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Oliver Callan: To vote No is a special kind of unfairness

The referendum affects someone else’s life in a way that doesn’t affect you back

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On May 25th, my 19-year-old niece Clara will vote for the first time. She has just reached the same age her mother, my sister, was when she gave birth to her in 1998. It was just two years after the last Magdalene laundry closed. Aoife raised her as a single mother, battling rejection, discrimination and all the loaded foulness that have scourged and judged single mothers in Ireland for a century.

Aged 19 and far from home in Galway, she cared for her baby, returning to and finishing college, creating a career and raising an incredible young woman. It was far from easy, at one point a welfare agent told her she would be better-off on State benefits but Aoife chose to work. She cleaned hotel rooms to pay the rent while pregnant, then cycled to lectures through Galway’s horizontal rain after Clara was born. All while bearing stigma. No man could have done it, because they have never had to. The lone parent upbringing did not diminish Clara, if anything, it made her more precocious and mature than her peers.

It is a strange twist of fate then that her first vote will be on the abortion referendum. Both she and her mum will vote yes. They could just as easily be a poster case for the No side, displaying the miracle of life that comes with opting to carry a crisis pregnancy full term. However, they realise that to vote no is a special kind of unfairness that affects someone else’s life in a way that doesn’t affect you back.

After a Yes vote, no committed pro-lifer, no passionate opponent of abortion will have their lives altered in any way. Abortion won't become compulsory for pregnant women who don't believe in it. It will simply introduce choice and acknowledge reality. This is not a vote to bring abortion to Ireland, but to accept that it's already here and to make it safe. There is incontrovertible proof that the Eighth Amendment has ruined women's lives, as opposed to the wild conjecture about the numbers it might, maybe, possibly, have saved.


Unjust treatment

For us men, voting yes is a chance to right a history of treating women unjustly. About 18 months ago, in my nascent stages as an intermittent writer in these pages, I wrote a column that I’m ashamed of. You can fuel my embarrassment further by finding it again online. The thrust of my claim was that women needed to patiently instruct sexist men how to change. To not sweat the little things. I was wrong in what I said about women, feminism, drag queens, the lot. The least I can write is that I’m sorry, and conclude that making mistakes is a good education.

Since then, men, with all our environmental and internalised sexism, have been educating each other through revelations of bad behaviour affecting women. There was Donald Trump. Then Harvey Weinstein. At home we had Tuam and the Kerry Garda case reminding us of an unconfronted history of horrors against women. The centenary of the Suffragettes taught us that only through female activism was their case progressed, often thwarted by still-lauded male “heroes” like John Redmond. The Belfast rugby rape trial told us that young men today need urgent education. The gender pay gap show that women are still regarded as lesser.

And then came the abortion debate, almost perfectly placed within this maelstrom of dark nostalgia and present-day discrimination. The Yes forces include medical experts and superlative campaigners who’ve survived abuse or discrimination and are mostly funded by small individual donations. Their campaign has a positive, compassionate tone.

The No side are a hodgepodge of wealthy religious groups and neocons, relying on shock imagery, spurious slogans and unregulated online ads. Like many dying dominant forces, they’ve appropriated the language of victims, preposterously using ample media time to claim they’re silenced by mobs and conspiracies. The No campaign is based on fear-stoking, mistruths and dizzying the debate by introducing non-sequiturs and twisted statistics.

Religious dogma

Its civilian leaders fail to convince of any detachment from the mother church. This is because there is no motivation behind refusing a woman’s right to choose a medical procedure other than religious dogma. The church is important for society but must have no role in our laws and our State. Pro-lifers claim the unborn has no voice, and so arrogantly purport to be their representatives to maintain mastery over the choices of mothers. They also claim to care about children, until of course, the child grows up to be gay, bi, trans or in a crisis pregnancy.

Referendums are powerful in that they allow citizens directly and immediately impact the Constitution at the ballot box. That we can do so in the knowledge our vote will be secured and counted accurately and fairly is a comfort we ought never take for granted.

Women have got us to this defining point through their suffering. We give meaning to that suffering by voting yes. Misinformation, a fragmented media and a bewildered citizenry have seen democratic decisions around the world turn backwards and inwards.

For once, Ireland can actually live up to the phoney marketing of those tourism videos that portray us as a forward and open society. Men owe women a Yes vote, and we owe it to ourselves to redeem those who lay down the prejudices that made it take so damn long to get here. I stand proudly with my brave sister and her daughter and I will vote yes.

Oliver Callan is a writer and commentator