Jennifer O’Connell: ‘Vote no to death. Yes for compassion. No. Yes. Yes. No’

Those shouty slogans feel like an insult, but they make it easier to start the conversation

The trip to school – 20 minutes if the traffic is good, and we leave at precisely the right moment; 25 when it’s bad, or we don’t – has become slightly tense. It’s going to come up sooner or later. I’ve been practising what I’ll say in my head, as the children fight over the Spotify playlist, and the rain beats on the windscreen, and the heads of disembodied foetuses float past the car windscreen. Don’t repeal me, the posters say. Vote no to death. Yes for care. Yes for compassion in a crisis. No. Yes. Yes. No. No.

The three year old shouts a reference to a character in her favourite animated film Sing, which means she wants Elton John's I'm Still Standing, only for the 834th time this school year. No, moans the 10 year old softly. Yes, yes, she shouts.

The 11 year old is quiet, looking at the window. It’s a heavy silence. I am quiet too, remembering posters outside my school about dead babies 35 years ago. I was younger than she is now. Those posters gave me the same feeling in my tummy as the film the nuns made us watch of dying babies in Africa. Now the posters accompany us to school; they gaze reproachfully down from the entrance to neat housing estates. I wonder what they must be doing to women who are going through a miscarriage, or who have had an abortion, or who can’t get pregnant, and I turn Elton John up louder.

Conversation starters

The posters do one thing though: they make it easier to start the conversation we’ve spent our lives avoiding. One woman I had down as a yes voter is voting no because she lived in a country where, she says, women used it as a form of contraception. Another is voting yes, for lots of reasons, but mostly because she has daughters, and she knows what she’d do for them. Another is voting no because she feels she doesn’t really know what we’re voting for.


One older woman is voting yes, because abortion is happening in this country anyway, and she’d prefer it was happening safely. This horse has already bolted, she says.

A younger one changed her mind about having an abortion at the last minute, and now she has a beautiful two year old. But she’s still firmly pro-choice. She doesn’t think she has the right to choose for anyone else. Her boyfriend is voting no. They had a conversation about it which left her in tears.

Those shouty slogans feel like an insult to the complexity of this issue.

In a salon, the girl looking after me is confused at first when it comes up. Oh, is that what it’s about, she asks. I had heard about the 8th and Repeal, but I didn’t know that’s what it was. I wonder if she will vote. Maybe, she says. Now, I probably will.

Disembodied foetuses

One evening, I look out an upstairs window and see two men with a ladder and a big yellow van. By the time I get downstairs, they’re already at the lamppost, attaching a poster with plastic ties. “A Licence to Kill?” it says, over the image of one of those disembodied foetuses.

I’d really prefer you didn’t put that poster up there, I call out. They look up, surprised; the older man wants to know why not.

I list the objections. Because this referendum is not actually about abortion on demand. Because I have living, breathing children who will have to look at that image and those words every time they walk out the front door, and this is too complex and private a subject to be distilled into slogans.

That’s a living, breathing child too, the older man says, in the face of the basic tenets of biology and physics. He looks delighted with this. Clearly, facts take second place to emotions. Anyway, it’s a public lamppost, he adds. That, at least, is a fact.

We’re on the good side you know, the younger man calls before they get back in their van and drive off.

I wanted to shout after them that it’s not a Disney movie, but they are gone. I mentally locate the garden secateurs and the ladder.


The next time we’re in the car, it comes up. It’s the 11 year old who broaches it. Those posters are very manipulative, she says. They’re making it seem that the woman’s rights are less important.

Then we have the conversation. We talk about how life can’t always be divided neatly into right and wrong; how sometimes it’s about one right and another right, and you have to decide which right takes precedence. How difficult questions require difficult answers, not crude slogans. How we believe everyone deserves kindness and empathy and the chance to decide what happens to their body, or when they should become parents.

Life is not black and white, the 10 year old says.

Not like a Disney movie, I say, and they agree.

The poster is still there whenever I look out my bedroom window, banging angrily against the lamppost in the late spring gales, but I feel a little more benevolent towards it now.