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25 May 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:21pm

Once I was naive and pro-life. Now I’m proud Ireland is listening to women

Irish women have told their families and friends about pain and suffering previously considered a “private matter”. 

By Niamh Ni-Mhaoileoin

Until some time in my early twenties, I was pro-life and proud. And in the last few months, as Ireland has prepared for today’s referendum on the eighth amendment to the constitution, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why.

It was partly adolescent arrogance. At university, being pro-life was the opinion that set me against the current, that proved I was an independent thinker. I didn’t see it as necessarily conservative, either. I’d been brought up in a progressive Catholic tradition, in which pro-life ideas were only ever expressed in terms of care and compassion for the unborn. So it seemed perfectly possible – in theory – to be both pro-life and feminist.

But that’s the point. My feelings about abortion, while broadly well-intentioned, only existed in theory. Until at least my late teens, I’d never knowingly met a woman who’d had an abortion.

I don’t know when I actually changed my mind. When I switched from saying I was anti-abortion, to saying I was pro-life, to being pro-choice, to saying out loud that I was pro-choice. But over a period of four or five years, things started to shift.

I remember the first time I heard about a real woman my age – a British friend of my sister’s – having an abortion. And that was soon backed up with stories from friends and acquaintances in Ireland, taking stressful, dangerous, expensive trips to the UK.

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I learned, too, about the atrocities committed by the Irish state in the name of Catholic compassion, and with the protection of the eighth amendment.

And like most panic-prone twenty-somethings, I had my own low-level pregnancy scares. And like too many women, I had my own experience of sexual assault. I didn’t get pregnant, thankfully. But I still feel sick with horror when I think about what it would have meant if I had.

Somewhere amid all that, I realised with complete certainty that there was no situation in which I’d be willing to tell a woman who wanted an abortion that she shouldn’t have one, that she was making the wrong choice, or that she didn’t deserve the choice in the first place. It followed that I couldn’t support legislation – let alone a constitutional amendment – that did just that.

So I changed my opinion. And the incredible thing is that, in Ireland today, my story isn’t at all unusual.

Although internationally we’re living through a period of intense political polarisation, and even though abortion is among the most divisive issues out there, in the last few months and years thousands upon thousands of Irish people have changed their view on abortion.

In 2013, while support for abortion in some circumstances was already on the rise, just 37 per cent of people supported access “when a woman deemed it to be in her best interest”. By January of this year, 56 per cent said they would vote in favour of repeal, and for women to be able to access abortion on request up to 12 weeks.

In the last six months alone, the prime minister, deputy prime minister and leader of the opposition have all publicly changed their views on abortion, citing personal journeys not all that different to mine. And in kitchens and pubs and churches up and down the country, ordinary people have done the same.

This vote will be too close for comfort. But whichever way it goes, the change we’ve seen in Ireland is extraordinary. It’s not just a story of an older, conservative generation dying off and being replaced by a more progressive one. It’s a story of individuals changing their minds at scale. Of a person-by-person revolution.

The story of how this happened will need a lot more space, and a lot more time. And I hope that generations of campaigners will take notes from the exceptional feminists, young and old, who have led and grown the Repeal movement.

But under all the stats and tactics, the explanation for what’s changed is simple. After generations of profound silence, Ireland has started talking about women.

We’ve talked about the horror stories, of women dying in Irish hospitals or bleeding out in taxis in the UK.

We’ve talked about the “tough cases”, where women have been raped or there’s a fatal foetal abnormality, and the trauma is compounded by the cruelty of the eighth. And we’ve talked about the entirely everyday cases, where ordinary women in ordinary circumstances are forced to travel or take abortion pills because their country refuses to provide basic healthcare.

Some of this has happened in public, as brave women have come forward with their stories. But I suspect that the bigger change has happened in private, as daughters have told their fathers the painful stories they’d always kept quiet about until now. Or couples have told their friends about things they had always previously considered a “private matter”. Or older women have spoken openly about the old traumas that had only ever been discussed in hushed tones before.

These are the unknown heroes of the Repeal campaign. They’ve rendered what many saw as a black-and-white issue in shades of grey. And whatever happens, what they’ve achieved won’t be undone. Because once you acknowledge that women’s bodies and lives matter, there’s no going back.

Sometimes I miss the days when I was pro-life. I wish I still had that kind of moral certainty. But I know that what I really miss is being a child, living in a world that hadn’t yet proved itself to impossibly complicated and full of suffering.

So I understand that some people – mostly old, all privileged – miss the old, morally certain Ireland. Maturity is hard, for nations as for people. But no matter how much you wish for it, there’s no rolling back the clock.

In this final week, the Repeal campaign has been using my favourite message yet: “A woman you love needs your yes.”

As a political issue, abortion is difficult and divisive. But despite the bitterness of the debate and the bile from the other side – and after 35 years battling the eighth – Irish feminists have managed to make this campaign about real women, and about love.

That’s revolutionary. That’s what changes minds. And whether we win or lose, I couldn’t be more proud.

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