Anti-abortion posters fail to take account of life
The signs risk oversimplifying the issues in the Eighth Amendment referendum
Vote No poster on display around Dublin. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times
As I cycle to work foetuses look down at me from posters high up on the lampposts. They are as big as new-born babies. They tell me that their hearts are beating. They tell me that they can kick and yawn. They ask me to protect them. Their words are meant to hit you where it hurts most – in your heart.
The foetuses on the posters have no mothers. They are advanced for their age. They have grown-up thoughts. They choose their words carefully. They know how to get your attention. They know how to make you feel bad. I cycle on.
The images on the posters haunt me throughout the day. I am not thinking about the distraught woman waiting for tablets to come through the letter-box. I do not know about her yet. Her life is too complicated to hang on a street light. She keeps her story to herself. It’s far too long to fit on a poster. It’s longer than a novel.
Unlike the foetus on the poster, she has a million things going on in her head. She cries. She is afraid. She too knows all about the foetus. She has thought about nothing else for days. She calls it a baby in her mind. In her heart too. She knows how many weeks it is. She knows what size it is. It is much smaller than her thumb. She wonders if it is a boy or girl. She wishes things were different. But they are not. She has gone over and over it – a million times.
She has taken the tablets. She is not sure if they will work. She has never bought tablets on the internet before. When the pains start, she prays to God that the tablets are what they say they are on the packet. She tries to remember what she will say if she has to go into hospital. She will have to call a taxi. She has bought lots of pads in case the bleeding is heavy. She wonders what the doctors will say. She rehearses the lines of her made-up story. She will not tell them about the tablets unless she has to. She wonders what they will think of her.
I am a doctor. I am supposed to look after people. The woman sitting in front of me is crying. She has had a scan. Her baby’s brain has not developed. The baby will not survive. The woman is 20 weeks pregnant. Her partner has his arm around her. Her mother and father are on their way. Some of her in-laws too. I go over the options. It’s too early to make any decisions. Emotions are too raw. The midwife is very kind to them.
We go through everything again the next day. The woman says she cannot go through the rest of the pregnancy. She is too upset. She is wringing her hands in anguish.
I cannot help her. She will have to go to England. She and her partner will have to make their own arrangements. Of course, I’ll see her back afterwards. She has our number. She will have to talk to the doctors in England about how to bring the baby home. She wants to bury her baby with her grandparents.
The woman is still crying. I offer her a tissue. I have a ticket for the hospital car park. They won’t have to pay on the way out. Inadequate gestures. Cold comfort. There is nothing more I can do. Doctors in another country will look after her. Everyone tells us how important communication between doctors is. I don’t lift a phone. I don’t write a letter. My hands are tied. As they leave, they thank me. I wonder: for what? I close the door of my office. I can hear the woman crying on the corridor.
It has been a long day at work. As I leave the hospital, a woman is getting out of a taxi. She looks pale. She has blood on her jeans. She is upset. A midwife has brought out a wheelchair. She wheels the woman towards the emergency room.
The evenings are getting longer. It’s still bright as I cycle home. I look up at the foetuses on the posters. Who put those words in their mouths? Those are not their thoughts or words. They cannot think or speak.
Life doesn’t fit neatly on posters. When you try to oversimplify it you sometimes end up telling lies.
As dusk falls, I look out the window. The streetlights have not come on yet. The noise of traffic has died down. Sometimes you see things more clearly when the light is less intense. The posters have turned grey. I cannot make out their words. They are silent.
I draw the curtains and turn on the television. Experts are arguing over the referendum. I wish they would stop and agree on something – just for once. In the end I turn it off.
My thoughts turn to the woman in the emergency room and the woman on her way to London. I hope they are all right. I will think about them again when I am holding the pencil in the polling booth. I will think about all the other women too. Then I will look into my heart – and I will vote Yes.
Chris Fitzpatrick is a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist (and former master) at the Coombe Women and Infants’ University Hospital and a clinical professor at UCD’s School of Medicine