The Embodied Subject: Northern/Irish Feminist Judgments Project

WHB6t5xX_400x400This report of the fourth workshop of the Northern/Irish Feminist Judgments Project is by Sandra Duffy, an LL.M. student in International Human Rights Law & Public Policy at University College Cork.

‘The Embodied Subject’

The fourth workshop of the Northern/Irish Feminist Judgments Project was held in Griffith College Dublin on the 13th and 14th of April 2015. The Project, headed by Aoife O’Donoghue (Durham), Julie McCandless (LSE) and Máiréad Enright (Kent), seeks to add an oft-missed perspective in Northern/Irish jurisprudence by inserting a feminist judge on the bench of the Court in question in each case, and having them write the judgment addressing the issues overlooked or under-considered by the judgments handed down in the case itself.

The theme of the Dublin workshop was ‘the embodied subject’. As with most feminist consideration of the state of embodiment – especially that of women – there is often as much to be found in the silences as in the words. What does the law make of women’s bodies? Where are the gaps in consideration? How does the law address, or not address, the experiences of transgender and queer women – both in legislation, and in judicial opinion? Laws regulating the body, the physical self, can be blind to the social and psychological consequences they carry for the person thus regulated. If the law – as in most of the cases covered during the weekend – operates on a strict sex binary, where those female-assigned at birth are de jure considered female and those deemed male cannot be seen to be de facto female later in life, then the gendered experience of being a woman and experiencing one’s body is the square peg in the law’s round hole. Indeed, as Tanya Ní Mhuirthuile and Ivana Bacik ask in their judgment on Foy v An t-Ard Chláiritheoir, must sex assignation at birth be considered a statement of fact, or a rebuttable presumption?

The female sexed and gendered body forms an object for the law more often than its owner is deemed to be a subject and a participant in those laws. The selection of cases presented in this weekend displayed the judicial attitude to womanhood in all its forms, ranging from reproductive rights to gender recognition to adoption and ownership of one’s identity. The workshop also included cross-disciplinary talks from social scientists and activists which sought to place the question of law and the embodied subject into its fuller social context. The cases under consideration were McGee v Attorney General[1], McKinley v Minister for Defence[2], BJM v CM[3], Foy v An t-Ard Chláiritheoir[4], Barnes v Belfast City Council[5], Zappone and Gilligan v Revenue Commissioners[6], DPP v Tiernan[7], DPP v C[8], CC v Ireland[9], P.M.  v.  St. Vincent’s Hospital[10], and IOT v B[11].

These cases cover a broad spectrum of issues: the directly corporeal (BJM v CM, where the woman in question was treated as a body and nothing more by her ex-husband and the original judge) to the adminstrative (Zappone and Gilligan, two female spouses challenging an inequality in recognition and tax law) to the intersection of the civil right to privacy and the practical impact on health and family from denial of that right (Mc Gee v Attorney General). At times, the original judgments were considered to be broadly fair in their scope, in particular that of McKechnie J in Foy, where the rewriters found themselves in the curious position of being almost satisfied with the original opinion and looking for things to render it complete! Other cases, however, required fundamental change from the ground up. In Máiréad Enright’s opinion in McGee, she found herself breaking down the facts and circumstances of both the plaintifs, the McGee family, and the societal context in which the case took place. Máiréad questioned whether the right to use contraception was correctly identified as a right of the family unit, preferring to see it as a matter of individual privacy. The freedom to regulate one’s family planning could be considered to be a right of ’embodied conscience’ – living one’s civil and political rights through bodily experience.

One particularly egregious original judgment was that in BJM v CM. After having married, BJM was shocked to discover his wife had seriously physical scarring from a bad accident. He claimed that this scarring was physically repulsive enough that he had been tricked into the marriage and that his consent could not be considered informed; therefore, he sought a decree of nullity. Appallingly, this opinion was carried and the Ms’ marriage was annulled. This left CM in a position where she and her family found their lives in upheaval and their seventeen-year household suddenly without legal rights. The feminist judges remarked in particular on the voicelessness of CM throughout the case. The whole proceedings centres around BJM: his feelings and his experiences. CM is reduced to an object over which men are arguing. Indeed, the original judge goes so far as to state that concealing her scarring was to conceal something of ‘the fundamental nature of the person’ akin to a psychiatric illness. CM did not, however, suffer any such irregularity in personality or emotions – but due to her husband’s claimed lack of attraction to her, she was deemed defective enough that BJM could not have given informed consent to marrying her. She is regarded as her body and nothing more. The commentators also spoke about the lack of sexual identity of women before the Irish courts. The Madonna/whore dichotomy is very evident here; CM is either properly modest for not sleeping with BJM before marriage, or she is a dishonest fraud who sought to entrap a man before revealing her ‘dysfunctional’ self. Possibly she is both at once, but we cannot know what she herself was thinking because all the commentary on her life is coming from men – male husband, male doctors, male judge. If the embodied female subject in Irish law has a nadir in terms of respect, BJM v CM may possibly be it.

The interdisciplinary panels interspersed through the delivery of judgments covered issues of women in Irish society ranging from the history of the women politically active around the 1920s in Ireland, to the struggle for women’s right to sit on a jury. They included stories of front-line activism, such as that of front-line campaigner Ailbhe Smyth, and a powerful story from leader of the Survivors of Symphysiotomy support group Mary O’Connor. Most unexpectedly enthralling was the presentation of social geographer Mary Gilmartin, who spoke on ‘Bodies, Borders, and Scales’. She spoke of how the way in which we organise and conceptualise our physical space in society is one of the instruments through which we experience our lives within that society. The hierarchy of our esteem for space, placing cities as centres of power, alienates those without access to such power; similarly, when we consider the world as a collection of ‘more important’ versus ‘less important’ areas, we assign identity to people based on the physical space which they occupy and weigh their existence as more or less relevant than our own. In this way the symbolic value of that person’s physical existence is linked to their assigned place in the world – in Mary’s words, “the body, in effect, becomes the carrier of the border.”

Considering the physical self to own within it the borders of one’s assigned societal identity brings with it another way to understand the experiences of LGBTQ subjects in law. Whether it be a challenge to the legitimacy of one’s marriage or the ability to live without constant worry of being revealed to be transgender, the lives of the queer and trans* community in Ireland have never been easy. The brave women at the centre of the Foy and Zappone and Gilligan cases know that they carry with them the borders imposed on them by society, and in challenging those borders in the courts they opened their lives up to scrutiny and invalidation. The LGBTQ rights campaigns have always involved the assertion of both physical and psychological identity by those involved: the law addresses them solely as the product of their physical bodies in deciding who they are and with whom they may form a family. From a feminist viewpoint, the right to be considered a person in possession of full and equal human rights is essential. The feminist and LGBTQ struggle overlap and intersect, and it is right that we should deconstruct thinking around queer bodies as we do around female-sexed bodies more generally.

In thinking about bodies and their effects and uses, the questions of sexual activity, reproduction, and sexual violence arise. While the third IFJP workshop, in University College Cork, had centred on ‘the mothering subject’, this workshop looked at the effects of sexual regulation in Ireland on the woman as an individual as opposed to the carrier/mother of a child. Contraception was spoken of in the McGee judgment, and Máiréad also gave a colourful account of the condom-smuggling trade over the border in the 1970s. Caroline Fennell and Louise Kennefick had written their opinion on the DPP v Tiernan case, in which a sentence for rape was challenged and questions related to the law of sentencing overall arose. The feminist judges took issue with the views of Finlay CJ in the case, noting that his judgment contained stereotyped views of women and drew distinctions between different circumstances in which rapes occur. They wished to focus more on the role and experience of the victim-witness as an autonomous actor in the trial process (leading them to consider, also, the propriety of using feminist principles to argue for retributive justice for a victim). Eilinóir Flynn and Sinéad Ring looked at another case involving sexual autonomy, that of DPP v C. This case was based on the law around consent to sexual acts. The judges gave a thoughtful, complex look at the idea of consent both per se and as it can be regulated/proven in court. Foremost, again, were the ideas of autonomy and agency of the consenting party. They also noted that discussions of consent, as in this case, can be very heteronormative – just another way in which the embodied self finds itself playing a pre-determined role before the law.

The issue of corporeality is inseparable from the experience of being a woman in a sociolegal context. On a personal level, I took from this workshop a broader understanding of my existence before the law, along with the challenges of viewing the consequences of my own embodiment and that of others with a critical eye. From a wider perspective, being able to read a case with an eye to how the biological sex and true gender of the participants is an exercise which illuminates some repeating themes in Irish law: the body, the mother, the sexuality, the autonomy of choice.

[1]    [1973] IESC 2 (Máiréad Enright (Judge) & Emily Cloatre (Commentator))

[2]    [1992] 2 IR 333 (Joanne Conaghan (Judge) & Fergus Ryan (Commentator))

[3]    [1996] 2 IR 547 (Aideen Ryan & Katie Dawson (Judge) & Christine Ryan (Commentator))

[4]    [2007] IEHC. 116 (Tanya ní Mhuirthile (Judge) & Ivana Bacik (Commentator))

[5]    [2012] NICA 19 (Marie Fox (Judge) & Fiona Cooke (Commentator))

[6]    [2006] IEHC 404 (Fiona de Londras (Judge) & Siobhán Wills (Commentator))

[7]    [1988] 1 I.R. 250 (Louise Kennefick & Caroline Fennell (Judge) & Liz Campbell (Commentator))

[8]    [2001] 3 IR 345 (Eilionóir Flynn &  Sinéad Ring (Judge) & Anna Arstein-Kerslake (Commentator))

[9]    [2006] IESC 33 (David Prendergast (Judge) Cian O’Concubhair (Commentator))

[10]  [2003] IR 321 (Mary Donnelly (Judge) & Claire Murray (Commentator))

[11]  [1998] 2 IR 321 (Katherine O’Donnell & Claire McGettrick (Judges), James Smith (Commentator))

The Embodied Subject: Northern/Irish Feminist Judgments Project

Symphisiotomy and the Statute of Limitations

We are delighted to welcome the following guest post from Marie O’Connor, Chairperson of  Survivors of Symphysiotomy (SoS) and author of Bodily Harm: symphysiotomy and pubiotomy in Ireland 1944-92

The Statute of Limitations (Amendment) Bill 2013 for survivors of symphysiotomy is now before the Select Committee on Justice of the Irish Parliament. Its passage at Second Stage reflects the fact that these were effectively clandestine – as well as abusive – operations, performed without consent, that breached human, constitutional and other legal rights. Laws protecting human subjects in clinical research were also flouted: hospital clinical reports and medical writings show that these procedures were often experimental. Moreover, carried out before, during and after labour, the surgery amounted to cruel and inhuman treatment.    Continue reading “Symphisiotomy and the Statute of Limitations”

Symphisiotomy and the Statute of Limitations