This article relays first hand evidence that people are raging over the limited nature of the abortion legislation being proposed.
I was on a stall today on Henry Street campaigning for abortion rights legislation going beyond X to protect women’s health as well as life.
Overall I want abortion legalised on request of the woman – but with a poll back in November showing 82% are in favour of abortion to protect health, that’s the appropriate demand at the moment. Demands for X are not enough because the X case legislation was always going to be very basic and limited – it would not necessarily have saved Savita’s life, for a start.
On questions around austerity, people are angry but also depressed, so they don’t respond so well to stalls on the issue. But every abortion-related stall I’ve been on has been very good. People see the issue as clear-cut despite the best attempts of media and politicians, and they see as well that we can win.
Today, undoubtedly because of the publication of the proposed bill, the mood was there. There was a constant queue of people at the stall lining up to sign the petition. People were incredibly generous and hungry for our written material.
Key point from all this: from my observations today, women and men are not placated by this legislation – they’re frustrated at its limited nature. 14 years in prison for an illegal abortion! 3 doctors to decide if a woman’s suicidal or not! Added to that the inherent limits of the X case issue. This will only affect a tiny handful of women, and that only at that terrifying point when their medical state is so bad they will probably be permanently damaged anyway, or it might even be too late to save them.
Before the Savita case I had never gone into the issue of abortion much but now I’ve learned 80% of what I know from talking to random people on these stalls in Dublin city centre. In sharing some of the points I and those I spoke to were making I hope as well I can convey a sense of how it is to get out on the street and campaign on the issue.
Larry Murphy, one of the most hideous sex offenders in the country’s history, got back out on the streets after 12 years. These laws propose putting away women – including those who may have become pregnant as a result of rape – for 14 years! Now presumably very few would serve the full sentence. And to be honest, the full outrageousness of this is evidenced by how impossible it is to imagine it being carried out. Maybe ten or twenty hardened god-botherers in the whole country would support a woman being put into prison for a decade just for getting an abortion.
Another source of anger is the panel of doctors who are to act as witchfinder-generals to decide if a woman’s “genuinely” suicidal or not. These people don’t seem to understand how ugly it is to put a vulnerable person in front of a panel of judgers, questioners and implicit accusers; to place upper-middle-class professionals in a position of regulating, controlling and judging people who are three times disadvantaged – through being female, being pregnant, being suicidal.
At a conservative estimate, 12 women every single day have to travel to England to get an abortion. The ferries are often visibly replete with dejected-looking young women according to one frequent traveller. This bill will not make a blind bit of difference to the vast majority of those women.
The main thing that’s making people grit their teeth is the fact that a reactionary rump in Fine Gael is standing between justice and the vast majority of the Irish people who want abortion to protect life and health. Where do FG and FF find these clowns? How come they stand so far to the right of most people? Why are they with the mere 10% who oppose abortion in all its forms?
Well, they’re so used to pushing the interests and world-view of the 1% economic elite, pushing the views of 10% must come very easily to them.
In any case nothing is monolithic. Even in that 82%, a lot of people have worries and anxieties about abortion. Only around 35% in that poll wanted abortion on request of the woman. Among this roughly half of the population who want to liberalise abortion but have concerns, either side in the debate can win the upper hand. A while ago, one woman came up to sign our petition thinking we were anti-choice; when I explained to her our position very clearly, she agreed with an air of “well, obviously”, that abortion should be allowed in order to protect life and health, and she signed it anyway.
This majority have ifs and buts that these politicians can seize on and mangle and dribble over until they look like massive issues, aided by the media and by the spectacularly well-funded anti-choice campaigns.
Why do the politicians want to play on people’s fears like this?
Politicians are mostly male, white and rich. Speaking generally, they are divorced from the real world where there are crisis pregnancies, rape, poverty, incest and a need so great that you will spend €1,500 and go to England just to escape from having to raise a child. The real world is also a place where €1,500 is a crushing amount of money. These issues only present themselves, if at all, as abstract ideas that can be swatted away with a complacent platitude about there always being a better option. In short: these representatives of bosses’ parties are predisposed to lack sympathy or understanding for pregnant women who can’t have a child for medical, economic or psychological reasons.
They don’t want abortion. Some think it’s an intrusive issue that just rocks the boat. Better to sweep it under the rug. Some think it’s evil and in any case banned by Jesus. Some see a chance to rally support for themselves around these social issues when they haven’t a leg to stand on after one vicious budget after another – talk it up, then big yourself up by taking a stand on it.
The influence of powerful and wealthy local religious groups and individuals on TDs must be a big issue as well. One lad I was talking to, for instance, speculated about what kind of influence the Knights of Columbanus have behind the scenes.
In any case, after delaying any action on X for two decades, the Irish political establishment have built on their feats of evasion by narrowing the debate at every turn. How better to avoid the issue than to do exactly what FG TD Peter Matthews did on Vincent Browne the other night, niggling about the constitution, avoiding direct answers, and, when all else fails, saying “sure we’ll all die anyway.”
Imagine if a pro-choicer used that argument!
The aim is to stun and paralyze opposition, then chop up this relatively clear issue in a marathon of irrelevant questions and sanctimonious moralizing.
It isn’t working, or at least huge numbers are staying immune. The next objective will be to get people to see the need for organisation and action to win over the wavering elements and force things to change.
I don’t mean to romanticise the stalls, by the way – there’s always older women that look at you with something like horror (though I don’t mean to stereotype, some of the people on stalls who I’ve learned more from that anyone else have been older women who know the issue a hundred times better than I do.) Then there’s people who roar about murder as they walk by. Then there’s the strange suited young man who walked right up among us when we were setting up one day and said “Fuck yous all.” Sometimes there’s types who argue with you rationally at first before degenerating into rabid sexism or medievally prudish attitudes.
They are a minority. No more than two incidents of this kind per stall. The most interesting phenomenon are the numbers of people – three or four instances per stall – who initially think we’re “the other crowd” even though our position is very prominently and unambiguously displayed. People are so used to seeing anti-choicers on stalls around town and so unused to seeing anyone representing the silent majority. The 10% punch above their weight through single-mindedness and huge resources from America and the support of our own weakened but still powerful Catholic church. They also understand through long experience the importance of organisation and activity – something our side generally still has to learn.
Appendix – a questionnaire
Does Peter Matthews think that a fetus and a woman have the same value?
Does Peter Matthews think that a fetus and a man have the same value?
Does Peter Matthews think that a non-viable fetus that’s going to die anyway has a greater value than a woman?