I don’t know if you have ever heard of the Bodies exhibition.
It is an exhibition of real human bodies – dissected, plastificated – which has been touring the world for years now, and I visited it when it happened to be in Madrid, Spain. It was astonishing; human anatomy as I had never seen it. Maps of blood vessels and arteries, stiffened and displayed between slabs of clear acrylic. Skeletons in motion. Muscles, lungs, and other organs exposed to my curious eyes in a way that seemed slightly indecent. I kept having to remind myself that once upon a time these were people, real people. They had lived and loved and laughed and died and somehow they had ended up here, frozen forever in a frisbee-throwing pose or sliced into sections for intrigued spectators. A modern side-show.
Although I was much younger then, I still remember the black fabric-draped tent in one corner of the hall. A sign by the doorway warned those with sensitive dispositions to turn away. I passed the sign with barely a glance and entered into a long, narrow, spotlit room with numerous glass containers forming a line down the centre. Each glass container held one unborn human, from visible embryo to fully-formed baby. A sign on the wall explained that each specimen had been donated after a miscarriage. The room was sombre and silent, and I remember feeling a wave of sadness for the parents, and the amount of potential happiness and life that had died only to be preserved forever in these glass canisters.
I walked along the rows, reading the signs and looking at these unborn babies. The first few look like tadpoles. Then indistinct shapes with clouded eyes. Then embryos that looked like they might become baby rabbits. As I continued down the row of glass canisters I could see the development, the growth, the unfolding of a new human. The last one looked just like a newborn baby. It had hair, and fingernails. It floated, suspended in the solution, and the circumstances that had led to me standing there, looking this unborn boy in the face struck me as both grotesque and strangely serene, fascinating and utterly depressing.
I tell you all this because I want you to appreciate that I understand what is at stake. I am not ignorant of the facts. I am not blind to the sadness of the situation. I know what an unborn baby looks like; I have seen it with my own eyes.
In 1983, in an Ireland where abortion was already illegal, a constitutional subsection was voted in giving the unborn an equal right to life to the pregnant woman carrying it. This was intended to safeguard the unborn against any possible ramifications of the Roe vs Wade ruling across the pond. Making abortions extra illegal seemed important in a Catholic Ireland where people still could not buy condoms without a prescription*.
One week from now, Ireland will be asked to vote on whether to remove the 8th amendment from the constitution.
The no campaign has, as you can probably imagine, been extremely organised and well-funded. Their message is simple, and blunt, and effective: if you vote no, you are saving babies. If you vote yes, you are paving the way to eugenics, and voting for the mass murder of innocents. They mention the decreased number of people born with disabilities in societies with legalised abortion. They discuss ‘contraceptive abortions’ borne solely of convenience. They talk of babies yawning and sucking their thumbs in the womb. They speak of women who have had abortions and later regretted it.
The yes campaign for this referendum has been scattered, divided, and comparatively disorganised. I don’t think this is a problem with the campaign, as much as it is a problem with the issue at hand; there are many different reasons why people might vote yes, and not all of them mesh well with others.
Some will vote yes because they agree with the idea of legal abortion being accessible.
Some will vote yes because they trust women to make the best decision for themselves and their situation.
Some will vote yes because they find it hypocritical that Ireland continues to outlaw abortion*, while legalising travel to the UK for the same purpose.
Some will vote yes because they think it inhumane that a couple dealing with a fatal foetal abnormality must travel abroad if they want an early termination.
Some will vote yes because they don’t want anyone else – or they themselves – to become the next Savita.
Some will vote yes because they think rape victims should not have to carry a resulting pregnancy against their will.
Some will vote yes because they believe the lives of living, loving, thinking, breathing adult women should not be equal in value to that of ‘the unborn,’ because ‘the unborn’ is very vague; is that the unborn, newly fertilised egg? Is it the unborn embryo, bean-sized, dependent on the mother? Is it the 25-week old unborn baby? Is it all of the above? If it is not, then where is the line? The placement of that line is controversial and, depending on the individual, can be based on personal, religious or scientific reasons.
Some will vote yes for all of the above reasons, and some for a combination of only some of the above.
“We can’t focus on the hard cases,” is something I’ve heard often in the run-up to this referendum. “Not when 95% of abortions are not hard cases. Not when most abortions are done for the sake of convenience.”
I have feelings about this perception that women are getting abortions the same way they’d get their nails done. I have feelings about it, but for me it’s not the main issue.
The sticking point, for me, is this:
What if I’m that woman?
What if my wanted, yearned for, unborn baby is diagnosed with some awful condition that means that although I might carry it to term, he or she will die, suffering, within seconds, minutes, hours of being born? What if I have to endure nine months of well-meaning questions from strangers, each kindly remark about an impossible future cutting through me like a knife through my soul? What if I want an abortion to save my unborn baby (and yes, myself) the suffering? Would you think it fair and reasonable that I should have to fly to England, where I would then – like so many other women – have to make decisions about where to go, where to stay, and what to do so far from home with the remains of my very much wanted, heartrendingly loved child?
And what if I am raped? It doesn’t matter by who. An old friend. A man in a dark alleyway. A relative. A stranger with a knife at my throat. I am raped and now I am pregnant. I am already struggling to cope with this awful thing that has happened to me, and now I am pregnant with a daily reminder. Crying, I confide in you. I tell you that I can’t do this. That I’m not mentally strong enough. That perhaps I can overcome sexual assault but I cannot overcome it if I have to carry within my body the result of this rape for the better part of a year. Would you think it fair and reasonable that I should have no choice?
And what if I am diagnosed with cancer, and I am pregnant, and I want to live? What if my doctor tells me that because I am not at imminent, immediate risk of dying, they will have to work around my pregnancy, give me treatment that is less effective, but also less likely to kill my unborn baby? What if they tell me that early, aggressive treatment will cure me but that I cannot access this treatment unless I get a termination abroad? Because my life is equal to that of my ten-week old developing foetus, they cannot harm it any more than they can intentionally harm me. Never mind that inaction will indirectly harm me. Legally, their hands are tied. I must be dying, and not only dying in a long-term manner; I must be dying enough to warrant intervention. What if the time it takes me to carry this pregnancy to term is the time the cancer needs to become terminal? What if I don’t want to take that risk? Would you think it fair and reasonable that I not have a say?
I have spoken about this to people who are thinking of voting no, and they pat me on the arm and say, in what is meant to be a reassuring tone of voice, “Stop worrying about these things. They almost definitely will never happen to you. The chances are so, so small. These “hard cases” only happen to about 1000 women every year.” And every time I hear this I feel frustrated and upset that I have not managed to communicate my point effectively.
I’m not worried that it will happen to me.
It’s not about me.
It’s about you.
It’s about you, and how you would react to my being in these situations. It’s about how you would feel if it were someone you know. It’s about whether the needle on your moral compass starts to shake with uncertainty if that one ‘hard case’ is you, or your mother, or your sister, or your best friend, or your cousin, or your daughter. If I become a “hard case” – or, God forbid, you – what does it matter to either of us how many other people are trapped in this same private hell? What does it matter if it is five? Or fifty? Or a hundred? Or a thousand?
It’s about the women that this is happening to right now along the length and breadth of the country. As I am to my friends and family, those women are to others. They are loved. They have people around them who are impacted by their joys and sorrows. Their tragedies unfurl like drops of ink in water, dispersing and turning everything around them a shade darker.
It’s about why the statistics and percentages and numbers of ‘hard cases’ don’t make a difference to me. I don’t think there should even be one couple crying, leaving the ashes of their baby in Liverpool because they can’t afford to courier the remains home. I don’t think there should even be one victim of rape forced to sacrifice their health – mental or physical or both – to carry the resulting unwanted pregnancy to term. They should have the choice to do what they feel is best for their lives. We should have the compassion to allow them to make that choice.
In one week, Ireland will be asked to vote on whether we should remove the 8th amendment from the constitution.
I will be voting yes.
*Condoms and other forms of contraception were fully illegal until 1980, and then legal only with a prescription until as late as 1985.
**Abortion currently carries a 14 year prison sentence.