Last week saw a day sunny and hot – a typical Wednesday on the island of Crete. I took shelter from the heat to watch the RTE Debate on the upcoming referendum. I hoped to feel sheltered in more ways than one – seeking comfort and refuge in the familiarity of home, flailing towards a life buoy of support from the voices that we, as a society, have decided matter most – my doctors, my lawyers, my politicians, my decision makers.
The heat is about the only thing I felt sheltered from and for once I was grateful for the terrible internet connection that kept freezing the player, granting me a chance to catch my breath, attempt to unclench every bristled bone and fibre and abate an impulse to retch, gag, cry. I felt – and continue to feel – abandoned, confused, neglected, dismissed, belittled, outraged, devastated, baffled as I was told that to hope to feel entitled to the best quality of life for me, for my sisters, daughters, friends, neighbours is an act of unspeakable atrocity and unforgivable inhumanity. Even in the heat, I had goosebumps.
As many of you know – or don’t know – I am currently in Greece working as a volunteer for a turtle protection NGO. I’ve been here three weeks now, and if I do decide to ever come home, won’t return to Irish shores until the end of June.
Why does this matter? Great question. It doesn’t (even I, queen of self-indulgent hyperbole, am aware my absence will go unnoticed by most) and it shouldn’t matter if it weren’t for one important event, one cataclysmic moment that WILL affect my life, or the life of someone close to me in the future, not to mention the lives already scarred, impaled, bruised and forgotten in our murky – and unspoken – Irish past.
The eventual referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment.
I know. You’re exhausted from the onslaught of propaganda, campaigning, advertising, pleading, arguing, persuading, debating. I am too. I have deliberately stayed predominantly silent on this issue on social media, feeling my voice irrelevant and superfluous in a sea of stout Repealers, staunch Pro-Lifers and everyone in between. As a twenty-five year old woman and an unapologetic feminist, my view on this divisive issue is unsurprising: I want the Eighth Amendment to be removed and replaced with careful legislation that caters for the real and prevalent needs of women and families in Ireland today.
Not because I am pro-abortion; not because I think anyone who finds abortion to be an issue that is morally problematic, emotionally complicated and extremely difficult to reconcile is evil, close-minded or inhumane; and not because I find pleasure in inciting divides, hatred and chasms in my society with inflammatory rhetoric and clever slogans. For once, I am not trying to outdo ‘the other side’, to ‘win’, to emerge cleverest, loudest, right. I wish there were no sides at all when it comes to defining the rights of our precious women and girls – am I naive to still be shocked that we have descended into this craggy, cracked and ever-growing canyon of opposition? If there’s one thing we can all take from the slog of this referendum, is that there will be no winner tomorrow on May 25th. We have all lost something precious in this fight to be right, this fight to play ‘God’ in our desperation to define the worth of life, the extent of choice, the value of free will we want women to have in our society.
I want to vote Yes to the repealing of the Eighth Amendment because I don’t believe I, or any other human being, has the right to put a limit on the value of a woman’s – or anyone else’s – life. I don’t believe I have the right to impose my own views – correct or incorrect, flawed or feeble as they may be – on another. I want to vote Yes because voting Yes doesn’t mean voting yes to abortion; it means Yes to choice, Yes to compassion.
It’s a recognition of the struggle being faced every day by normal women who have spent sleepless nights in emotional and physical agony, who have waited months or years for a child only to discover, in the moments when your sole concern should be what size crib to buy or which grandparent to honour first with the act of naming, that that child will not survive beyond the womb.
I could go on but can’t, won’t and shouldn’t have to.
And so, my plea. I cannot vote in this referendum. I cannot act to empower the people I love most and the strangers I will never know who, every day, are booking flights on borrowed money, staying in sterile hotel rooms and returning home empty. Emptied of hope, comfort and life.
YOU can. You, my friend, my colleague, my neighbour whose name I always mean to learn and never do, my dentist, my friendly shopkeeper, person I bash into apologetically as I run to whatever thing I’m late for again. You – who might also feel lost in all this talk of technicalities, weighted down by the unfair responsibility being put on us to decide the depth of our morals and our division of the worth and lives of strangers. You, whose voice has been wrongfully missing from this conversation – who have had to listen to people you don’t know and can’t relate to talk at you about an issue that, even as they’re talking, they tell you you can’t understand, can’t have an opinion about unless it’s their one and can’t ask a question for fear of facing all kinds of incendiary backlash. You, who have been told that you are either murderer or human, a lover of women or horrifying misogynist, pro-life or against life. As if any human is against life, as if anyone makes the decision to terminate the beginnings of existence the same way they decide which brand of detergent to buy; unthinkingly, easily, nonchalantly.
I’m asking you. If you feel unsure which way to vote, if you feel unsure or uninterested in voting at all, please, use my vote. Take my Yes and make it count. Use your power, this amazing democratic right we have to influence change, to shape a more inclusive, compassionate future and take my voice. Take the weight of the decision off your shoulders, the worry and indecision and fear of making the wrong choice, of being responsible for the lives of women or the lives of foetuses, of landing on the ‘wrong’ side of the argument. That weight shouldn’t be there and the fact that it exists is I believe, one of the many failings of what has been an exceptionally upsetting few months for all of us.
I’m asking you. Who might feel conflicted and scared – scared of creating a world of ‘abortion on demand’ – whatever that bizarre concept means. I imagine queues building like those at adventure parks, women hopping up and down in glee and anticipation, fanning themselves with clinic brochures and showy sunglasses as they compare bellies and plot celebratory drinks. I imagine fingers being clicked and bam! pregnant bellies disappearing in Cillit Bang fashion as an immaculate ‘After’ woman flashes an Oral B smile. I imagine a carousel of women, robed as if at a spa, chatting as if getting a manicure and laughing because abortion, you know, is no big deal. I imagine a procedure that is entered into with the same flippant carelessness, the same light-hearted shoulder shrug that most of us get haircuts, choose nail polish or buy unnecessary things in Penney’s. I imagine these things because we have been scaremongered into believing those situations – drastic and exaggerated as they may seem – are viable possibilities should the Eighth Amendment be repealed. They are not.
I repeat, they are not. First of all, the legislation being proposed doesn’t come close to allowing that to happen. Secondly, abortion under any circumstance is never an easy choice to make, and to trivialize and diminish it by using the language we associate with Netflix, online shopping and every other construction of our society of instant gratification is grossly negligent, unfair and disrespectful to anyone who has been subjected to an experience that, regardless of your reasons for choosing a termination, changes you irrevocably.
If you feel conflicted – torn between supporting a woman’s right to a decision and feeling that to support abortion – directly or indirectly – goes against your own morality, I’m asking you to choose my vote. Use your confusion and indecision in the most constructive, positive way and take my vote because you should never have been asked to make this distinction in the first place. Because, without any disrespect and without any intention of being facetious or simplifying an issue that is inherently complex and confusing, this referendum is not about how you feel about abortion. I can hear the exclamatory ‘WHAT?’ most of you must be shouting at the screen right about now. But it’s not and never should have been presented as such.
It’s simply about trust. Do you trust women to make an informed, careful and difficult decision that ensures the best future for them? Do you trust their too-overlooked partners, husbands, boyfriends to make this decision with them, to toss and turn alongside them every night and support them in the harsh reality of morning? Do you trust doctors to treat women with the best possible care and to create healthcare in which access to education, services and treatment means that women are saved pain, trauma, stress and in some cases, death? Do you trust us – me, my sisters, my friends – to have the best interests of the unborn at heart when making this decision; to be acutely aware of the life we can provide, the opportunities we can offer and also what we are willing and capable of offering given the circumstances of conception? If you answer yes to any of these, then my vote is yours and your voice could be mine.
It’s about choice – the empowerment of bodily autonomy and inherent faith in that concept. I have locked myself in a public bathroom to take a pregnancy test bought with shaking hands waiting to be told by thin blue lines that my whole world is about to be turned upside down and I have no choice in it. I have stood there thinking of my supportive, loving family, my incredible boyfriend trying to make sense of his own life and known that I’m one of the lucky ones to have this backdrop as my ‘worst case scenario’. But being lucky isn’t enough in our country because lucky still means being suffocated by shame, stigma, oppression and faced with a daunting, overwhelming and unnecessary journey with no support, guidance or compassion from my country. The pregnancy test was negative but the fear was real and continues to haunt me. It wasn’t because, somewhere in my mid twenties I am not ready to have a child (I’m not) but because I felt so powerless over my body, because I felt like I had no say or choice in that life changing decision. Like it or lump it, Ireland would see that foetus grow inside me, transforming my life, identity, opportunities, possibilities. This is not to say I would have had an abortion. This is not even to say I could ever have an abortion. But all I wanted was the choice. Don’t you want that for your daughter or sister? Choice. Options. A possibility that doesn’t end in a Ryanair flight or nine months of distress. If you do, please, use my vote.
It’s about compassion. For a referendum campaign that has deliberately decided to make this a ‘life or death’ issue, I have been saddened and shocked by the lack of humanity shown. Human life and its vulnerability, fragility and vital need for compassion and support hasn’t just been forgotten, it’s been sneeringly dismissed. Mental health is being fobbed off as some despicable weakness or invented justification for not wanting but needing a termination in order to survive. When we are working so hard to remove the stigma of mental illness – particularly amongst young men – it feels sickeningly hypocritical to have such serious and prevalent issues like suicide and depression dismissed as self-absorbed whimsy. If asking someone to undergo the trauma of a crisis pregnancy while battling serious mental illness seems something approaching inhumane to you, please Vote Yes and choose a future where we practice what we preach and support our most vulnerable, our most in need of guidance, compassion and understanding.
Compassion. I respect the nobility of speaking for those who cannot speak and of fighting for the weak in our society who cannot fight for themselves. If that is your reason for voting No, to defend a right of the defenceless, I understand. All I will say is, what about the women who still cannot speak, who have no one to defend them, who still don’t have a say in what their bodies should endure? Why are we not fighting harder for them? Because they are flying anyway. They are taking illegal pills anyway. They are throwing themselves down stairs and trying all desperate manner of sorcery to end their nightmare anyway. And it’s going unnoticed, unsupported, ignored.
And this, I think, is the crucial point. What is a No vote going to achieve? Voting No does not – despite the best attempts of pro-life propaganda – mean No to abortion. It will not magically end the steady flow of exported problems, it will not stop early morning check-ins and late night returns. Wouldn’t it be great if it did? If voting No could end the need for abortion? If it could stop rape, incest, violence, if it could reverse fatal abnormalities, anomalies and life-threatening illnesses, if it could release a woman from the clutches of mental illness? If a simple vote could put all women and men in a position of comfort, economic security and safety where the effort of simply surviving was not all-consuming, where there could be space for another mouth, another life? That’s a reality I would welcome but it is not a reality that is going to exist – regardless of Yes or No.
No means no change. Women will continue to travel, will continue to have their health endangered, their human rights inhibited and their voices silenced. There will be another Savita, more letters will join the alphabet soup of misery until one day it’s not just a letter – it’s a name you know, a face you recognise, and a life that could have been spared. That is what No means in this referendum. Lives are not going to be saved.
I know that Yes seems scary. It’s unchartered territory for us and the last of the big, terrifying things religion has taught us to avoid at all costs. I know it feels like a big step and might seem like a leap of faith. I know that it feels personal – you’re supposed to decide how you feel about something so complex I don’t think anybody knows how they truly feel about it until they are the ones locked in a public bathroom peeing on a stick. Or, pacing outside a public bathroom waiting for your partner to pee on a stick. But Yes is simply acknowledging that there has already been too much suffering in this country and, instead of continuing to turn a blind eye, turn our backs, and turn women away, we are going to stand up for them and stand by them. Yes means support for our sisters, comfort for our friends and love for our fellow beings. It means showing we truly are the compassionate, caring, supportive country we are known as internationally.
Finally. Every sentence I write, I am fighting the urge to immediately delete – playing out in sickening cycles the rebuttals, retribution and rebuke I feel my words will face – the tuts, the shaking of heads, the eye rolls, wringing of fists, frantic typing. And this is the problem with this referendum and this issue. I no longer feel my voice counts. I feel completely debilitated and diminished – I am just a woman, without a hard case, without a doctor’s degree but with all of the privilege of middle-class comfort and third-level education. What do I know? I am just another one of ‘those’ angry feminists;a privileged white women who has the luxury of feeling a bit upset about things because I must have something to fixate on and complain about. I feel this way because, since my days in an all-girls convent school right up until the alphabet soup of misery of the RTE debate, I have been told in so many ways by so many people that I am simply not important enough, not trustworthy enough, responsible enough, compassionate enough, HUMAN enough to make informed, difficult, life-altering decisions in my own life.
If you tell someone something often enough and loud enough, eventually they will start to believe it. The vigorous anti-abortion campaign is proof of this. I doubt my validity as an adult, as a human. I question my right to speak up about this issue to the point where the referendum is tomorrow and it is only now I am finding my voice, believing in my right to be heard, believing I have something worthy to contribute, an opinion worthy to be shared. I was embarrassed and ashamed of the passion with which I believe in the justice of a pro-choice outcome and now I am embarrassed and ashamed of my failure in overtly and robustly supporting it. I am embarrassed that I have allowed myself to be bullied into feeling that I should feel ashamed for being angry that I am denied basic human rights, that I am denied the respect of my peers in trusting my judgement. Others know better and I am better silent. How have we gotten here?
I am so fiercely proud of my little, green country. I love our warmth, our spontaneity, our use of tea as an incontrovertible medicine to all ailments, our one pint that is never one pint. I love that Irish Mammies in all of their glory have taken over the Internet, that our fathers find it hard to tell us just how much they love us sometimes but somehow their pat on the back is more comforting than any declaration. I love how we all fear and squirm from Granny’s hard and whiskery peck on the cheek. I love getting on a flight home, after a weekend or a year away and hearing the sing-song comfort of the pilot’s accent hug me over the intercom. I love that I can hear the opening of a packet of Tayto’s in that voice, I can hear the hiss of a Guinness and its creamy plop onto the stained and sticky bar counter. I can hear the green fields, smell the cows and feel the West Cork mist descending over me.
I am so proud of the fact that wherever I travel in this wide and wonderful world, doors are opened to me because of where I’m from. Because people open to me the way my country opened for them, twirling her green skirts, beguiling with kindness and ‘Ara sure’s’ and ‘Feck it’s’. But ‘ara sure’ and ‘feck it’ will not get us through this. We need to be the people the world declares us to be – a tribe of kindness, generosity and empathy. A band of second mothers and trainers that act like fathers and communities that will let you know when you need to cop on a bit but will be the first hands to pick you up when you stumble. Now is the time to turn our hospitality inwards, to sprinkle and shower it where it is needed most in our country – over our citizens, our mothers, our daughters, our future.
I am so fiercely proud of my little, green country. Please, use my vote tomorrow so that when I push my way onto that sticky, sweaty Ryanair flight, I can still find comfort and love in the sing-song voice of the pilot over the intercom. Please vote Yes, so that I, and every other woman and man who has to make the weary journey home, will never again have to doubt that they are going back to a place where they are loved, listened to, supported. That is why we are here. This is what we can do. Please, choose hope – choose Yes.