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Alison O’Connor: Let's finally talk about abortion with some calm

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Mick Wallace and Clare
Daly at the news
conference in advance
of the Dail debate this
week

Mick Wallace and Clare Daly at the news conference in advance of the Dail debate this week

Mick Wallace and Clare Daly at the news conference in advance of the Dail debate this week

THERE was something notable missing from the rather amazing week we've just had in terms of Ireland and abortion -- hysteria. We had the first-ever abortion bill debated in the Dail, and four exceptionally brave women went public on their abortions, and all around calm heads appeared to prevail.

Is it too much to hope that this is some sort of a watershed moment? We had TDs standing in the Dail calmly, and compassionately, and often wisely, discussing the subject and the need for us to finally, as a society, step up to the plate and sort out this issue.

Then we had the four women, Jenny McDonald, Ruth Bowie, Amanda Mellet and Arlette Lyons, who went public with their heartbreaking tales of being told the babies they were carrying were incompatible with life. They had to travel out of the country to get abortions.

It is impossible to imagine the shock of discovering that your baby will not survive outside of the womb. But if you are Irish and you decide on a termination, you have to immediately leave the hospital and doctor you are familiar with, as well as the care of family and close friends, and book a flight to the UK.

In effect, these people are frequently simply cut loose and have to travel without even a letter of referral from a doctor. They are left to cope on their own and make their own arrangements. Afterwards, the woman, in pain and bleeding from the procedure, is often forced to spend hours walking around somewhere like Manchester or London, waiting for a return flight home.

Traditionally, couples who have had such an experience do so in tortured silence, usually telling those outside their immediate circle that it was a miscarriage.

I sat in a room once and heard the personal stories of two women who had both received similar news about the babies they were carrying. One decided, along with her husband, to travel for a termination. The other opted to continue with her pregnancy.

This meant having to spend months listening to all the well wishes of strangers.

They patted her bump, repeatedly asking when she was due, and if she knew whether it was a boy or a girl. She delivered the child at term, which, as predicted did not survive. I respected both decisions, although it moved me beyond anger to hear of the additional burden placed on the couple who opted for an abortion because they had to travel.

In effect, it is state-sponsored barbarism for citizens who are heartbroken, in shock, and most in need of care in familiar surroundings, to be treated in this manner. As taxpayers, they are owed far more than that. As a matter of simple humanity they are owed far more. It is political cowardice that they are forced to travel.

Those who describe themselves as pro-life clearly feel a strong compassion for babies in the womb. But what happens to that compassion when it comes to adults placed in situations as highly distressing as these?

Socialist Party TD Clare Daly deserves high praise for bringing forward the Medical Treatment (Termination of Pregnancy in the case of Risk to Life of Pregnant Women) Bill along with her colleagues Mick Wallace and Joan Collins.

The four women who went public are keen, for entirely understandable reasons, to separate themselves from "pro-choice" groups. They realise this sort of association could lose them support; thus the emphasis of their campaign to make terminations available in Ireland for medical reasons.

But this does leave us with the scenario of "good" and "bad" abortions, which further splinters the debate and leaves the women in the latter category even more alienated and shamed. Last summer, I read what remains my best read of the year so far, Caitlin Moran's (UK author and feminist) 'How to be a woman'. One of the things that stands out in my memory is how she spoke of her own abortion.

AT the time, she already had two daughters. Throughout the book, Miss Moran is incredibly open about all aspects of her life, including her abortion. For an Irish person, I think, given our social history, it seems doubly shocking to be hearing someone publicly "confessing" to abortion, but particularly a happily married mother.

"My belief in the ultimate sociological, emotional and practical necessity for abortion became even stronger after I had my two children," wrote Miss Moran. "It is only after you have had a nine-month pregnancy, laboured to get the child out, fed it, cared for it, sat with it until 3am, risen with it at 6am, swooned with love for it and been reduced to tears by it that you really understand just how important it is for a child to be wanted".

After the abortion she was "thankful" and "relieved". "I suppose what I'd been given to believe is that my body -- or my subconscious -- would be angry with me for not having the baby . . . But all I could see -- and all I can see now, years later -- is history made of millions of women trying to undo the mistake that could then undo them, and then just carrying on, quiet, thankful and silent about the whole thing. What I see, is that it can be an action with only good consequences."

Challenging, isn't it? Quite obviously this is just one woman's experience; and, as we know, there are plenty of other women who feel differently, including those who are tormented by the experience of abortion. But it's interesting nonetheless, isn't it, to read that for this woman the sky did not fall in. Hopefully, this week has brought us a little further along the road of being able to talk about abortion without getting hysterical or completely bonkers.

Irish Independent