The story was that abortion could be tolerated in only the most limited of circumstances. Then 99 members of the public were asked what they thought
In 1916, when revolutionaries were putting the final touches to the proclamation of independence, the manifesto of the Irish state, there was one phrase that maintained holding everything up: should it be addressed to the men of Ireland as Pdraig Pearse insisted, or the men and women, as James Connelly argued? Connelly won, but whose revolution it actually was is still up for debate 101 years later.
Last weekend, a national assembly set up by the taoiseach, Enda Kenny, to debate access to abortion in Ireland announced its results. Abortion is still illegal in Ireland( as was the case in Northern Ireland) and Kenny, in the dying days of his leadership, is reticent to lead on the issue. So instead 99 members of the public the Citizens Assembly picked to represent the hearts, intellects and conscience of middle Ireland, were sent away to consider the facts and present their results. Contrary to everyones expectations they voted overwhelmingly not only to recommend legalising abortion but under circumstances more liberal than anyone guessed possible.
The narrative up until now has been that abortion in Ireland could be tolerated in only the most limited of circumstances. There are good abortions: fatal foetal abnormalities, rape, incest. And then there are bad abortions: women who for whatever personal reason no longer want to be pregnant. The spectre of British-style abortion loomed in the public conscious, the worry that unrestricted access would result in feckless women discontinuing pregnancies on caprices, giddy on cosmopolitans during Sex and the City binge-watches.
It seemed to become socially acceptable to casually dismiss the two sides of the abortion debate as being as bad and as extreme as each other. That the anti-choice side groups that regularly display gruesome images of late-term abortions outside public builds, set up fake counselling services to frighten pregnant teens into continuing their pregnancies, and claim abortion leads to infertility are in their style, just as extreme as the pro-choice side. Theyre the ones that argue its a matter best left between a woman and her doctor.
Ireland is still a very conservative country. News organisations sent their religion affairs reporter to cover the assemblys seeing , not their health correspondent. The Irish prime minister casually uses the phrase abortion on demand in interviews. Images of heavily pregnant women and newborns illustrate abortion news tales. There was even the jaw-dropping audacity of Sinn Fin until very recently bragging it was a pro-life party.
I grew up in a typical midlands household in Ireland, and like most Irish people I went to a Catholic primary and secondary school. Up until my early 20 s, when abortion became more real and less philosophical, I was unthinkingly anti-abortion. I remember the day we encompassed it in religion class. There was one chapter on it in our book, and at the end 10 reasons set out above it was wrong and two why some people thought it was OK. There was little deliberation. A room full of curious, intelligent, ambitious young lady, and our minds were as certain, closed and stupid as an unread book.
There was a really lovely young geography educator at our school. A few years after I left school, she got pregnant and then found out she had cancer. She decided to stop the treatment because it would set her pregnancy at risk. She miscarried, then slipped into a coma and died. Its not my place to even imagine the hopeless loneliness of her selection, but in a culture that told her motherhood mattered above all else, I wonder how much choice she truly had. Or was what she felt she had to do so obvious, she merely couldnt find her way out of it? I wish she had been more selfish. I wish she had insisted her own life was worth fighting for.
Centuries of colonisation do strange things to a nations male psyche. For a long time, females were daughters or mothers but never comrades, never equals: loved but never really liked. Those who didnt play by the rules could be sent away to laundries and never seen again. The classmate that never came back to school, the sister that couldnt be mentioned again, all those empty chairs a warning to the women left behind. Play by the rules or the bogeyman will come and get you.
The assemblys recommendations are just that, recommendations. They are not legally binding. We now have to wait for government to discuss and decide on the wording of any referendum that might take place. It is unlikely to be as liberal as I would like, or as the recommendations themselves. Despite all this, I still have hope because, just as with the recent referendum to legalise same-sex matrimony, I eventually heard the voice of the kind, sensible, compassionate Irish people I know and love. I have hope that we might eventually have a country worthy of the women and men that live there. Until that happens, its not my revolution.
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