Comment: Abortion referendum will leave scars, whatever the public decides on the day
Given just how poorly some of us have shown ourselves to be capable of behaving in the last days before the vote on the Eighth Amendment, we may need to consider how we will cope once the result of the referendum becomes known.
There’s no easy outcome in view.
Unless the polls are wildly wrong, the result is likely to be tight. So could that mean, after this protracted and often fraught run-up to the vote, that the recovery period might prove even worse?
Success for Yes will lead us to the framing of the legislation that will be needed to shape an abortion service here. Right now, all we have are the draft heads of bill agreed in February. There is no possibility that this next phase will be a pain-free process.
If No succeeds, the disappointment will go well beyond politics. Clearly, a large cohort of people will interpret the result as a vote against women, against their health, their judgment and autonomy.
For this group, the outcome will be greeted as a crisis.
One certain outcome is that the immediate post-vote era will not be a good time for journalists.
No matter what the final tally of this vote, the media will be blamed by someone for muddying the message or skewing the odds, for being too liberal or too obsessed with balance or not being balanced enough.
In a way, this is fair enough; we are used to it, it comes with the territory, media must pay a price for its sphere of inf luence. It just won’t be pleasant to live through.
And it scarcely matters because our discomfort will be nothing compared to the pain that will be inflicted on those who felt deep conviction on either side of the argument, if and when the opposing side wins.
Because if one core thing separates this referendum campaign from the 1983 campaign that led to the Eighth Amendment,
it’s the extent to which people have told their own very personal and painful stories in the interests of their cause.
In 1983, nobody talked about their lives; debate was overwhelmingly theoretical. In 2018, as in 2015, people have opened their most sensitive and private past histories to public scrutiny.
And that leaves them very vulnerable.
I think here of people like the parents who put forward their children with Down syndrome for use by the No campaign, clearly in the sincere wish to ensure everyone understood just how valued, and valuable they could be. And of the couples who movingly related, on live radio, why they had decided to proceed with a pregnancy in the face of a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality and said they were glad they had done so.
I think of the women who carried placards and allowed themselves to be photographed declaring they regretted having abortions. And those that went public saying precisely the reverse.
I think of the many woman – some of them well known – who spoke out bravely for the Yes campaign, who disclosed abortions they had quietly undergone decades before and declared themselves comfortable with their decision; of the woman who in recent days anonymously told her story of having to leave the country – in pain, with symptoms of septicaemia and 20 weeks’ pregnant – for a late-term abortion in Liverpool as the Irish hospital she was attending could offer no further help. If the vote is No, what of them?
And there is more anguish in prospect. If the referendum is defeated, what of the women who realise they are pregnant in the days, weeks and months after the vote, if they fervently do not wish to be?
How will it affect them knowing the population – their own communities – have voted to deny them any option other than to resort to subterfuge to secure an abortion?
If the vote is Yes, on the other hand, how will those whose consciences tell them that life begins at conception manage with the knowledge their friends and neighbours have voted in sufficient numbers to override what they will regard as their very legitimate and deeply held concerns for the next generation and those that come after that?
One might hope we will all have sufficient emotional maturity to live with whatever hand we are dealt, on this occasion as on any other.
That we can remain philosophical and say: Well, we tried to argue this one and it went the other way and this is just the way it will have to be.
That there are grey areas in every issue and we will have to find the shade of grey we can live with and inhabit that.
But observing the antics on and after the raucous referendum special on RTÉ’s ‘Claire Byrne Live’ – all that unattractive triumphalism, the harsh judgment and the sheer scale of the mutual incomprehension – it is quite hard to be optimistic.