Nell McCafferty: We need to talk indoors, not shout outdoors about abortion

No conversation about abortion is complete without celebration of the magnificent plenitude of conception, pregnancy and motherhood

Author and feminist Nell McCafferty at the Strike Repeal March on O'Connell Bridge on March 8th, 2017. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Author and feminist Nell McCafferty at the Strike Repeal March on O'Connell Bridge on March 8th, 2017. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons


We need to have a conversation about conception, pregnancy and motherhood. After that, we need to talk about abortion.

The way I talked about both changed during the infamous and successful campaign of 1981-83 to introduce the Eighth Amendment into the constitution, which put the fertilised egg on a par with a pregnant woman.

As ever, the matter came up during a conversation in Derry with my mother, who was understandably upset by the “pro-life” propaganda saying that abortion was, without qualification, the killing of an unborn child. “No,” I explained, “in the early stages of pregnancy, what is in the womb is a collection of cells that would not be visible under a microscope. That collection of cells could in no way be described as a baby,” I said confidently, and dismissively. (I was 39 years old.)

My mother rose to her feet in the kitchen and said, “Come you out here to the scullery with me.” We walked to the sink there, just opposite the gable wall in the backyard, to which blank canvas my mother was wont to stare in times of stress and confusion, her hands twisting the dishcloth. “Do you see that oilcloth under my feet?” she asked, one hand on the sink, the other pointing to the floor under her feet. “Are you telling me that the day I miscarried onto a newspaper on that exact spot, that I miscarried a bunch of cells? That was no bunch of cells, Nell. That was my baby, four months old.”

When the doctor arrived, he told her that it was the most perfect specimen of a miscarried baby that he had ever seen, and asked her permission to send it for preservation to a medical laboratory in Edinburgh. I asked what the specimen looked like and my mother replied, pointing to a framed Lowry picture, that it was like “one of those stick people in that painting up on the wall”.

Early miscarriage

There was no Google in those days. It was not until 2017, at the pro-choice International Women’s Day demonstration outside the Dáil that I saw a portrait on a banner of an early miscarriage. The banner was carried by pro-life counter-protestors. The foetus displayed was that of a “murdered four-month-old baby in the womb”, the protesters said. That was the first time that I had ever seen a replica of what my mother called the baby she had miscarried. Now I knew what she had been talking about, and what many other people had told me in the intervening years since 1983, of the miscarried babies they had buried in their own back gardens. “What else could we do? We rang the doctor and he told us to just bury it in the garden. There are probably dozens, maybe hundreds of miscarriages buried in back gardens all over Dublin.”

I had to think back to another tragedy experienced by my mother, revealed to me in one of the many conversations we had had since she first worried about my bringing back contraceptives on the Dublin-Belfast train journey of 1971 (when I was 27). She had just had a stroke, aged 90, in the year 2000. When she recovered, she asked, “Where is my baby buried?” She had given birth to a child in 1938, when she was 28. The baby died within minutes. Because there had been no time to send for the priest to baptise the girl baby, the child was deemed “unsouled” by the Catholic Church, and there had been no formal ceremony or burial.

My father had carried her in a cardboard shoebox up to the cemetery, after dark, and left her at the gate-lodge. Now my mother, 52 years later, wanted to know where her firstborn had been buried. In all the decades in between, during our weekly Sunday afternoon walks around the cemetery, Mary Ann had not been mentioned. My mother taught us to read by having us recite what was on the headstones. There was nothing else to do in Protestant-controlled and ruled Derry, gloomy Sunday Sabbath coming down.

Mass grave

When Mammy asked, with wrenching despair and loss, where was the body of her firstborn, my super-efficient sister Nuala found the receipt from the cemetery officials, and went to the directed location. She found an unmarked mass grave in an overgrown abandoned stretch of waste ground. Nuala went straight to the Catholic Bishop of Derry – the Bloody Sunday priest Edward Daly – and asked him about such treatment of babies in a time when the pro-lifers were erecting “angel plots” for such fruits of the womb all over Ireland.

Within a week, the bishop had the waste ground landscaped and an angel row dedicated. A priest picked a random spot and said that Mary Ann had been buried there. We bought a red marble headstone wrought in the shape of a shoebox, and the priest gave Mary Ann a formal blessing and farewell. My mother was there.

Afterwards, she wept to me that Mary Ann was not in heaven as the priest had declared and, reciting Catholic doctrine, said, “She was never baptised. She will be in Limbo for ever. She will never get into Heaven.” My mother died in 2004, before the Catholic Church pronounced that the status of Limbo is actually in limbo, and that the Church had not made up its mind on this cruel theological matter.

Abortion in rape

Years before she died, my mother told me that in the event of one of her granddaughters being raped and impregnated, she, my mother, would go personally to Rome and ask the Pope for permission to have the raped fruit of the womb aborted. She sighed and fell silent when I pointed out the utter impossibility of that. There were some matters beyond discussion when a wordy daughter such as myself brought reason relentlessly to bear. I could practically hear her brain clicking in the silence, though. My mother had reluctantly come to the acceptance of the necessity of abortion in some cases.

On many such matters, over the years, as one broken marriage after another, for example, rolled into the house, my mother visibly wished that I would just shut up and let her think her way through things. “It’s like Southfork in here,” she said, wistfully referencing the soap opera “Dallas” as yet another challenge in a changing family presented itself. Then she’d chuckle and I’d be banished.

The worst and best day was when the doctor advised that we send for the priest because my 93-year-old mother was definitely dying. The priest came and was gone within minutes of giving Extreme Unction. My mother was furious afterwards. “That priest took one look at me in the bed and said, ‘Ah sure, an old woman like you has no sins, Mrs McCafferty.’ He knows nothing. He’s a boy. I want a man.”

I went dutifully to the cathedral and Bishop Daly came over immediately. He and my mother were alone together for two hours and more, as he heard her last confession. When he came out for a cup of tea, I asked Daly, “Were you man enough for her?” He grinned and said, “She ran rings round me, Nell.” The bishop’s brother had, a week previously, left his wife for another and younger woman. “Who confessed to whom?” I asked. “That’s our business, and you’ll never know,” he replied.

My mother, when I brought her in the tea, grinned and sighed in discreet, silent satisfaction.

Missing conversations

I don’t have those kinds of conversations or understandings any more. The International Women’s Day demonstrations, March 8th 2017, calling for the repeal of the Eighth, illustrate the point definitively. The first demonstration on O’Connell Street bridge had a young woman holding aloft a placard that declared: “If I wanted the Government in my womb, I’d f**k a Senator.” I pointed out officiously that she surely meant a male senator, and was told to “f**k off”. Another placard declared: “Get the constitution out of my c**tstitution.” When a photographer pointed out that her newspaper would not, could not, print such language, she was told to “f**k off”.

Later that evening, in the pitch dark, thousands of supportive people were addressed from the sidewalk, by means of a hand-held loudhailer, and we could neither hear nor see. I looked at the purported picture banner of an aborted four-month-old foetus, and was told by pro-lifers that I supported murder.

We need to talk, sisters and brothers. “F**k” and “c**t” do not comprise conversation, and if that does not change, we will not get the complete range of abortion rights that are a female’s right to choose. We need to talk about Enda Kenny’s legacy to Ireland; the highest rate of homelessness known since the famine. There is no room at the inn for nurturing the fruit of our wombs. Modern family life dictates a two-income, mother-father combination of paid working careers, with the newborn dropped off at the creche when only months old.

We need to talk indoors, not shout outdoors. No conversation about abortion is complete without celebration, in the context of contraception, of the magnificent plenitude of conception, pregnancy and motherhood. The thrust of current feminist shouts, particularly from the young, is almost exclusively about abortion, abortion and abortion, to the exclusion of almost all else. The difficulties of modern parenting must surely be addressed in the current housing crisis, with crippling mortgage and rental, and costly creche difficulties. Abortion is the last resort, not the first, of womanhood.

Nell McCafferty was a founder member of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement, 1970.

Extracted from Repeal The 8th by Una Mullally, which is published on April 5th (Unbound, £9.99)

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