Women are experts at hiding things. Trust me on this. We hide pain and blood on a monthly basis. We hide our fear when we’re out after dark. We hide our feelings when we think that guy we’re into is being a jerk but we can’t quite be sure, maybe he’s just a bit like that…? And if we call him on it, he’ll call us a “psycho” to his mates. We don’t disclose that we’re pregnant until 12 weeks are up so that in the event of an early miscarriage, we are the only people who have to deal with our grief.
And it was women who, in all likelihood, invented the very first tools – as the gatherers in the earliest human societies, they needed digging sticks and baby slings (for more on this, check out Angela Saini’s incredible book Inferior). Because these items were made of materials that disintegrated faster than things like rock, no-one had proof of what women were doing while men were out hunting and killing and fighting. No-one knew the reality of early women’s lives. And now, thousands of years on, women are fighting to get the reality of their lives seen and heard.
On Friday, the people of the Republic of Ireland will be voting on whether to repeal the 8th Amendment, which prohibits abortion by giving a pregnant woman and the foetus equal rights to life. It can result in horrific cases like this, and it forces around 3000 women each year to travel to England to seek an abortion.
Now, the thing is, no-one is really pro-abortion. No-one is deeply excited and pleased about the prospect of being able to end life. But that’s not what this is about, at all – and to turn it into a conversation about “murder”, about killing babies without a second thought, about abortion becoming just another method of contraception, is to display a deep disdain for and distrust of women. Nothing more or less.
Because repealing the 8th is simply about giving women the choice. About trusting women to make their own decisions. About believing women when they share the reality of their lives.
Of the many things that stagger me about the No side’s ‘Love Both’ campaign, the sheer vagueness is right up there. The homepage makes so many woolly, unquantifiable claims it’s hard to know where to start. “Abortion on demand” – what does that mean, exactly? That if a woman finds herself dealing with a crisis pregnancy and decides she cannot bring a child into the world, she can ask for and have an abortion? Good, because in a lot of cases, that’s exactly what should happen.
Ireland is a world leader in care for pregnant women? Wonderful, but that’s only of use to women who want to be pregnant. And besides, it’s a mightily bold claim for a country that has blots like Magdelene Laundries and symphysiotomies* on its copybook.
*Between the 1940s and 1980s, an estimated 1,500 women were subjected to this practice. Warning: if you’re squeamish, skip this paragraph. During a difficult labour, a doctor would cut through the cartilage and ligaments of the pelvis in order to make space for the baby. And this would be done without giving the mother a chance to consent, and would leave her with a lifetime of problems and pain.
The point about preventing babies with disabilities being aborted is an incredibly complicated and sensitive one, and I’m not qualified to discuss it in any great depth. I know there are a range of organisations that support children with complex needs and their families, and a lot of highly-trained professionals who do wonderful and awe-inspiring work, but getting that specialist help is so often a postcode lottery, or dependent on income. And of course in an ideal world, all children with disabilities would have unlimited access to the finest care, but that’s not the world we actually live in. Being a full-time carer is a tremendous ask of even the most willing and selfless individuals, so if someone is honest enough to say they can’t do it, should they be made to?
Abortion causes psychological harm? I’m sure in some cases it does, but I should imagine being forced to go through life-changing, body-altering events like pregnancy and childbirth against your will is also psychologically quite damaging. And what about the child of a forced pregnancy? Sad, resentful parents often create sad, angry children, and we know the worst ending to that story only too well. Gambling with two sets of mental health doesn’t sound much like “loving both” to me.
And this is the other thing about the No side: where are the women? Who’s speaking up for the women? Almost all of the ‘Save the 8th’ arguments are centred around the unborn child, not the woman in which it’s growing, the woman who will give birth to it, the woman who might feed it with her own body. The woman who will rearrange her whole life to make space for this baby. The woman who will have a tiny bomb go off in her home – if indeed she has a place to call home – and who will never be the same again.
If you believe abortion should be illegal, that women should not even have the option, then you believe that women should be held to a higher moral standard than men. That there should be no safety net for women. That there should be no way out of a mistake. That, say, a failure of contraception is the woman’s fault and she should bear the life-changing consequences. For one night. One time. Doesn’t that sound a little like women should be punished for having sex in the first place? Doesn’t that sound a little like outright misogyny?
So vote to repeal the 8th because you trust women. Because you believe a woman when, having found herself pregnant, after careful consideration, she says she cannot, right now, be a mother.
Vote to repeal the 8th because if you don’t, you force Irish women to keep hiding. Because that is the thing about abortion – you can’t stop it happening, you just outsource it. And in so doing, you force women to pay. Either an airfare, or with their mental health, or in the bad cases, with their lives.
Vote to repeal the 8th because you are wise enough to know that adoption is not a cure-all.
Vote to repeal the 8th because you are clever enough to know that pregnancy and childbirth are physically exhausting, scarring events to endure, even when they are planned and longed for. And that to ask someone to go through them against their will is tantamount to torture.
Vote to repeal the 8th because a baby is not always a gift. Gifts don’t crack open the pelvis of their recipients, tear them, make them bleed, change their bodies and lives forever.
If you truly understand what motherhood is and what it demands, and if you truly value it, you must surely believe that women should be able to choose.