humans from violence and empowering women. We are far better equipped to do that when we educate ourselves about violence against women.