Referendum is our chance to show moral courage

We like courage in this country. We reward it, in fact. We elect it to our highest office. Regularly.

Referendum is our chance to show moral courage

By Joyce Fegan

We like courage in this country. We reward it, in fact. We elect it to our highest office. Regularly.

In April 1986, two months before a contentious and eventually defeated referendum, Mary Robinson spoke out in support of legalising divorce.

It would be another nine years before divorce was made legal here.

In 1988, she took the Irish State to the European Court of Human Rights to decriminalise homosexuality. And back in 1983, she stood as a minority voice, arguing against the insertion of the Eighth Amendment, which outlawed abortion in all circumstances, into the Constitution.

But, in 1990, we elected her as the first female president of Ireland, after she received 817,830 of our votes by the second count. She was a radical in moderate’s clothing, and going by our country’s conservative social nature, you’d have thought she didn’t stand a chance. But we value bravery it seems, and not just the odd time.

As a senator in February 1983, President Michael D Higgins advocated strongly against the Eighth Amendment. He described the Dáil speeches on the proposed referendum as “monumental in their weakness”. They reminded him “of what [Thomas Michael] Davitt (founder of the Irish Land League) said 100 years ago, that if the Irish had a weakness worse than drink, it was moral cowardice”.

He said the amendment “expresses no concern for the thousands of women who begin a lonely journey on the boat to England. It’s a callous referendum”. By September 1983, he would find himself in the minority among the 416,136 people who voted against the Eighth Amendment.

Yet, in October 2011, by the fourth count of the presidential election, Michael D Higgins had received 1,007,104 of our votes, making him the ninth president of Ireland.

Often what we lack in ourselves, we look for in others. Are we, as Davitt said, a nation of cowards? Or have we just kow-towed to supposed moral righteousness one too many times?

Because, at the end of the day, no matter our creed or our politics, most of us just want to do the right thing.

Right now, posters carrying phrases such as “A licence to kill?” flank our lampposts. Images of bloodied

foetuses (where they were sourced from we will never know) are held up outside our maternity hospitals.

On social media, ads circulate with videos of prenatal scans of nine-week-old foetuses. On Facebook, they can yawn. In scientific reality they cannot.

All of this messaging plays on our better human instincts, our instinct to protect and our instinct to care.

After all, who can claim to be pro-abortion? But dare to stick your head above the parapet to move around this Rubik’s cube of an issue and you will feel the warm wash of shame, if not the attempted force of silencing.

In October 2015, Liam Neeson lent his voice, for a total of 90 seconds, to narrate a short ad calling for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment.

A petition swiftly began to“Boycott Liam Neeson”. By 2016, the actor was no longer president of the All Amateur Boxing Club in his hometown of Ballymena, of which he had been a member of since the age of nine.

Last month, three-time Olympian Derval O’Rourke also came out in support of repealing the amendment. She was at the receiving end of abuse, accused of “bandwagon-jumping” and told by strangers “how disappointed” they were in her.

“Calling me names does not quieten me,” said the mother of one.

This week, U2 tweeted a photo of Irish street artist Maser’s ‘Repeal’ mural, calling for a yes vote on May 25. Again, the threats of boycotting began. People claiming to be lifelong fans of the band will never buy a ticket to their concerts again.

This is the price we pay for speaking up. Attack. Abandonment. It’s a predictable old routine: Brave words are met by shaming tactics, aimed to silence. Use your voice and you run the risk of that greatest of human fears — abandonment, if not total ostracisation.

But, isn’t that what we have done to our women and girls for decades now anyway? To hell or to England.

Figures from the UK’s department of health show that 168,703 Irish women gave Irish addresses between 1980 and 2016, when receiving abortion care.

Derval O'Rourke.

Derval O'Rourke.

Lonely and scared Claires and Jennifers and Niamhs have sat in airport terminals, schoolbags full of secrets. Grieving Toms and Michelles, Sarahs and Pauls, have gripped hands at departure gates, suitcases full of medical files.

In 2018, we have the internet and less of our women and girls take planes now. Instead, up to five of them a day, are seeking out abortion pills online.

Paulines and Louises and Emmas take them at home, without any medical supervision. Some, with means, book a hotel room, so as to cover up any traces of their crime, which could result in a 14-year jail sentence.

In a survey of 1,023 women in Ireland and Northern Ireland who used abortion pills bought online, seven reported receiving a blood transfusion.

Since time immemorial women have sought to end pregnancies for a wide variety of reasons. It is a fact of life.

No matter how well-meaning we are, or how much we morally oppose abortion, we cannot alter or outlaw this reality.

What we can alter though, is our law, and as counter-instinctual as this may read, legislating for safe terminations, in line with best medical practice, actually brings down abortion rates. In 2002, after a referendum, Switzerland legislated for abortion in the first trimester, allowing it to be provided through a GP-led model.

This was done in conjunction with the roll-out of better sex education and wider access to contraception. This is essentially what is proposed for Ireland. The abortion rate in Switzerland is now one of the lowest in the world, at a rate of around five per 1,000 women of child-bearing age.

If you are someone who usually keeps in line, but also someone who has been exposed to the messy realities of life, now is the time to call deep on your courage. Now is the time to arm yourself with independently-verified facts you can share with your neighbour, bridge partner, or hairdresser.

Choose courage, not over cowardice, but over kow-towing. Because if you do, maybe Seamus Heaney’s “longed-for tidal wave of justice can rise up,” and on this side of the grave.

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