- 15 May 18
Opponents of the 8th Amendment have been battling for over 34 years to remove from the constitution a deeply insulting and paternalistic clause that equates the rights of a woman with those of an embryo. The hope is that honesty, reason and gentle persuasion can win the day. Oh, and a soupçon of home truths...
Ireland. May 2018.
As Irish citizens of voting age, we have an extraordinary opportunity to make history, when we go to the polls in less than two weeks time, to vote to remove (or not to remove) the 8th Amendment from the constitution of Ireland.
The fascinating truth is that many of the people who will be voting on May 25 have no idea just how bad things were here, or the forces that were at work, when the first abortion referendum took place in 1983 and the 8th Amendment was railroaded into the Irish constitution. But that is what happened.
Since then, this country has been on a truly extraordinary journey. We have gone from being a narrow, closed, conservative, parochial, brutally authoritarian society, in which the horribly negative and destructive views of the Roman Catholic Church in relation to sex and sexuality were imposed on everyone, to being a liberal, open, tolerant place that is in many respects the envy of progressive societies all over the world. That is a big statement to make. It also happens to be true. That change did not happen by chance. On the contrary, every step forward had to be fought for, often at great cost to the individuals and groups involved. It was a long and arduous battle, which took its toll. And every step forward was resisted, often viciously, entirely without scruples and with limitless hypocrisy, by the same people who are now telling everyone to vote ’No’ in the upcoming referendum.
We have, I can assure you, been in these trenches before.
Up to 1983, Ireland was run, in effect, as a single-religion, theocratic State, with the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church claiming a right to have a direct say in every major decision that was being taken by politicians, and by State agencies. That insidious, presumptuous sense of entitlement was also claimed covertly by its more sinister foot-soldiers. The God Squad were everywhere. They connived and plotted; and their stamp was impregnated into every aspect of how the State was run.
(As the recent controversy over the ownership and control of the National Maternity Hospital confirmed, they are still at it. They really do not know when to let go).
Even as late as the 1980s, most politicians lived in such petrifying fear of what might happen to them at the next election, if they refused to play ball, that the State danced like a puppet to the self-serving tunes played by the Bishops and the Clergy. The great ideals of the Republic had been suborned. We were Rome’s lackeys.
Women were treated as third or fourth class citizens, ground under the heels of the patriarchy, its monolithic power buttressed by the rampant collusion between Church and State. And children, for all the shoddy rhetoric that was spouted about the importance of the family, were treated abysmally: bullied, beaten, conscripted into the so called ‘faith’, filled with fear and then told what to do. And as for women who conceived outside of marriage? They were considered dirt and could be spat on and treated as such. Which they were.
To anyone of a remotely critical or sensitive disposition, it was all deeply unseemly, and profoundly wrong in so many ways. And the effect all of this had on the daily lives of hundreds of thousands of people was enormously damaging. But the Church had successfully wormed its way into every aspect of public life. It exerted its power and prestige with a ruthlessness that was frequently nasty and treacherous. Google “Eileen Flynn, pregnant, teacher”, if you want to know more. It ruled in schools, and you could either put up or shut up if you didn’t like it.
(They haven’t given up their leech-like grip in education yet. And our politicians have not had the guts to take them on properly. But that is for a different day).
This was how much they loved and cared about children, and women: they threw Eileen Flynn, a pregnant, unmarried mother-to-be, out of her job as a teacher, and denounced her from the pulpit. And if time, the European courts and the litany of grotesque sex abuse scandals had not caught up with them, they would still be doing the same thing to women today. The prevailing ideology – inspired by the Vatican – was that sex outside marriage was sinful, shameful and wrong. Entirely against the will of the Church, contraception was available – but only if it was prescribed by a doctor and bought from a pharmacy. In fact, the influence of the Catholic Church was so pervasive that many doctors refused to prescribe contraceptives. Many pharmacists refused to stock them. If you were unmarried and lived in a small town and wanted a sex life, frankly, you were fucked.
We are coming to abortion. But there is a little more to say yet. Catholic Church dogma was that every sexual act should have in it the possibility of a child being conceived. And that was rammed down people’s throats in Ireland, to the greatest extent possible, no matter what your beliefs might have been. The Church demanded then that its horribly atrophied values, and its dictats, be imposed on everyone: on Protestants, Jews, atheists, agnostics, humanists, followers of Wicca, Hindus, Muslims and the rest.
And make no mistake: for all the softly, softly talk and the understanding whispers and ‘God be with you’s, this is still what they are after. This is why the priests and the bishops are actively campaigning for a ‘No’ vote.
Had Ireland not joined the EU, in terms of sexual mores, the likelihood is that we would still be about as advanced as Afghanistan, under the Taliban, without the mass murders. Those fighting for contraceptive rights had to go to the European courts to have those rights vindicated. Roman Catholic vested interests and social conservatives, opposed them every step of the way.
That wasn’t the half of it. Male homosexuality was illegal. If women were oppressed, the treatment of gays was even more extreme: they were sixth class citizens, forced to live their lives on the margins, carrying the cross of their sexual preferences in secrecy and shame. Gay bashing was common – and it was implicitly condoned by a Church that despised gays, and hated what they represented and what they did in bed together; and by a State which bowed its crooked knee to Rome and turned its gay citizens into non-persons.
Again, it was the European Court of Justice, which forced us to legalise homosexuality. Make no mistake: despite their current hypocritical posturing, if it were up to the Catholic Church in Ireland, homosexuality would still be illegal. And gays could go and fuck themselves. And even that would be a sin.
FREE TO CHOOSE
Meanwhile, behind closed doors, the appalling abuse of children and teenagers – male and female – was enabled and carried out by the institutions of both Church and State. Its ‘Fathers’, ‘Brothers’ and ‘Sisters’ may have been at the heart of much of it, but the only thing that mattered to the institutional church, and its hierarchy, in relation to the noxious virus of paedophilia and child abuse, which wounded so many in Ireland, was that the Church or its Orders should not in any way be drawn into scandal as a result.
It didn’t matter how badly children were hurt, or in some cases psychologically maimed, or how often, over a sustained period of time. The church was more important. That was how they thought. And that is how they acted. They dissembled. They covered-up. They lied. They put more and more children at risk by moving sick priests around. They didn’t give a shit. The institution came first.
I could go on. But, with the referendum looming, time is precious: the crucial thing is that we must see the continuity. We must not forget. Because the same ideology is at work here, its proponents clamouring deceitfully and hypocritically for people to vote against Repeal. As ever, they knowingly lie. They distort the truth. They bend the figures. They try to whip up fear and paranoia.
The people calling for a ‘No’ vote are exactly the same censorious, authoritarian, one size fits all bullies who tried to suck the joy out of life for everyone in Ireland, at every opportunity, over the past 100 years.
Are we going to allow them to once again assert their vindictive control over women’ lives and their bodies? Are we going to allow them to continue with the crazed fiction that an embryo’s life is equal to that of a woman who half an hour ago became pregnant – as is specifically and categorically asserted as a legal certainty, in the unholy mess that is the 8th Amendment?
Are we going to accept that this is true even if a woman is pregnant as a result of rape?
We cannot undo the past. But how cruel and heartless and domineering and authoritarian and controlling are we going to be from now on?
Are we going to insist that this is true, even where a woman’s life is at risk if a pregnancy is allowed to continue, as happened in so many cases since the amendment was inserted, a toxin masquerading as a remedy, into our constitution, with ultimately devastating consequences?
Are we going to continue to allow the same bullies to hold the threat of a 14 year jail sentence over women who source abortion pills? Or women who use them?
Are we going to allow them to continue to force 3,500 Irish women every year to travel to the UK to secure a termination – including those women (and their partners) who are unfortunate enough to have to face the fact that the child that was wanted and sought and celebrated has a fatal foetal abnormality?
Are we even going to insist that a pregnancy that occurs as a result of incest, and sexual abuse, has to be brought to term, unless the woman who is the victim of this appalling human tragedy (and, of course, crime) is lucky enough to have the resources, and the support, to enable her to travel for a termination? Or commits suicide?
In all conscience, good people cannot do this. They cannot allow dogma or ideology – especially the ideology of a totally cynical and discredited organisation – to triumph at the expense of women. Good people cannot want to force women to become incubators against their will. Good people cannot force those women, who have been told that the foetus in their womb is doomed, to carry those pregnancies through the rest of nine months, against their will.
Good people cannot do any of this. They should not do any of this. And I believe that they don’t want to and won’t want to. But if they vote no, that is what they will achieve.
Good people – or people who try to be good, like most of us – will want to make the right choice. They will vote ‘Yes’ for compassion. For choice. For personal autonomy. For care. For love.
For not making crude and impersonal judgements. For not forcing people to do what they cannot or desperately don’t want to do. For not trampling on people’s already emotionally fragile souls by making them have to bring home the small coffins carrying their dead babies in the hold of a plane – and collect them off the baggage carousel.
In their own lives, these good people will have the right to say ‘no’ to abortion themselves. If they are directly involved in a crisis pregnancy, then they will be free to choose, or to help their partner to choose, not to have an abortion. That will be up to them. No one would want it any other way. Ever.
TIME TO MAKE HISTORY
But these good people will, I believe, vote ‘Yes’ because they really do understand that their friends, neighbours, colleagues and sisters are also entitled to the right to make their own conscientious choices; because they know that the truth can sometimes be hard – but that it is better to be honest and open about, and to take responsibility as a society for, it.
That no one wants abortion, but that it is sometimes necessary. That it is a fact of life for thousands of Irish women every year. That it is cowardly, and flagrantly hypocritical, for us to insist on exporting our abortions to the UK and elsewhere. That it is wrong to go on hurting women, and their families by making them travel when there is no need. That the abortion pill has changed things completely. That more and more women will have unsupervised abortions if the 8th Amendment is not voted out as it should be. That to threaten to jail women for 14 years for the use of a pill is utterly and irredeemably barbaric. Yes, that it is like what the Taliban would do.
That the best way to reduce the number of abortions Irish women have is through proper sex education and access to contraception. That enlightenment is the way forward, not obscurantism.
Good people will put reason and generosity and kindness ahead of ideology, negativity and control. They will vote ‘Yes’.
Good people will recognise: I cannot vote with the institution, nor with its nasty reactionary apparatchiks, who through all of our recent history opposed every single progressive step in relation to sex and sexuality, who wanted to shut people down and repress them, and oppress them, and to keep us locked in that moment when women’s role was to do what men told them and gays could fuck off to a different country if they wanted to have sex, or partners, or get married.
All of this is as it was writ. It happened.
Good people will vote ‘Yes’. I believe they will. And I believe there are more of them – more ordinary citizens, who try to be good, that is – and that the Repeal vote will prevail. But believing is not enough right now. As we go to press, it seems that there is a narrow majority in favour of Repeal. What remains of the campaign is like the battle to establish sexual and reproductive freedom in Ireland, telescoped into a mere fortnight. All of those small, incremental victories are in some way at stake. As with the long and onerous struggle to get to where we are now, on the cusp of great change, every potential ‘Yes’ vote must be fought for. In the end, this Referendum might come down to a few hundred ballots.
For anyone who believes in a better, fairer and more equal Ireland, in which we trust women and treat them with care and compassion, it it vital to put in the sustained work, the canvassing and the gentle persuasion required to ensure that as many as possible of the current ‘don’t knows’ shift to ‘Yes’.
And also to ensure that every possible ‘Yes’ gets to the polling stations.
Ireland. May 2018. It’s been a long way from September 1983 to here. We have the opportunity to make history. The time is now.