Monday 16 September 2019

And now, the end is near (but, not really...)

The good news: the referendum campaign is almost over. The bad news: it's never, ever over

Illustration by Tom Halliday
Illustration by Tom Halliday
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

Whichever way the vote goes this Friday, that won't be the end of it. The forces contesting the referendum on the Eighth Amendment aren't going away - neither side.Whichever way the vote goes this Friday, that won't be the end of it. The forces contesting the referendum on the Eighth Amendment aren't going away - neither side.

This thing has been going on since the '70s.

So, what can we expect, politically, in the period after the referendum?

Well, let Danny Healy-Rae explain.

"What," he asked the Dail on March 20 last, "about the lovely, big families that were reared around my neck of the woods?"

And he began to list them off - a family of 17 here, a family of 15 there.

And then there was the family of 22, with the daddy taking 14 of them off to the primary school "in a cattle box tied onto a Ford 3000 tractor".

Alas, those good times are gone.

"There are none like them any more," said Danny. "Families with four, five or six children are considered large these days."

Female control of fertility is central to the change we've seen since those days of serial pregnancy.

There were lots of changes involving women. The ending, in 1973, of the Marriage Bar (women in the public service - and elsewhere - had to quit working when they married).

The fight, in 1976, to get women the right to sit on juries (Ah, sure what would a wee woman know about serious stuff like that?).

The Family Home Protection Act in 1976, so a man couldn't sell the house out from under his wife.

Also in 1976, barring orders for violent men came in; refuges were opened for women routinely battered.

Rape was legal within marriage. The first move to change that was in 1979, but marital rape was still legal up to 1990.

Have a cup of tea and ponder the values of that world: it took 11 years to convince a majority of politicians to end marital rape.

Most central of all, the fight for contraception.

Next Tuesday is the 47th anniversary of the famous 1971 "contraceptive train", when feminists went from Dublin to Belfast and on their return openly waved contraceptives in the faces of the customs people.

As it happens, I was on the train - by chance, wandering, like Forrest Gump, into a moment of history. And I remember, at Connolly Station, watching the women march off chanting "The law is obsolete!"

But they knew it wasn't, not by a long, long shot.

From 1979, you could buy condoms, but only if you went to a doctor and got a prescription.

And from 1985, you could buy them from a chemist shop - if you could find one that sold them.

Up to 1991, the cops were prosecuting non-pharmacists who sold condoms.

And all of this leads us back, inexorably, to Danny's world, slowly losing ground, as one change followed another.

Every single advance was fought, ferociously, by those who didn't see the need for change. The big battles were directly related to Danny's wistful memories of huge families.

Through the '70s, '80s and '90s, the fight was to a large extent about control of human fertility.

On one side, those who said leave it to God, and the needs of the men, as men choose to exercise those needs.

On the other side were those who placed priority on the needs of the woman, and her right to plan her life, including - as far as possible - her childbearing.

The first side approved of the sheer randomness of reproduction, which could lead to a woman being pregnant every year for a decade or two. The consequences, in terms of exhaustion and the limit it placed on a woman's life, are obvious,

The fight against forms of violence - including marital rape - was often part of the fight for women to take control of if and when they might have children.

Whichever side wins this week, it will still be about that different view of human fertility, and how much control women have over it.

Contraception allows a woman to plan when she might have children. Or, it allows her, when she believes her family is complete, to stop having children. It's about exerting control over that which was random.

Abortion allows a woman to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. It could be a result of rape or incest, or it might be a foetus unlikely to live. Or it might be a pregnancy at a point when having a baby would destroy plans for an education, a career, caring for a family member or whatever.

These days, women plan a series of life stages, with one of them often being a hope for children later on. A woman might find herself pregnant at 22 knowing that all of that, including future children in a settled relationship, might be on the line.

Some women, in such situations, decide that whatever will be, will be.

Others have a termination. It's about choice. It's about exerting control over that which was random.

Some women have an unwanted pregnancy in their 40s. They face a similar choice.

What matters is the change from that Healy-Rae world where a woman's childbearing was solely left to chance, and the demands of a husband on whom there were no inhibitions, not even a prohibition on rape.

The medical science that allowed contraception and abortion also brought fertility treatment. That too, though it generates life, is unacceptable to many traditionalists. They hug the label "pro-life", but what matters to them is the randomness of it - God's work.

This has been a long process of change, from a society that now seems bizarre, violent and extremely unfair.

People who agree with much of the change have reservations about abortion. Knowing this, the No side ignore this context of a long history of seeking the freedom that comes with control over that which was random. Instead, they cruelly dismiss the "hard cases" and tell us it's all about "Will We Kill Babies, Yes or No?"

When it's over, one side will be exuberant, and thinking of fresh victories. One side will be exhausted and desperate.

The Eighth Amendment of 1983 was partly about abortion. But it was also about using the pulpit to force the politicians to give the traditionalists an easy win - at a time of change when they needed one.

If the traditionalists lose this week, there will be some similar attempt to regain lost ground. Perhaps based around the imminent Papal visit, as the 1983 move began in the wake of the 1979 Papal visit.

If they win, those of us who have seen the decades unfold will sigh and open a bottle of wine. Younger people, knowing this isn't a single issue, that it's about the shape of the world in which they'll live, will need clear heads to think.

Last week, actor Brian F O'Byrne accepted a Bafta award, in London. In his speech, he said, "Thank you Britain for looking after our women in their time of need."

It was an overdue gesture of thanks to our neighbours, who felt a duty of care when our own politicians looked away.

To many among the traditionalists, the opposition to abortion is about three things: location, location, location. The "pro-life" forces were complicit in 1992 in giving constitutional protection to the abortion trail to the UK. They have tolerated it ever since. It's not abortion they oppose, it's abortion in Ireland.

Contraception was a multi-field battle. It was fought in the courts, in the Dail, on that train to Belfast.

If the No side win, it will be time to look at the law (did the 13th Amendment unwittingly bestow rights beyond the right to travel for abortion?). This is not a sprint. It's just one more stage in a marathon.

Sunday Independent

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