ALISON O'CONNOR: We must take full ownership of what it is we’re voting for

Caitlin Moran.

YOU know when you put something away carefully and you did such a good job of it that you can’t find it? Well that happened to me this week. It drove me nut, writes Alison O’Connor.

By day three of the search I found myself thinking that I needed to pledge €20 to St Anthony in order to get his assistance in my quest.

I laughed at my own hypocrisy — the lapsed Catholic falling back on the ingrained, never-to-be-fully-shaken-off faith of my foremothers — doubly so give that the item in question was a pair of First Communion shoes that are needed for this weekend. They do, of course, match the white dress.

As someone who got married in a registry office I do wonder how we ended up here. As so many other Irish parents will tell you, it wasn’t by choice. Yet there are so many positives, not least a very well-run school; a child who is very happy to attend it, and a child who would be devastated not to be making her Holy Communion along with the rest of the class.

These are the ties that bind. In our house in my head it has been the twin track of preparing for that big event and the second one that occurs the following Friday — the abortion referendum. Thinking of them back-to-back is incongruous to say the least, but that’s part and parcel of being Irish, isn’t it? It’s part and parcel of what we need to mentally process as we consider how to vote on May 25.

Surrounding my computer as I type are leaflets showing various images of babies. One is in utero sucking its thumb, cocooned in its mother’s womb, another image is a reproduction of a scan at nine weeks, a third is a newborn wrapped in a hospital blanket safe in the arms of what looks to be a midwife or a doctor. Another is of a gorgeous smiling little girl who looks to be around five years old, safe in her father’s arms. We are told her name is Grace. She has Down’s syndrome.

The leaflets are all from Love Both. They are dense with detail —the baby’s heart beating at 22 days, the baby at 10 weeks old who can “kick, jump and yawn”, how we mustn’t trust politicians, the evil of abortion on demand, more adoption, the psychological harm to women.

They are very effective. They push all the buttons, even those of a lapsed Catholic who fervently hopes for a yes vote but whose mind, when push comes to shove, finds itself wandering back to St Anthony. Our intellectual struggles are understandable — wanting to vote yes but struggling with the moral dilemma that feels like a part of our bones, our Catholic skeleton. The thing is to acknowledge it all honestly and move on from there.

I was practically foaming at the mouth watching the Claire Byrne Live Debate on Monday night on RTÉ as we saw this cultural pre programming play out.

We watched the no side shout and holler, as if they were at some sort of a line-dancing convention, drowning out the assertions of the yes side who seemed meek in comparison, and stunned at the ferocity and derision and the arrogance of the other side. Reflecting afterwards it was hard to know where to begin in terms of wondering how it might have been different, or how to change it for the next big TV debate. Should the yes side be rapidly getting their people into a type of media training that involves the verbal version of delivering knockout punches? It’s interesting that it was Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, who has made it to the top in the man’s world of rough and tumble politics, who coped best with the onslaught. There were no prisoners taken here.

The no argument is a far easier one, the bar far lower in terms of ‘persuasion’ to shout with abandon about “abortion for any reason” and “liberal regimes” and “ending the life of a baby”.

RTÉ and the programme team have a number of questions to answer in terms of the human experiment they conducted in that studio on Monday night. But on the yes side we must also take full ownership of what it is we are arguing for in next Friday’s vote.

It you’re struggling you could start by acknowledging the cultural and religious baggage that you carry yourself. You could continue by acknowledging that you believe abortion is the ending of something that has human potential, something that is not and never will be easy to contemplate, as well as something that it takes a mature society to acknowledge is not pleasant but is necessary.

If you present Irish people with the prospect of a case involving a woman whose baby has a fatal foetal abnormality, or a teenager who is pregnant after rape or a woman who has cancer and discovers she is pregnant, or who is in danger of developing septicaemia after her waters have broken, and you will find the compassion required. But on a night like Monday night the space required to hear those stories was totally drowned out by the righteousness of the no side.

But when the space is there to advocate for women to have abortions it make sense to acknowledge that as a result of allowing for cases of rape and incest we do indeed have a regime proposed that would result in abortion being available up to 12 weeks. We must own that fact. We must also own how that will officially introduce abortion to our island.

We all know that unofficially abortion has always been a part of who we are, and that as well as women from every town and village in Ireland having travelled for an abortion, they are now also conducting their own abortions, in secrecy and in danger, through the use of the abortion pill. It is only a matter of time before we have yet another “hard case” that will involve one of those women dying as a result of her fear of seeking medical attention for fear of prosecution.

A NUMBER of years ago I read Caitlin Moran’s book How to be a woman. I remember how it seemed doubly shocking to hear someone “confessing” to abortion, but particularly a happily married mother of two children.

“It is only after you have had a nine-month pregnancy, laboured to get the child out, fed it, cared for it, sat with it until 3am, risen with it at 6am, swooned with love for it and been reduced to furious tears by it that you really understand just how important it is for a child to be wanted,” she wrote.

After the abortion she was “thankful” and “relieved”. “I suppose what I’d been given to believe is that my body — or my subconscious — would be angry with me for not having the baby.… But all I could see — and all I can see now, years later — is history made of millions of women trying to undo the mistake that could then undo them, and then just carrying on, quiet, thankful and silent about the whole thing. What I see, is that it can be an action with only good consequences.”

Challenging, isn’t it? If we want the yes side to win next Friday we have to acknowledge those challenges — and be prepared to own our arguments.

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