Comment: Women’s right to choice a reason to celebrate

Comment: Women’s right to choice a reason to celebrate

Alison O’Connor raises a glass to women’s newly-won right to autonomy on pregnancy choices.

Comment: Women’s right to choice a reason to celebrate

IT seems appropriate that it was in the pub afterwards that the reality of it all began to sink in — not just the yes vote, but the belting majority of people who voted to finally allow Irish women to access abortion in their own country.

Saturday was a busy day of count centres and the final announcement at Dublin Castle, where the atmosphere, to coin a cliché, was electric.

All day, everywhere I went, women huddled and spoke about how awesome it was, how healing it was, what it meant, how we felt respected, how it made up for so much, how long we had waited, how many of us had suffered, how you just couldn’t stop crying, how it wasn’t just Dublin and the other urban centres that carried the day, but people all over the country. We didn’t quite realise until Saturday how heavily we had carried the fear in our bones of the referendum not passing.

Mingled with that fear were the memories of the Magdalenes, the mother and baby homes — the Tuam babies in particular — symphysiotomy, the list of names of the women that haunt our history — the faceless Misses X, A, B, C, D, Ann Lovett, Joanne Hayes, and more recently and potently, Savita Halappanaver.

How we had laboured for so long under the unnatural obsession carried by our society, led by the Catholic Church, with the female nether regions and the evil that could potentially be contained therein.

In more recent weeks, it was the vulnerability and strength of women such as Vicky Phelan, of the horrible death of 14-year-old Anna Kriegel, found dead in a derelict farmhouse outside Dublin, of Jastine Valdez walking along the road in daylight hours and bundled into a car to be brutally murdered by Mark Hennessy, and before them, the woman at the centre of the Belfast rape trial.

But, sitting on that bar stool, surrounded by women wearing yes badges, it was time for the facts to really register. The stakes over the last few weeks had been just too high to hope.

Friday felt like the longest day on record, while we awaited the results of the two exit polls. I didn’t meet one single individual since — and there were hoardes of politicians and political punters swarming around on Saturday — who even tried to claim they had anticipated the large majority.

As we sat there on Saturday night, soaking up the celebrations, a woman came over to chat about how she had just been in the crowd at Dublin Castle. She had had an abortion decades ago. She spoke of the horror of travelling and the experience in Britain, and the shame she felt afterwards, of how she was afraid of being spotted in the Castle crowd.

She told of how she suffered serious mental health issues and hadn’t even known if she would vote yes or no right up to the end.

She voted yes. She was celebrating. She was also crying. The baggage she had been carrying over decades still weighed heavily with her. That was the reality.

Should we have felt so elated, should we have been raising that glass of bubbly to the poll? Ahead of the result, the message was sent out from some quarters that to be seen to celebrate abortion would be wrong.

But you know what, women marshalled their tone magnificently during this campaign to ensure that people understood exactly why Irish women needed access to terminations here.

As we heard all too often during the campaign, no woman wants an abortion but thousands need one.

No one was celebrating the act of abortion on Saturday — what we were celebrating, with gusto and relief, was the fact that, hopefully within months, there will be access to abortion, if it is needed, on our doorstep, and not a plane or ferry journey away in a foreign country.

It’s the thought of how the way was charted by the Citizens’ Assembly, accused at the time of being unrepresentative and extreme, and yet in the end the yes vote at 66.4% was higher than the 64% of citizens who voted on no restrictions on the reasons for allowing abortion.

It’s the politicians on the committee on the Eighth who came together and listened and showed how it can be done. It’s the manner in which those same politicians came together to call for a yes vote and who campaigned together and showed a united front. It was, as Health Minister Simon Harris said, finding yourself in the highly unusual position of watching the TV and cheering on a political rival.

And oh Mr Harris. Of all the things we imagined would arise out of an abortion referendum, who could ever have predicted that the young man from Wicklow, minister in a department nicknamed Angola, not wed a year, would assume the status of sex symbol?

He was the pin-up boy of Dublin Castle on Saturday afternoon and handled it bashfully and with good grace. Irish women, having watched him fight for our cause so magnificently in recent weeks, recognised that this man felt, on a visceral level, their need to have the Eighth Amendment removed from the Constitution. It was powerful to think of all the men who cast a yes vote, who cared enough for their female citizens and realised their own role in the making of babies.

But it was the truly incredible women of Together for Yes, that mighty grassroots movement, led so ably by Ailbhe Smyth, Grainne Griffin, and Orla O’Connor, that made this happen.

Co-Directors of Together For Yes Orla O’Connor (left) Grainne Griffin (centre) and Ailbhe Smyth.
Co-Directors of Together For Yes Orla O’Connor (left) Grainne Griffin (centre) and Ailbhe Smyth.

The group, with its 97 member organisations, estimated that it knocked on 500,000 doors, covered 3,000 miles on tour, distributed 250,000 badges, and sold 6,000 Repeal jumpers. Together for Yes the way and the politicians were there to offer support when needed. Most importantly, it facilitated conversations all over Ireland where people could inform themselves on what they would be voting and what it would mean.

A few weeks ago I heard of a little girl that I know being told there would be no music lessons for a while because her teacher was expecting a baby. The response of the six-year-old was: “Is she happy about that?” It sort of blew my mind.

It’s such a fundamental question, for every woman who sees that blue cross on a pregnancy test stick.

For all this time as a country we refused to ask that question, or truthfully acknowledge the right of a woman to autonomy over the decision of whether she wanted to have a baby or not. But on Friday we did just that.

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