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'I'd hoped not to - but here's how I explained the abortion referendum posters to my children'

Referendum Insight: The impending referendum brings with it posters and campaigners and questions - here's how Fiona Ness explained the situation to her seven-year-old and nine-year-old


Placards for the upcoming Abortion Referendum to repeal the 8th amendment in Dublin's City Centre. Photo Gareth Chaney Collins

Placards for the upcoming Abortion Referendum to repeal the 8th amendment in Dublin's City Centre. Photo Gareth Chaney Collins

Placards for the upcoming Abortion Referendum to repeal the 8th amendment in Dublin's City Centre. Photo Gareth Chaney Collins

How will you explain the abortion referendum to your children? The short answer is, I’d hoped not to. As with the other big ticket news items, I had expected the savage servility of the world to slide on by. Naivety, it seems, is not the sole preserve of the young.

An impending Referendum on Repealing the 8th Amendment of the Constitution brings with it posters and campaigners and questions, so many questions. For us, it begins when the nine-year-old’s friend attends a march in town. The concept of “Pro-choice” has come to Fourth Class. Not a moment too soon, some might say; our girls must be ‘woke’ on abortion while their Christmas presents still come from Santa.

Then come the posters with the pictures. Is it a baby or a foetus? You get to decide. The children absorb so much ‘licence to kill’ and ‘my body my choice’ until that’s the one thing you no longer have as a parent - the choice not to tell them of the lottery of their own existence.

Parents of the past were masters of the phrases, “I’ll tell you when you’re older”; “You’re too young to understand”; and “It’s nothing for nosey folk”. Today, parenting experts advocate you offer your child a clear exchange of information in an age appropriate manner, on topics about which they are curious.

This seems like sensible advice to today’s parents who remember an Ireland where the silence bred from ignorance and lies was more damaging than any fact. It certainly seems sensible when it comes to explaining Repeal the 8th.

I know families who have drawn up a digital code of conduct for their households on back of the perceived threats to children from social media and mobile devices; should families consider doing the same on the subject of morality? In a family moral code of conduct we could at least encapsulate all our thinking around issues surrounding choice and responsibility.

Writing in this newspaper, parenting expert David Coleman has said that what is important in explaining the Eighth Amendment and abortion to your children is that it is your values, your beliefs and your opinions that you pass on. Whatever position you hold in the abortion debate, wrote Coleman, is the one that you can describe for your children. “You get to apply the filter for them.”

Yet the very thing I’ve hated about the abortion debate is the filter - the being told what to think and why, by campaigners on both sides. It’s such a deeply personal issue and that is the crux of determining how people might vote. But in making a personal decision voters are also making a decision for everyone, about the type of society in which we want to live.

I attempt to explain that to the seven-year-old and nine-year-old. The four-year-old gets a hall pass to play with his trains. I give them the facts of the abortion referendum and the space to grapple with the difficult questions and then I attempt to answer their questions, without prejudice.

And just like everything parents might find difficult to explain - from sex to divorce to death - I find that if you tell children the facts young enough and honestly enough and simply enough, they process them and then move on with the business of being children. There’s no weeping “for the end of innocence and the darkness of man’s heart” here.

The seven-year-old already knows how babies get into your body. She’s known since she was four, thanks to a handy little picture book story called Where Willy Went, where a little girl discovers just why she is such a good swimmer.

Now she wants to know, "is there a way of getting a baby out of your body if you don’t want it?"

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I tell her yes there is, and it’s called abortion. However, you can’t do that in Ireland, but you can in Britain and some other countries. I tell her that is what all the posters she is seeing are about. People are deciding if we can have that choice in Ireland.

I tell her that in this case, remember, the baby does not live. "Awww, sad," she says.

We talk about the differences between the foetus on the posters and a baby in a pram, and the reasons that some people might believe that one doesn’t necessarily mean the other.

"I think everyone deserves a chance at life," says the nine-year-old dolefully.

I tell her it’s good to have an opinion on such an important subject, but that she might think about the topic again as she grows older and has more questions. I say that, in the words of the late professor Stephen Hawking, "All we need to do is make sure we keep talking".

I know that if I really want to protect my children from the world, then I have to prepare them. And to prepare them I have to give them information.

And yet, if I could have chosen, I might have chosen not to explain abortion to a seven-year-old and a nine-year-old.

On a trip into Dublin for new school shoes, they say they can’t wait for the posters to come down and the place to "get back to normal". But wedged in between the LOL dolls and the camogie matches, abortion will remain; waiting to become relevant to their lives.