ALISON O'CONNOR: Burgeoning Repeal movement must allow for dissenting voices

Immensely brave women such as Roisín Ingle and Tara Flynn put on the public record the fact of their own abortions. That lifted the lid in a way nothing else could have done, writes Alison O’Connor.

WE have crossed some invisible line when it comes to repealing the 8th amendment to the Constitution and there will be no going back now.

What we don’t know is what lies at the end of that line. What happens after a referendum is held to remove this highly contentious element from our Constitution? There are no guarantees that an abortion referendum will be held, but given the crossing of that aforementioned line, a fact copperfastened by the momentum around the Repeal the 8th marches last Saturday, it is almost impossible to see how a vote can not take place.

It is what happens between this and then which is of concern. If the memories we have of last year’s same-sex marriage referendum are all of the warm, fuzzy, loved-up kind, the way things are squaring up, the Repeal the 8th one is going to be the direct opposite.

I came out a long time ago to make clear my position that I believe there should be abortion in Ireland. I do not just want it for women who are given a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality, but for women who, for all sorts of reasons, do not wish to continue a pregnancy and have the right to have that termination carried out in their home country.

This is a heated subject globally, but it can be legitimately argued that Irish society is utterly overloaded with emotional baggage on abortion. We have a fairly special case here in Ireland, given the dominance of the Catholic Church, our treatment in the recent past of women who got pregnant while unmarried, the mother and baby homes, and the Magdalene laundries. There is also the shameful fact that 12 women leave our shores every single day to go to another country in order to have an abortion. For those reasons, and more, we are bound to get hot under the collar when it comes to discussing pregnancy terminations. There is the added factor that those on the Repeal side can now sense victory within their grasp, having been forced to endure the madness of the current restrictive regime for so long.

But what has been disturbing to observe is the increasing illiberalism of a growing number of those on the same side as me who simply will not tolerate any dissenters; the sense that question or doubt of any type is traitorous.

For instance, to agree with the criticism of Fine Gael TD Ciaran Cannon over the decision by the AAA/PBP TDs to wear Repeal jumpers in the Dáil chamber on Tuesday felt vaguely treasonous. The Galway TD made the reasonable point that when he brought a group of schoolchildren into Leinster House recently they were told to remove T-shirts with the word ‘CoderDojo’ — a community coding club for young people — before entering parliament.

Social media has been fantastic for galvanising the Repeal the 8th movement, but it is also now an increasingly hostile place for people with questions. Needless to say, Mr Cannon got abuse for making his point.

Those of us who have long wished to see a liberalising of our abortion laws have also watched in frustration and anger over the years as the anti-abortion side proudly took their fight to the streets, with their little tiny gold feet pinned to the lapels and their shout-you-down “I’ve God on my side” manner of arguing. We heard of the massive funding they received, mainly from the US pro-life movement. In recent years, TDs and senators have spoken more publicly of the huge pressure they were put under with letters, emails, and some other unsavoury material they received in the post over the years from the pro-life brigade, not to mention the protests outside constituency clinics or, indeed, their homes.

Watching last Saturday’s marches and the enormous surge of support that now exists, it is easy to forget that, even a few short years ago, it was a far harder station to openly support and campaign for abortion rights in Ireland. As an aside, it is so frustrating now when it comes to protest marches that it is virtually impossible to get any sort of accurate estimate of how many people took to the streets of the capital on a given Saturday. There was a time when you could rely on the gardaí to give an estimate, but now, whether it is an abortion march or a water protest rally, it seems too political for them to proffer an estimate. I’ve seen e stimates of last Saturday’s march that range from 10,000 to 30,000 to tens of thousands. Anyway, even if it was 500,000 it would not be the lead item on the RTÉ news at 6 o’clock on a Saturday because the station bosses got so much stick from the last government on the coverage of Irish Water, so they simply go for the easier option of reporting it further down the bulletin. They don’t dare offer an estimate of numbers. I sympathise, but find it unsatisfactory.

But back to abortion. I wrote a column almost exactly two years ago in this newspaper, stating that no Irish woman had ever told me directly that she’d had an abortion . I wrote that if you considered that roughly one in 10 women in Ireland had had an abortion — that’s an estimated 160,000 women since 1980 — I must have come across at least some of these women. But the subject was so verboten, there was such fear of judgement, such ingrained shame, women did not feel able to trust.

As one woman in her early 30s told me: “I guess it’s a bit like people being in the Stasi. You just don’t ask or tell. You don’t know where people stand on the issue.”

One of the healthiest things to happen to Irish society in the short space of time since then is to have immensely brave women such as Roisín Ingle and Tara Flynn put on the public record the fact of their own abortions. That lifted the lid in a way that nothing else could have done.

But as this pro-choice pressure cooker builds up a seemingly unstoppable head of steam, a certain ugliness is entering the Repeal equation. Ironically, it is reminiscent of the stance adopted by the anti-choice side for decades. Women who ask legitimate questions stand accused of failing the feminist cause, and God help any man who raises a query. It feels as if to even ask about where we stand on term limits for abortion, or to suggest limits at all, would be to betray the cause.

How are we going to have that much-needed mature conversation around a post referendum scenario — about where we want to end up — with this growing sense of intolerance? Right now what has to be worked on is exactly what will fill the vacuum left by the repeal of the 8th amendment. This absolutely must be agreed ahead of a referendum. However, let’s not achieve that success while bludgeoning any and all perceived dissent. If we do that, it makes us little better than those who fought so dirty for so long on this issue.

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