Thursday 20 June 2019

The menace of censorship still surrounds sexuality

A heartfelt comment by Edna O'Brien makes us question how much has changed in 55 years, writes Dearbhail McDonald

Edna O'Brien
Edna O'Brien
Dearbhail McDonald

Dearbhail McDonald

I made a pilgrimage to the Pavilion Theatre in Dun Laoghaire last week to hear one of my all-time literary heroines, Edna O'Brien, in conversation with Sinead Gleeson, the wonderfully perceptive author and broadcaster.

It was enchanting to watch an iridescent O'Brien (who turns 85 in December) speak of her writing life and her latest novel The Little Red Chairs, which the author Philip Roth has described as her masterpiece.

But it was heartbreaking too to hear O'Brien, who blazed a trail for generations of Irish women to give voice to their experience, speak of the hurt she endured as a result of censorship.

It is 55 years since O'Brien published The Country Girls.

An award-winning novel, later a film, O'Brien's literary debut challenged the sexual and social repression of 1950s Ireland.

For daring to speak the truth to that culture of fear and repression, much of it aligned to the then omnipresence of the Catholic Church, The Country Girls was banned by the Irish Censorship Board and copies burned by her local church.

Speaking at the Pavilion, O'Brien spoke of her "greatest hurt," that of being "excoriated" - such an unflinching word - by her own people, including her mother after the book was published.

"I was very hurt by the waves of hostility," O'Brien told us in a voice that suggested it might hurt still.

I thought a lot about the damaging impacts of the still-prevalent menace of censorship in Irish society as I previewed a copy of Ireland says Yes: The Inside Story of How the Vote for Marriage Equality was Won.

The book, as its title suggests, is an insider's account of the Yes Equality campaign that contributed to the resounding decision last May by the Irish electorate to amend the Constitution to recognise same sex marriage.

What struck me most about both the book and the campaign was the transformation in our public conversation during the referendum debate, how people who could not previously speak of their experience found the courage to use their voice.

People such as former Fianna Fail Minister Pat Carey and broadcaster Ursula Halligan, who for the first time spoke publicly about being gay and of the pain of concealing the truth of their sexuality, something that is intrinsic to our human experience.

I thought of parents like Tom Curran, the Secretary General of Fine Gael.

A man of deep faith, Mr Curran spoke of his pride in his youngest son Finnian, a gay man who had concealed his sexuality, and of how he [Tom] was able to reconcile his 'card carrying' Catholicism with same sex marriage.

The testimonies of so many gay men and women, and their families, helped reverse an historical imbalance that had, for the most part, censored and silenced the voice of the gay community.

That censorship came in the form or our laws (we only decriminalised homosexual acts between men in 1993), in our spiritual sphere - where the Catholic Church still has a powerful influence - and in our political and public conversations.

It also came through self-censorship, arguably the most insidious form of all.

We are now in the throes of yet another public conversation about abortion, one of the most intractable social, ethical, legal and medical issues for the island of Ireland and many countries beyond these shores.

The Eighth Amendment is, in its own way, one of the most outstanding feats of censorship in modern Irish history.

Article 40.3.3, which illogically grants a pregnant woman and the unborn equal rights - where rights collide, a hierarchy emerges - has served to shut down all meaningful debates about women and pregnancy.

The Eighth has silenced and shamed Irish women, with their many and varied experiences.

It has silenced victims of rape and incest and women with fatal foetal abnormality (FFA) pregnancies.

It has silenced women, who for their own reasons choose to proceed or not proceed with a crisis pregnancy, as well as women who have regretted their terminations.

Broader, necessary discussions about fertility and motherhood are still largely conducted in secrecy.

The Eighth has been a highly effective and indiscriminate censor silencing women, men, politicians, clinicians and lawyers.

It is the reason why we have no IVF laws or laws governing surrogacy, why we bury our head in the sands about issues such as stem cell research or cloning that must be confronted.

It is the reason why women and their families who have experienced FFA pregnancies were excluded from the process leading up to the introduction of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act.

It is the reason why women experiencing complex pregnancies are spoken to in euphemisms by clinicians about their options.

It is the reason why women conceal information about their reproductive history from their doctors even though information - of sexual violence or a previous termination, for example - may be important for her clinician to know.

As the momentum gathers to repeal the Eighth, voices such as that of the actress Tara Flynn and journalist Roisin Ingle, who both had terminations, are courageously entering the fray.

Censorship still holds us in its grip, despite calls for measured and "balanced" debate.

By balanced, we mean giving 'Punch and Judy' style, equal airtime for those at the extreme ends of the spectrum. But what about all those voices in between?

There is the tyranny (primarily but not exclusively on social media) of shouting down the voices of those, who for religious or moral reasons, are opposed to abortion in all but life-saving or limited circumstances.

And there is a tyranny in shutting down any debate about alternatives to the Eighth.

The excoriation must stop. We must create safe, compassionate spaces to allow all voices to be heard. Our love affair with censorship must end: the experiences of women and young girls cannot be allowed to drown in waves of silence and hostility any more.

Sunday Independent

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