I write to you as a middle-aged Irishwoman who marched the streets of Dublin back in 1983 to protest the eighth amendment to the Irish constitution, and marched again and again throughout the eighties and nineties as that amendment's sorry consequences unfolded.
I write as a freethinker, who can say with Voltaire, that even if I disapprove of what you say, I will defend your right to say it. I write as a mother of two, now grown, who has penned articles about this question from many perspectives and written a novel about Irish freedom, which centres on an 18-year-old who terminated, as so many have, an Irish pregnancy in Engand.
And I write as one of the offshore Irish, who spoke outside the Irish embassy in London last week to honour the memory of Savita Halappanavar and urge your government to respond appropriately to her death.
So here I am: female, freethinker, writer, emigrant, mother. And there you are, my polar opposite around this issue: male, politician, Roman Catholic, Taoiseach, father. Can we talk?
Can I tell you what I thought last week, when I first heard what had happened to Savita? I was sitting at my computer when an email came in from an Irish friend, telling me how this Indian woman living in Galway suffered agonies and died of septacaemia, believing her life could have been saved had she not been denied a termination. Savita's family were brokenhearted, my friend told me, and outraged that she was denied this potentially life-saving medical treatment because the doctor detected the presence of a foetal heartbeat.
As the shock and horror landed in me, I felt also guilt and liability. We knew this would happen, was what I thought. We knew.
We Knew Irish Women Would Die
Back in 1983, when I was 23 years old, I heard a young, pro-choice lawyer called Mary Robinson predict this very outcome if that eighth constitutional amendment was ratified. She, who went on to become president of Ireland, explained how an extreme, right-wing, fundamentalist Catholic group had put pressure on the then government to introduce it, out of their fear that Ireland's membership of the EU might be loosening the tight, Church-bound laws in our country.
She told us how, and why, this amendment was bad law, how Irishwomen would suffer under it, how it was almost inevitable that women would die.
All turned out just as she said, we know, though exactly how many have suffered can never be known. And how many others have died? Only a tiny few splashes from the tidal waves of women who have suffered under our laws have reached our consciousness over the years. Usually, we know them only by letter, most famously Ms X.
But now, Savita Halappanavar.
Ireland's Silence Broken
It took a family from another culture to tear apart the blanket of shame and silence that smothers us in Ireland. They told us what happened to lovely, healthy, happy Savita, a woman in the prime of her life, and as I heard it, I felt that surge of culpability rise in me. Because Taoiseach - may I call you Enda? - in recent years, I did what you, and so many Irish people, have done. I drew back from the hatred and horrors of Irish abortion politics.
I couldn't take any more of it. The angers. The frustrations. The neverending setbacks. The bitter, vicious arguments. The bile that is spewed at you if you stand up in our country and say you believe the person best placed to decide whether an abortion should happen is the woman who's pregnant.
I grew tired, Enda, and I drew back, though I knew this was unfinished business. I stopped writing about it, stopped marching. I moved to live in England, took a rest from Ireland's great hatreds.
But Savita's family have bravely spoken out and shown me that that is just not good enough.
I thank Praveen Halappanavar and Savita's family, for their hope. They didn't just bury what had happened with their beloved. They have allowed the manner of her dying to become public property, so it might instigate change, so her death might save and improve other women's lives.
Time For Compassionate Abortion Law.
Let's talk about shame for a minute, Enda. I believe you think abortion is a shame. I do too. I'd love to live in a society where every woman who conceived would be given the nurturing - you might call it the social mothering - she'd need to transform an unwanted pregnancy into a happy birth and a cared-for child.
Yes, I'd love that, just like I'd love world peace, universal riches and a home for every person on our streets. Abortion happens because we, men and women, are human and flawed. We might think it a shame - but if it is, it's a social shame, like war or poverty or homelessness, a shared shame, not an individual one.
There is no shame in being a woman who knows that life is too much for her right now to be able to give birth, to carry and bear and raise another life through all the years of parenting it takes a bring a human child to adulthood. There is no more shame in needing an abortion than there is shame in being a soldier, or in being poor, or homeless.
But it is easy to shame those who find themselves on the wrong side of life. No matter that it could be any of us next time out, no matter that we know we are all responsible, to a greater and lesser degree, for such social ills. We prefer to hide from that shared truth, and act as if such matters are the individual's personal problem. Their predicament, their fault, their flaw. Shame on them.
This shame, and its bullying big brother, silence, has kept the truth about Irish abortion concealed. For whatever our opinion about it, none of us can deny that it happens, has always happened, will go on happening, whatever laws are there - or not there. Women have abortions. Irish women have abortions. Irish Roman Catholic women have abortions. Hell, even Irish, Roman Catholic, anti-abortion women have abortions.
That's not the hot air of opinion, or pontification, or wishful thinking. That is solid truth.
The minimum a society can do to acknowledge that truth is provide the necessary space for women and couples to make the best possible decision in their time of crisis, and the necessary prompt, decent, local medical service. That's the minimum, Enda. The absolute minimum.
Savita's death now demands that this basic, human compassion is afforded the women of Ireland.
Irish Anti-Abortion Movement
The people who resist the provision of compassionate law on this question can be fierce, I know. I've felt firsthand how they distrust, and fear, and in some cases hate, women. How they cannot bear that a woman should get to make this life-or-death decision. How they would have theocracy return to Ireland.
You are not one of them, are you? You are a Roman Catholic, yes, and the leader of a conservative party and electorate. But also a reasonable man, a respectful husband, a fond father. You surely see that it is cruel and wrong - unchristian you might say - to send an Irishwoman abroad at such a time? To heap ignominy and expense on her head? To muzzle her with a false morality that insists somebody else's opinion on the matter should carry greater weight than her lived experience?
You know that within a decent legal and medical framework, the women of Ireland can be trusted, as well as anyone, to do what is best .
So you too can be grateful to Savita. Her death has opened hearts and minds and a flood of support that gives you permission. In this open moment, bullies can be faced down and reason and campassion can win through.
Fine Gael and Fine Gael/Labour coalition governments have a tradition of being more progressive and enlightened than the alternative. To enact legislation now, voluntarily, because it is the right thing to do, would be to take your place within that tradition, even if - especially if - you share the opinion of most Catholic men about abortion.
Let us have the reality of Irish life reflected in Irish law. If not now, in the wake of this tragic death and the openness it has engendered, then truly: when?
This is an extract from a post on Orna Ross's Author Blog
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