D’var Torah The right to vote and the 8th Amendment (Katie Hainbach)

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 10 July 2018

On Friday the 25th of May you may have noticed that I wasn’t here for Shabbat, I didn’t bunk off work, Alyth kindly gave me the weekend off to travel back home to Ireland to vote in the referendum on the 8th Amendment, known as the abortion referendum. As a woman growing up in Ireland, I had the right to vote, the right to keep my name after marriage and the right to buy land, biblical women weren’t so lucky.

Women aren’t mentioned very much in Torah, and very rarely by name. However, this week’s Torah portion is the story of the five daughters of Zelophehad. As women Zelophehad’s daughters Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah were not entitled to inherit any of their father’s land. These women recognised this injustice and came forward to appeal this regulation, arguing that their father’s name should not be cut off from his clan just because he had no son and that they should be permitted to inherit his land portion. Their proposal is implemented and the text goes on to give a more generalised regulation for the order of inheritance where there are no sons.

Living in Western society we often think that Biblical society is so detached from the lives we live, however, until recently women in Ireland did not have the right to autonomy over their own bodies.

I never really understood the implications of this until my very close friend fell pregnant and was unable to sustain the pregnancy, at first she told me and no one else. We were living in a country where you could not properly discuss your options with your doctor as their hands were firmly tied by the law, which recognised the equal right to life of the pregnant woman and the unborn foetus, making abortion illegal unless the life of the pregnant woman was at risk. I eventually persuaded my friend to tell her mother, who although upset, was understanding. The following week the three of us boarded a plane to Manchester very early in the morning and made our way to the Marie Stopes clinic. We met other Irish women in the waiting room of the clinic, all of them unable to be cared for in their own country. We flew there and back on the same day, it was a very traumatic and expensive journey. Whilst the 8th Amendment was in place women were considered vessels and like the daughters in our Torah portion, second class citizens.

There have been mumblings for years of a campaign to repeal the 8th Amendment in Ireland, however it was in 2012 when a 31 year old dentist from India called Savita Halappanavar died at University Hospital Galway of a septic miscarriage at 17 weeks gestation. Savita knew that miscarriage was inevitable and requested an abortion, this was refused, as her life was not deemed “enough” in danger. Savita died a week after her miscarriage began and Ireland was shamed. However, Savita’s death has not been in vain, Irish women and men began to fight back again this oppressive law and after years of marches, protests and campaigns on May 25th this year the Republic of Ireland voted to repeal the 8th.

Just as the daughters of Zelophehad did, women realised that the law was unfair and decided to stand up against it. However, this is not the end of our Torah portion, we learn that when the daughters marry they must do within their own clan and once married the land that they inherited will go to their husbands. Whilst they took a big step forward, the journey was not complete.

The Republic of Ireland has taken a huge step forward in women’s rights and I am incredibly proud. The Irish Republic are following in the United Kingdom’s footsteps, who passed the Abortion Act of 1967 which legalised abortion in a variety of circumstances by registered practitioners. My own grandfather, Dr John Marks played a major role in defending this act. As the father of two women, my mother Helen and my aunt Laura and two granddaughters myself and my cousin Sally, I am so proud to have a grandfather who was and still is passionate about women’s rights.

However, the 1967 abortion act did not and still does not extend to Northern Ireland, which, since the devolution of Stormont has been governed directly from Westminster. Just last month the Supreme Court of this country rejected an appeal by the Northern Ireland Human Right’s Commission, acknowledging that although the current restrictions on abortion in Northern Ireland breach human rights, it is not Westminster’s place to interfere.

Women in Northern Ireland are facing huge injustice, they are not granted the same rights to their bodies or right to health care as women in the rest of the UK. We must raise awareness in Britain so that we can join the fight for the human rights of both sexes.

The daughters of Zelophehad made a huge step forward, but it was just one step. We need to keep moving forward together to ensure that no more women have to go through what my friend went through and that all women in the UK and Ireland are given the care they deserve.

I am aware that this is a big topic, which is impossible to cover in a few minutes, however I am more than happy to talk about this further with those wanting to discuss. I hope you all have a lovely weekend, Shabbat Shalom.