I want to have the 8th Amendment to our Constitution repealed. I’m not going to try to persuade you or argue about whether termination of pregnancy is right or wrong. I’m not going to judge or hate you if you disagree. I’m well past benefitting from this personally, my next role in life as a woman will be to be a grandmother! I just want all of us to pause and think about our girls, future generations of them and how we can best nurture and protect them.
I grew up very close to a Magdalene Laundry. It was coming to the end of it’s role as a home for pregnant and unmarried girls, but it still functioned as a laundry. We used to take a shortcut through the grounds on our way to the church, but as a kid I had no idea what was going on there. I now know that 50% of the women who went in to find a safe haven away from the monstrous notion that they were fallen women, lived on and died in that institution as slave workers.
Abandoned by their families and somehow not finding the strength to either keep their babies or return to the world, I used to catch glimpses of them. Old before their time, their hair would be next to shorn, their clothes and posture sad. I used to be afraid of them as they gathered outside the steamy workshops for their breaks. Only now I understand the horror of their lives and the reason for their vacant stares.
The Irish Government finally apologised and recognised the terrible hurt and damage that was done to these women in 2013. But all around me during that period of my own girlhood, young women who were pregnant were at the mercy of cruel ignorance from the whole community. Our country colluded with the idea that young women who had unwanted pregnancies were shameful and sinful. It was what they called “morality” in those days.
If there’s one thing I understand about women it’s that underneath the coping and the caring there are buried stories of pain, shame and grief. I’ve sat in rooms with women of all ages as they revealed for the first time the stories of their bodies and their silent endurance. Some of these stories which I first began to hear in Waterford in the 1980’s were about babies given up for adoption, miscarriages, babies who died, longed for babies that never came, living out the pain of medical procedures and hysterectomies, difficult labours and near death experiences at childbirth, cancer diagnoses and treatments, rape and incest and abortions in England.
Being a woman is complicated, layered, we keep a lot to ourselves. Do we want to be discussing our bodies and our intimate moments with the world in a debate about our right to choose? No we don’t, and we shouldn’t have to. What we want is to continue quietly with our lives in the knowledge that if catastrophic events occur we can be cared for in equal measure to the care we give to others. That our lives are important, that we come first. Surely it’s for the whole community to see to that?
During the last Right to Life Referendum I facilitated a meeting at the National Women’s Council where all the women’s organisations from the ICA to the Trade Unions, opened up about their lives and their fears about the 8th Amendment. What did it mean for all of us if our lives were equal, but not any more significant than that of an embryo? How would it play out for our daughters in the future? Why could we not face up and support the thousands of women who choose abortion to have their procedures in Ireland? And would women die as a result of this amendment?
After the event where many women told their stories and talked about their fears, a woman told me about accompanying her 14 year old daughter to England for an abortion. Because of the closeness and the openness between them, the girl was able to immediately come to her mother and they were able to go through this journey together. We ended up crying on each other’s shoulders.
Yes it was an awful circumstance, but compared with the Magdalene Laundry option, or many of the other choices on offer then, the teenager was handed back her life and given the option to begin again. I had lived through the death of Ann Lovett in a grotto in Granard. Her anniversary was the other day. She was a child concealing a pregnancy she could not possibly have understood. All I could think was that the pregnant daughter could have been saved from something far worse. To me that mother and daughter were brave and full of love.
Life is complicated, life and death decisions are a nightmare, but they have to be faced. That’s why when I think about this issue I choose freedom and choice for women and for our little girls of the future. Enough of the shame, we have to break the cycle, for them.
First published in Waterford News and Star 2016