I’ve written a lot on this blog about issues that affect women but there’s one subject I’ve always steered clear of. Abortion is a contentious subject the world over but here it’s a subject that tears the country apart. It’s the wedge driven between two Irelands, a poison seeped into the heart of the Irish family. Any public debate that strays near that hallowed ground will get infected with a contagion that threatens to swamp any liberalising call – it’s a wonder any progress has been made at all.
As any regular reader of this blog knows my upbringing was not an Irish catholic one. I was born in London and raised C of E. I was wired by that schematic and even though I’ve lived in Ireland since my teens that schematic never really changes. I have never been particularly religious, although at one point I did end up teaching Sunday School (actually not half as long or interesting a story as you’d perhaps think) and these days I tend to describe myself as an atheist just to forestall any confusion. I’m not of the dogmatic atheistic persuasion though. If you want to believe in something knock yourself out, just let me believe or disbelieve what I choose. I won’t try to rattle your cage if you don’t try to rattle mine. My approach to abortion would be along the same lines. It’s all a matter of choice. Those who want, or more usually need to have one should be supported through a difficult period of their lives. Those who don’t agree with it should be free not to have one. I really wouldn’t have thought it was all that difficult. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to approach this any other way.
That’s why I don’t write about abortion. It feels as if it’s not my argument. I’m pro choice. I’ll fight for the right for women faced with that difficult decision to have all the options open to them. It is barbaric to expect them to travel outside the country. It always was. It always will be. The fact that it has taken this long to get to the point where the Irish Government is on the brink of legislating to clarify the mire of case law that’s built up since the so-called 8th Amendment is insane. But that’s Ireland. That’s the hornet’s nest I don’t particularly want to kick.
The Government are due to vote on the Protection of Life in Pregnancy Bill on Wednesday. For the past weeks and months the pro life movement have been ramping up the hysteria. Once again it’s getting deafening, the roaring of old Catholic Ireland in it’s pain.
It was absolutely deafening, as I watched the “Rally for Life” make it’s triumphal way down O’Connell Street in the blazing sun last Saturday afternoon. Watching faces grimacing in smug malice as they shook Youth Defence-provided posters at the pro-choice protesters lining their route, it was clear that here were two utterly incompatible Irelands, suspended over a chasm. Marching down the road, jeering at the counter protest, occasionally throwing salt and holy water to cast out the demons inhabiting their fellow country men and women, these people saw an Ireland tinted with the sugary washes of an old postcard. This is the Ireland that wanted Monty Python banned. This is the Ireland that keeps seeing the Virgin Mary in inanimate objects. This Ireland is the poster child for ultra-conservative Catholicism. The question will always be, does that Ireland actually exist?
We all know that there was a time when that Ireland was real enough. This country has been dealing with the legacy of that Ireland for many years, learning the sombre lesson that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely again, and again and again. Certainly the people on that march on Saturday believe that Ireland still exists – but it’s not the country I know and love. That Ireland is the one that has flourished despite the poison leeching into it from it’s toxic twin. I’m not saying that Catholicism per se is bad, but when dogmatism creeps into any religion, when it becomes a single-minded fervour that stamps out compassion and empathy and rationality, well, that’s never good.
The subject of abortion in Ireland is sadly a very powerful magnet that very dogmatism and several thousand people proudly paraded their lack of compassion on Saturday. They called female protestors “sluts” and “murderers”, they made their own children cry for political ends, they laughed at the passion of the opposing view (all widely reported on Twitter and Facebook and all seen personally by me as I watched). This was the grinning face of Old Ireland standing defiant on the battle field. They’re looking for a fight. They will not back down. But the Ireland they think is all around them is gone. It’s frozen on old postcards, it’s discussed from the psychiatrist’s couch.
Sadly I don’t think there’s any easy solution to any of this. The poison will keep eating away. But hopefully compassion and empathy and rationality will rule the day and the country will move forward, even if it must drag the panting body of Old Ireland along with it. Some things will never be easy. But we must do them anyway.