Where Compassion Ends #8thRef

Confrontation and Fear

When I describe Ireland to people from other countries, I regularly rely on synonyms of ‘chilled’ and ‘welcoming’. How else would I even begin to encapsulate the uniqueness of the Irish people regarding our kindness, humour and our general lack of sense at times?

We’re daft and lovable as a nation, right?

Well, recently, I found myself unable to fall back on those phrases for the first time in my life and I won’t lie, it felt entirely uncomfortable.

After Christmas, I became close friends with a girl from Germany who was interning at my work. She’s kind and funny and over the course of her time in Ireland I found myself taking executive charge of explaining extremely colloquial experiences and phrases. Being honest, she probably left more confused about the Irish then she was when she came here.

On one particular occasion, she asked me about the Eighth Amendment Referendum that is fast approaching on May 25th. With the signs, posters, Facebook posts, tweets, radio discussions and TV coverage, I guess I was naive to think it might not come up in conversation.

In full admission of my own cowardice, I hoped to God it wouldn’t.

And that right there – my fear of the Big Bad Conversation, that’s the crux of the matter. I dislike confrontation for the simple reason that confrontation can swiftly lead to intolerance and that fact alone makes me distinctly uncomfortable. It has long since baffled me that we have been preaching tolerance while being distinctly intolerant of people with different opinions to our own.

But, they’re wrong, we say, about those people with differing opinions to our own. Misinformed, uneducated.

We throw words around like about the opposing side of the #8thRef like they stop being insults or blatant lies because they’re ‘just wrong’.

From the day when my friend asked me about the referendum, I’ve found myself, somewhat inescapably, thinking about this more and more.

If years of stage school taught me nothing else (thanks, Mom), I did learn just how strong my opinions had the potential to be, when expressed in the right manner. I was told over and over again as a child that what I said was often not the problem, it was the tone I chose to coat my words in that had the potential to hurt.

Nowadays, I rarely express my views publicly. Sure, my family know all about my feelings towards Snape and Trump (perhaps one in the same?), but for everyone else, I sit on the fence.

Rejection is a hard pill to swallow and maybe my beliefs aren’t worth running the risk of being disliked?

Yet the creeping thought burrows its way into my mind like a worm in an apple – what if all of Ireland sat on the fence about this particular issue? This referendum, regardless of the outcome, will have a knock-on effect that will emotionally consume the lives of countless Irish people, both now and in the future.

When my friend asked me what exactly all of this campaign was about, I swallowed my shallow need to be liked/accepted/approachable/amenable and explained both sides of the campaign as best as I could.

After my clumsy explanation, I went home and sat on my bed thinking very hard about the difference of opinion this referendum has sparked.

The Human Factor

We, the Irish, are not a docile people. We have never been. And now, there is no shortage of awkward conversation topics for us to avoid or tackle with our families.

From that day when my explanation of the two sides of this referendum felt week, I’ve been swirling a quote from Terence around in my mind, tasting the words every now and again and musing further about their relevance.

“I am human, and I think nothing of which is human is alien to me.”

Pro-life, pro-choice – we are all human. That much is undeniable. Of course, people’s opinions on what constitutes a human life shifts and changes, but the fact remains that all of us who are alive and can recognize this referendum as the tumultuous historic event that it is, are human.

We are all the same but varied.

Yet this campaign has brought about judgement, cruel words, harshness, fraud and bullying. Not the words I’d ever have associated with Ireland – but not unexpected when the topic of abortion is so close to us all.

Well, not all of us. For a long time, I felt entirely detached from this referendum. I just didn’t get it, as dense as that may sound. You can blame youth, but the truth is that I was relishing in the passive privilege of being willfully ignorant.

I was busy, I had a life, this would pass. Right? That’s how life-changing laws are formed, isn’t it? Sure, that’s what happened with the Marriage Referendum in 2015. It was just that easy.

But slowly, over the last year or so, I’ve been waking up. Pulled from a dreamland where women’s rights and bodily autonomy are cherished in a country that I cherish.

After a while, the delusion must end, for my sake as much as anyone else’s.

In my last year at NUI Galway, I was tired. It was midweek in March and I was the kind of bone-weary that characters in books are after they’ve killed Voldemort or fought the White Walkers.

When I exited the library thinking about my next class, I barely thought about how it was the first truly sunny day that year, let alone did I remember that it was the march to Repeal the Eighth Amendment from campus to the city centre.

My friends, on the other hand, hadn’t forgotten.

They’d made posters and had war make-up on their flushed cheeks. They were excited because this mattered. The contrast between us was sharp and is not something I like to think about too often. I was grey – the living and breathing embodiment of a dissertation, whereas they saw the big picture.

My friends knew what a voice adds to the voiceless who were at that moment boarding flights to England or ordering abortion pills online. Crimeless criminals in their own country, liable to up to fourteen years in prison.

First Time Controversy

I skipped a lecture to march with my friends that day. I felt like a latecomer to one of the most important parties of our generation.

But if memory serves correctly, that wasn’t the first time I had spoken about abortion and abortion laws with my peers. Somewhere, buried in my mind under the trauma left behind by the Leaving Cert, there was a memory of a religion class I had in secondary school.

A Catholic, all-girls school that gave me my best friends, a sport I relished and a work ethic that has never left me. I was privileged at seventeen to have never have had to think about abortion or the effects of a crisis pregnancy too deeply.

It never dawned on me that there were women out there who wanted children more than anything in this world and were suffering as they waited for fetal heartbeats to stop with no other choice. I was foolish, fat on my own privilege, to never really give thought to the aftermath of rape or incest.

I was just seventeen and trying to calm down after yet another horrible traumatic chemistry result had found its way onto my lap the hour before when it was time for religion class. Finally, a break class – a doss. After all, very few of us were actually religious at that point.

I tuned out when the teacher started talking.

So, when the teacher began screening a short film of a woman with a bouncing baby on her lap talking about how she had initially wanted a to terminate her pregnancy but had thought against it at the last minute, I was caught off guard.

As a class of thirty or so girls, we watched.

We didn’t know it then, when seventeen felt so final and world-ending, but we destined for careers, immense loves and friendships greater than anything we had experienced yet. Our lives were about to be filled with the most exceptional choices that would define the people we would become from the people we once were and the middle ground where we were both.

We were on the precipice of learning perhaps the most important lesson our school could have taught us: that choice and freedom are two sides of the same coin. One could not exist without the other.

The video of this woman and her beautiful baby was not disturbing, graphic or offensive. It was an informative view of that incredible woman’s personal choice. But I was starting to feel uncomfortable and questions began to whisper in my head as the movie ended. The most pressing question of all still concerns me as I have not yet found a clear-cut answer;

Is it propaganda to show a video like this to a group of girls who are a year off the voting age?

On the day itself, I didn’t have time to think about this too much before the teacher told us about the fear that can come with a crisis pregnancy. She  tried to impress upon us that shame should not be our first emotion if we ever found ourselves in that situation.

With the best of intentions for her – aligned with her religious beliefs and morals – our teacher told us that it was best to have a clear stance on where we believed life began now. By having our minds made up about the lawfulness of abortion at seventeen, we could simply revisit that belief if we found ourselves in a situation with a crisis pregnancy.

This is the grossest oversimplification I have ever encountered.

Oddly and in my opinion, wrongly, she began going around the room asking each of us when we thought life began. I couldn’t explain the huge sense of irritation I felt at this point or the sweat that was beginning to form on my palms. I can’t remember what answer any of us gave, but I remember that anger. Anger because even then, we knew that any answer that was not ‘conception’ was wrong.

That kind of subconscious knowledge falls into your subconscious and taints your thinking no matter your age.

That was six years ago, before we knew any referendum was going to have a set date or that the beginning of a shift in cultural thought would begin to snowball in the form of so many different social movements.

Back then, we still joked ‘Oh, I’d be gone to England‘ as we talked about pregnancy over animal bars like our words would not be the reality of girls our age and younger, perhaps in our own school.

The Facts of Compassion

Six years ago, and the question that gains importance every day is at the forefront of our minds.

What makes a bodily choice a private or public issue?

This question spawns continually into areas of our society like religion and human rights like ink falling into a glass of water. Inseparable, making every radio presenter in Ireland say ‘this is a very complex issue’ at least once in their careers.

But is it really that complicated?

Maybe we’re all just creating white noise to avoid looking at the blatant answer that sits in front of us every day in school, smiles at us in college, and laughs with us at our dinner tables in the women and girls we teach, learn from and share meals with.

By ignoring the simplicity of the issue, we make our women medical refugees every single day.

The facts remain simple, no matter the white noise we create unnecessarily:

  • No woman (or Trans man, for that matter) decides to get an abortion lightly. To imagine the choice as an idle one somehow replacing birth control discredits another human’s ability to understand consequences and is a form of discrimination in and of itself.
  • We cannot claim that slut-shaming a woman is wrong in a rape trial one week and vote no in this referendum the next and still call ourselves compassionate about what women do with their bodies.
  • Any human body other our own is outside of our jurisdiction for interference. We all become dictators the day that we decide to choose for another what improves another’s quality of life.
  • You can be pro-life for your own choices and beliefs, whilst still voting YES for the freedom of choices of others. A yes vote does not mean that you agree with abortion, but simply that you would not condemn the actions of another as criminal based off of that disagreement.

I hope that after May 25th, I can describe Ireland as compassionate to other nations. I hope that those girls who were in the classroom with me that day six years ago know that no matter what they vote, my YES will always be for the freedom of their choice.

We liberate each other, as much as ourselves with our actions.

For all of the women who have suffered at the hands of the 8th Amendment, for all the men who have supported the women in their lives through agony and pain, for those who have felt the anguish of being a crimeless criminal in their own home:

I am with you, always – with compassion.

Write soon,

Jen x

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