‘My friend might consider leaving home if the result is No’
Laura Kennedy: When Irish women began to talk about their own experiences, the ugly reality of Ireland’s relationship with abortion oozed out
“Irish women like my friend learned that they had been complicit in a great silence, it was as invisible as the air they breathed”
Over a catch-up with a friend recently, the referendum came up, or rather, the referendum – that miasma through which we all wade like a dark pool of cloying molasses – dominated the atmosphere in which we interacted. My friend travelled to the UK for a termination in her student days, before I knew her, and does not regret doing so.
She did not tell anyone until about a year and a half ago, when she says that she “felt the wind change”. Suddenly, a choice that had been rendered dirty and condemned as the wilful selfishness of morally unpalatable theoretical women seemed nuanced. Abortion did not any longer seem an issue without relevance to most people, a secret that seemed only my friend’s to tolerate.
As well-known Irish women, and then others, began to talk about their own experiences of abortion, it became clear there was nothing unfamiliar about it. Irish women like my friend learned they had been complicit in a great silence; one that ran so deep, it was invisible and ubiquitous as the air they breathed. They were sitting all this time in rooms with one another, thinking the shame and the secret knowledge was theirs alone, that they were set apart by sin and fear, and all the while they conducted their lives in a loud, seething silence that turned inward and was vicious as a cancer. When those women ruptured that suppurating silence, the ugly reality of Ireland’s relationship with abortion oozed out.
If the referendum does not result in repealing the Eighth Amendment to our Constitution, any rejection of that result, or immediate move to push for another referendum – would represent a lack of respect for democracy. A country’s sovereignty should be sacrosanct. If the majority of Irish people who care enough to vote do not want abortion in their country, then it should not be forced into being.
My friend, clutching her tea and looking at me with a weary expression, said with a small voice that she might consider leaving if, come May 26th, the result is a No. This was not a childish pout – a linguistic form of taking her ball and going home, and it was not uttered with resentment. It is just, she said, that she might not be able stomach the pretence, and never wants to experience being pregnant against her will for a moment longer than necessary again. The women who have abortions are not bogeywomen, but ordinary people who have more of a right to sovereignty over their body than anything (or anyone, if you see it that way) else has a right to live in it.
I share my friend’s reticence. I do not know if I can have a child, and haven’t decided whether I want to, but I do know I would struggle with the reality of being pregnant in a place where pregnancy means a nine-month sentence, more or less, no matter what might happen, or a flight to another jurisdiction, to shuffle bleeding back onto a homebound flight, my criminal deed done. I am an Irish citizen, and I own my body as my self – I wish that Ireland was a place where that mattered above all else.
My friend has found the atmosphere of this referendum difficult, and it is not hard to see why. I share her reticence about an Ireland that might push a No vote through. Her sense of uncertainty is a response to the idea that Ireland could be proved not to be what she thought it was, or hoped it was. Perhaps that is something that she – and others like her – can come to terms with. Perhaps it is not. For now, life for people in Ireland is a performative contradiction: we live in a society restrained by principles that we do not truly hold. Women leave this country for abortions every day, and they take the risk of ingesting what they hope are abortifacient medications purchased illegally online. Pro-choice and pro-life women have abortions when they assess that they need them. If it is to be a No, we will remain an Ireland with two faces. I hope for myself, my friend, and everyone else, that we can turn together and face the truth.