I was asked by an English friend nearly 6 years ago “if you got pregnant now, would you keep it?” I was 27 at the time, single, and had been in London less than 6 months, in a temporary job, and a stack of student debt after finishing my Masters the year before. And yet, I didn’t even think about options, I just tried to explain to her that growing up in Ireland, with a strong Catholic influence, that the “sanctity of life for the unborn child” is paramount.
Even though I am not a practicing Catholic, even though my mother actually left the Church when I was 8 years old, partly due to their lack of compassion and support after my father’s premature death by suicide. Even though I chose not to do my Confirmation at the age of 12 because I recognised their teachings were not aligned my view on the world. I didn’t truly see the influence of the Catholic Church until I left Ireland, moved to London, and lived in a city where Church and State were not intertwined.
Looking back now I can see that sending a nun and a priest to teach Family Planning in schools does not make sense, and that showing impressionable young teenagers an ultrasound video of an abortion being performed is not actually education as much as it is conditioning. At University, being handed flyers with images of tiny growing foetuses, with scandalous statistics and statements all contributed to this deep sense of “knowing” the unborn’s right to life was sacred. But it was well known that, if worst came to worst, you could always “get the boat to England” or, now that we had the joys of low-fares airlines, you could just hop on Ryanair! So there was always a “choice”, as long as you could afford it, but it wasn’t talked about, and that way we could stay lily-white and pure, and leave the mess to our godless neighbours across the water.
Over the 6 years I have lived in the UK, my perspective has broadened – through life experience, reading eye-opening feminist works, and hearing and seeing the stories of women who have actually lived (or died!) through the challenge of dealing with the question I was only asked in a hypothetical manner. I was still cautious about how I felt on the topic – I knew logically that I would never want someone to be forced to be pregnant and carry a child, especially if it put their physical or mental health at risk, but the idea of publicly supporting a woman’s right to choose felt alien to me. It felt like something “someone else” should take care of – that I didn’t need to get involved.
Thankfully, over the last few years, I have managed to find increasing courage to make public statements – albeit the “slacktivist” approach of sharing via Facebook and Twitter – but it has helped me to find my voice. It’s helped me to realise the irony of the pro-life movement – putting the right to life of a foetus over that of a living, breathing, conscious, human woman. It’s as if we don’t trust women’s ability to make the decision for themselves, as if we don’t respect women or their right to control over their own bodies, let alone have any awareness of the danger of continuing pregnancies that are very much wanted but sadly not physically viable, to the risk of the mother’s life as well as that of the unborn child.
I can see now how the position of sanctimonious smugness is a safe one – it’s easy to feel you are on the “right” side when you’re protecting “poor innocent babies”. It’s much harder to put your head above the parapet and say “I hope I never have to make this choice, but that if I did, that the choice would be there for me to make”. For all the women out there who are facing that choice every day, I hope they get the freedom to make it soon. For all the women back home who are fighting this fight, I am forever grateful for their bravery, openness and honesty, on behalf of all the women in a modern Ireland.
Edit: On the 25th May 2018, a referendum was held in Ireland to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution (Article 40.3.3) and allow for the Oireachtas to legislate on abortion, passing with a 66% majority. However, access to abortion is still limited and only available in the Republic of Ireland up until 12 weeks with ongoing constraints to services experienced across the country.