Thursday 24 January 2019

Ireland is not Gilead, no matter what the pro-choice brigade say

Red robes: Rosa campaigner Louisa Ni Eideain, with her seven-month-old son Tadhg Leperf, dressed as Handmaid during a pro-choice lobby at Leinster House. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Red robes: Rosa campaigner Louisa Ni Eideain, with her seven-month-old son Tadhg Leperf, dressed as Handmaid during a pro-choice lobby at Leinster House. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

In a time of unprecedented strife and rancour, where people seem further apart than any time in recent memory, the one thing we really need is... an abortion referendum.

And no, I'm not being facetious.

Because no matter how much madness this referendum will provoke, and no matter how hysterical and emotionally manipulative elements of both sides are bound to be, this country needs to lance a boil that has been festering for far too long.

Anyone old enough to remember the last time the issue was put to the people in 1983 will surely feel all misty eyed and nostalgic for those days - days when people who believed in a woman's right to choose were denounced as Godless baby-killers and the pulpits sang to packed churches about the great evil of personal choice.

Ah yes, fun times.

Actually, that eventual vote, which maintained the prohibition on abortion so divided the country that it was a Pyrhrric victory for the Church. It was almost as if it used all its capital in that one campaign and the long process of people beginning to disentangle themselves from an organisation that had far too much power was begun.

Now the pendulum has swung the other way, and the moral high ground is now occupied by the people once denounced as baby killers, while those who felt virtuous in opposing abortion are now seen as geriatric cranks who just hate women.

Morality is a bit like fashion in that sense - trends come and go and what was in this year was most definitely out last year.

Following the Citizens' Assembly vote in April to recommend 'radical changes' in our abortion laws, the grenade, with the pin out, was lobbed in Varadkar's direction and now we have an all-party committee beavering away to frame the way the referendum will be worded. Good luck with trying to come up with wording that pleases anyone, let alone everyone.

While I was only a kid back in 1983, the divisions that it created remain some of my most vivid early memories - friends not talking to each other, family's being split.

Honestly, it was like Roy Keane and Saipan with God thrown into the mix.

Well, no matter how bad things were back then, this looming debate will be infinitely worse.

We may pat ourselves on the back and say that we're so much more enlightened than back in the 1980s but we ain't any more tolerant. it's just that the intolerance has swapped sides.

As it happens, and I've said this until I'm blue in the face, I'm firmly but reluctantly in the pro-choice camp. That's because I don't think I have the moral authority to force my own personal qualms about the issue on to other people. While abortion is a universal topic of conversation and debate that is open to all genders, it is fundamentally a women's rights issue and my skin crawls at the idea of men telling women what to do with their own bodies. Actually, to be more precise, my skin crawls at the idea of anyone telling anyone else what to do with their body, regardless of the genders involved.

But, in much the same way that it's possible to be appalled by animal cruelty while still thinking people like PETA are nutters, it is possible to look at some of the stunts being pulled by the pro-choice side with a degree of amusement and not a little scorn.

The 'Shout Your Abortion' campaign from last year was a perfect example. Abortion should be a reluctantly taken last option, not something to be shouted from the rooftops like it was an achievement to be proud of. After all believing - as I do - that terminations should be safe, legal and rare doesn't mean you think it's a cause for celebration.

Now, with dreary inevitability, we have replaced the shout your abortion nonsense with appropriation of The Handmaid's Tale.

We saw that earlier this week when a bunch of women dressed like the Handmaids from the recent TV show protested outside the Dáil.

How brave! How very daring! How incredibly... predictable and trite.

Bizarrely, some of the people who either attended or supported the protest seemed to labour under a genuine illusion that Ireland is some form of Gilead, which is an unthinking, reflexive form of hysteria that should be treated with the derision it deserves.

For starters, nobody is trying to silence women. If this was really Gilead, the protesters would have been immediately arrested and sent to one of the terrifying 'colonies' - which in our case would probably be Cork.

Instead, with the exception of one eejit who tried to throw rosary beads at them, they received praise as if they were doing something which might cost them. Of course, it cost them nothing, but they got play dress up in the red robes and white bonnets.

If they had really wanted to make a point about clothing used to subjugate women, they could have all worn burkas. But that was never going to happen. Because it might have actually said something serious, and showed a wider understanding of the world, a world which exists beyond the realms of the latest piece of must-watch TV.

Both sides of the debate glower at each other across the ideological divide, equally reluctant to acknowledge one important fact - there are legitimate arguments on both sides, and ultimately this is a decision which will be decided by people's own personal brand of morality, not by costumes on one side or rosary beads on the other.

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