Compassion and the 8th


Noun. Sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.

I looked up the definition of compassion recently and found myself a little surprised at its mention of sympathetic pity. Not empathy, the word I had expected to see. To my mind, sympathy is something we do at a distance without really seeking to understand or help others.

A little more digging, however, revealed the origins of the word and satisfied my understanding of the word:

Middle English: via Old French from ecclesiastical Latin compassio(n-), from compati ‘suffer with’.

Putting aside the irony of the ecclesiastical origins of a word that is now far removed from the actions of the Catholic Church in Ireland and beyond, the word “compati” stood out.

Suffer with.

Empathy is not a skill we’re born with. We develop it in late childhood when we learn that people around us feel differently that we do, and that that’s ok. It removes us from our focus on our own ego, and helps to make us more social individuals. It helps us to put ourselves in the position of others, to understand their point of view, to recognize that differences are not a bad thing.

Compassion goes one step further. It asks us to feel the negative emotions and experiences of others. It challenges us to accept that their lives are different to ours and to understand the depths of their pain and experience.

This is why the movement to repeal the 8th has arisen from a point of compassion.

Yes for compassion

I look around at campaigners for Together for Yes and I see compassion writ large upon their souls. They are able to recognize the pain that women (and men) have found themselves in as a result of the 8th Amendment.

They, like me, have read and heard stories of utter pain and horror of people trapped in pregnancy in a country that sought to offer them no help but spit them across the water for our neighbours to deal with.

We have heard stories of women whose pregnancies were changed beyond reason because the 8th prohibited them full control of their bodies – think coerced inductions, C-sections, episiotomies.

We have seen women meeting in dark places to trade packages of illicit drugs, not taken for pleasure but for pain. Gut wrenching, awful, unsupervised, secret pain.

And what we hear from the No side?


Child killers


There’s not even a hint of compassion in those words. No attempt to understand whether the person (or child) they are addressed to has suffered a loss, had to travel to protect her health or deliver a much-wanted child who wouldn’t live, has suffered a traumatic birth as a result of forced intervention.

This week we had a newly consecrated Bishop declare that abortion was worse than rape. Where was his compassion? His attempt to understand what he, as a man, could not possibly understand… the feeling of carrying a foetus you do not want as a result of violation that had been forced on you? Where was his willingness to try to suffer with that woman? Is this not an expectation of representatives of the Church? I’ve long since lost my faith in the Church or God, but I do remember the kind, non-judgemental image of a Christ who washed the feet of prostitutes. This doesn’t seem like the type of thing He would say.

From the No side, I’ve seen videos of men shouting at women half their size, of blonde Irish women declaring that non-white Irish women did not matter, of spokespeople again and again and again and again ignoring the plight of the sentient, breathing, living woman pleading for compassion from society. I’ve seen that woman reduced to a soundbite, a number, a hypothetical person who doesn’t deserve our support because they deem her decisions are wrong. It doesn’t matter to them that she’s forced to travel, it doesn’t matter that she’s forced to buy illegal pills, it doesn’t matter that she’s forced to ship her child home in a coffin or by courier, it doesn’t matter that she may be forced to carry for month after long month a foetus she never wanted to give her body to because she couldn’t afford to take any other options.

The Yes side has listened. For too long, we have listened to the stories and the pain. For too long, we have begged for compassion, for understanding, for help.

Do you show compassion?

If you intend to vote No, ask yourself this: how would I respond if it was my wife, my daughter, my cousin, my friend, my neighbour asking for access to compassionate abortion care in Ireland? Yes, you’ve been asked this before. Think about it again. Please.

Be honest in your response – if you don’t show compassion here, then at least you’re consistent. (The worst stories I’ve read on In Her Shoes were those where family as well as society let the woman down at her darkest hour.)

But if you find yourself unsure, then let me ask you this, what if she’d been raped? Would you say yes then?

Or what if the foetus had no hope of life? What then?

And if those situations are permissible, then what about if she might lose her home or be unable to feed her other kids? Is that ok?

And if that’s ok, then what if she just doesn’t feel ready or she made a mistake? Will you punish her for that?

If you think compassionate abortion care should be provided as an option in any of those cases, then you should vote Yes, because without a Yes, she will always need to seek care from overseas. She will always be a pariah in our society. And you don’t want that for YOUR loved ones, or any of the other women and pregnant people of Ireland.

Thank you for trying for a moment to suffer with those women. For showing compassion.

Please vote Yes.

Letter to 15-year-old me: Believe it or not, you will become fervently pro-choice

Hi Sinéad,

I thought I’d write a note to you. I feel it’s an opportune moment to look back through the nearly 25 years separating us and explain to you a little of the journey you’re about to take. Personally, I think it will take you far too long to get to where I am now, but hindsight is wonderful and if these letters really worked, we’d be living in a vastly more mature society.

So, you. I find it hard to remember how you are and how you feel, but in some ways we aren’t so different. We’re vocal in what we believe, you and I. We don’t always stop to listen when we should and it takes us a long time to change. What I think I’ve got that you don’t have, and please don’t strop off when I say this, is empathy. I’ve learned to walk in others’ shoes. You should try it, sooner rather than later please. It makes you a better person.

You have a poem inside your wardrobe door. It’s lengthy. Copied painstakingly out in your lovely script handwriting. I’m not sure when you copied it out, but you feel passionately about it to put it up, and somehow ashamed slightly and so hide it behind the door. I wonder why. What’s the poem about? It’s written from the perspective of a foetus in a waiting room waiting to be aborted. Begging its mother to reconsider. I’ve got choice language for what I think of it now, but I’ll wait a little and explain.

I’m not sure where these positions of yours came from. I don’t believe they came from Mum and Dad; indeed you and Dad often have heated discussions about the immorality of the UK abortion system (you patronising little mare – maybe you should have listened #1). And you don’t seem to ask your Mum’s perspective. She lived in the UK for her formative 20s years. (Maybe you should have listened #2.)

So where does it come from? School – yes. You proudly announce that you will be a virgin until you get married after your sex ed class. Well done you. See how that goes for you. You also devour, of all things, the Messenger Catholic newsletter, lovingly delivered to parishioners by your granny every week. You actually love the kids’ section, but I’m sure there’s plenty of content about sin and sinners to pass and subconsciously absorb along the way. You also believe the morning after pill is sinful. You don’t particularly object to the Youth Defence posters outside the Central Bank. You really are a peach. A weird, not otherwise religious peach.

Sorry, I digress. I was going to explain how you come to be sitting here in 25 year’s time, ashamed to be Irish with the discovery of the remains of discarded babies in a sewage disposal site at a Tuam mother and baby home by those who claim to love them both. And waiting and wishing for a referendum to be called to allow you to vote on repealing the 8th amendment to the Irish constitution. So that you can vote Yes to Repeal. Because choice matters.

So what happened to take you from pro-life (anti-choice, to be frank) to pro-choice?

Real life happened. Real live messy stuff to you and to others. There is a story you need to hear about a silver lining that happens in your life, but it’s not for now. But you will need the morning after pill (yup, that vow of chastity worked wonders) and cry afterwards on your now husband about the shame of it all. To be fair, he manages not to tell you you’re absolutely insane. But only just.

You see friends who need the morning after pill, and you realise that it’s not actually about sinning but about women needing control when something goes wrong, or they make a mistake.

You then experience the biggest change – motherhood. Yes, motherhood. I know it’s hard for you to equate the story you’ve created of a monster who aborts her baby with motherhood, but it is motherhood that made me pro-choice.

Pregnancy isn’t fun, or easy. It’s 10 months of ceding control of your body to a growing baby who demands your energy, time, attention. You will relish this, for all that it’s hard work. These are children you have planned, wanted and you love those moments. You can afford those moments. You have no detours along paths of disability or abnormalities that will make your child’s life one of pain or indescribably short. You are not in an abusive relationship. You are not alone. Abortion could not be further from your mind, but that’s because there is no reason for it to be.

But the 8th is there. You’ll discover the 8th when you go to have a homebirth. When legislation and healthcare provision suddenly becomes shrouded in a reality that your wishes for your body and birth can be overruled by consultants and the State because they perceive that it poses a risk to your baby. The 8th, after all, states that:

The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.

You see that now, your unborn child is defended by the full might of the State. So if you wanted a vaginal birth when doctors thought it was too risky, they can take you to Court to try and force a C-section. (Yes, it has happened.) Or if you are miscarrying, but the foetus is not yet dead, they can refuse to give you medication to induce an inevitable abortion to stop you from dying of sepsis. (Yes, that has happened too.)

These experiences and learnings open your eyes to the broader impact of the 8th on maternity care, but it still doesn’t help you understand why some women choose to terminate their pregnancies.

I’m ashamed to say it took real experiences of abortion (not your own but those close to you) to finally shake you out of your moralistic high ground. You realised that while you might not personally choose abortion yourself – at least not based on your hypothetical test cases in your head – you don’t want to see those you love and care for forced to have no option but to travel overseas or illegally procure abortion medication and take it without medical support.

You realised that supporting women means supporting choice. Not exporting our problem to another State. After all, we as a nation rightly protest at people having to seek other medical treatments overseas, so why do we force 11 women a day (and often their partners) to make that journey? Nearly 3,500 women travelled for abortions from Ireland in 2015. These are not monsters. They’re your friends, family, colleagues. People you respect.

And supporting choice means having some uncomfortable, difficult thoughts.

What about disabilities? You grew up with a father working in disability services. You currently think abortion for disability reasons is totally abhorrent. Let me tell you where you stand now. If you got pregnant, by some miracle, tomorrow and that baby was diagnosed with a disability, you are pretty determined that abortion would not be considered. But you accept that raising a child with disabilities is demanding, and that who are you to judge a person who feels that’s an impossible ask. Who might have a large family already who need her? Who might not be financially able to cope?

And what about term limits? Termination post-viability. First, only about 1.4% of abortions in the UK happen after 21 weeks. These are mainly due to foetal abnormalities, conditions that make it unlikely the baby will be born alive, or that they will live a short pain-filled life if they are born living. But you’ve also realised that you can’t be pro-choice and set barriers. You need to let women decide for themselves. You need to appreciate that only they can make a decision that’s appropriate for them.

imageThis isn’t easy for you now, and will be impossible for you to understand back there in 1992, but try. You will listen. You will learn. You will learn to challenge your assumptions. I wish I could use the 25 years we’ve missed to advocate, lobby, engage with your inner rage at injustice and the world. But it’s better late than never.

You will hope that this weekend the Citizen’s Assembly members can differentiate between fact and fiction, recognising the importance of the reality of women’s experiences, and will start the process of recommending a referendum to put the question of Repeal to the Irish population.

You will learn, Sinéad, and I believe you are a better person because of it.

If you want to learn more, check out one of these excellent resources:

(Update: 14th May 2018, pre-referendum. Added In Her Shoes link)

So, I don’t hear so well.

This is part of a self-indulgent background series into who I am and what shaped me. I don’t think I can fully discuss preparations for expat life without dealing with these topics!

One of the biggest revelations of my 20s was my own personal discovery of the extent of my hearing loss. I’ve spent well over a decade since trying to figure out what it means for me, my career and my personal life. My question: does my hearing loss define me, and if it does, is this a bad thing?

“A little hard of hearing on one side”

Before I went to an audiologist to get a new hearing aid for my round the world adventures, I would have described myself with 8 simple words: A little hard of hearing on one side.

This was easily understood by people (including me). It meant shout a little louder, like we all did with my beloved granny, and make sure you walk on my right hand side since that was my good ear. It also meant I was a little louder myself – “Decibels, Sinéad,” as my English grandmother used to caution when it got slightly too much for her!

People, especially taxi drivers, would query my accent: “Where are you from?” or, more rudely, “Why do you talk like that?”. And I would explain, rather than go into long winded stories about speech therapy and hearing loss, that my father was English and so I had a mixed accent. In fact, like all alternative facts, I happily believed this. He has a loud voice, so I must have picked up more of his sounds.

So, where had this story come from?

My diagnosis with a hearing loss happened relatively late. I was just about to start school and my speech was slower to start, so I was assessed and fitted with a single hearing aid and attended speech therapy. At no stage do I remember receiving any advice re communicating in school, or living with hearing loss, but I know there was an excellent occupational health specialist who visited my Mum so I suppose it must have been offered at some stage. I attended a mainstream school, was sufficiently nerdy and bright to do well, did OK in speech therapy, socialised relatively well and so life just went on.

I was a book worm and so learned a lot of words from reading versus hearing, which is why you’ll still catch me struggling to pronounce some words. I can see them and know them, but haven’t heard them properly in conversation!

Knowing my limits

I got through my primary schools relatively unscathed, but know that secondary school challenged me. I struggled to fit in with the cliques in an all-girls school, and know now that it was largely because group conversation flew straight over my head. I buried myself in books at lunchtime and it took the pressure off socialising. Equally, activities like Scouts were a roaring disaster – more group work and high volume. I never thought to associate this with hearing, just felt different and it fit the teenage stereotype we all cling to during those years.

I also jettisoned my little hearing aid friend around this time. Sure I had a good side; just needed people to talk to me from it!

However, my awareness took enough shape that I realised just before my Leaving Cert mocks that it was time to raise my hand and ask for help with the aural exams in my Honours Irish and French exams. (For those who don’t know what these are, these are the tapes that were played of conversations and train station announcements, with accompanying comprehension questions.) These tapes never sounded anything less than gobbledygook for me, and the fact that I finally got the cop-on to flag this 4.5 years into second level school was a moment of relative maturity!

Aside: This led to a special combination of oral/aural exams with a Michael D Higgins impersonator of an examiner, who accompanied a conversation about “an eitleán“with arm motions that would leave even a primate in no doubt as to the answer to “what mode of transport is being discussed?”

One of 200 in a lecture theatre

Some of you may have heard about University College Dublin (UCD) 1st year Science lectures, where seats were at such a premium (at least in the first weeks of bouncy enthusiasm) that people were crammed in at every possible seating surface. This was the environment I floundered in for my college education. Foolishly sitting at the back, sans hearing aid, scribbling notes from acetates on a faraway screen and not the foggiest notion of actually trying to follow what the lecturers were saying.

I didn’t engage with disability services. Sure why would I? I was just a little hard of hearing. It wasn’t a real problem.

Socialising was also difficult. Pubs are not a great place when you can’t hear, and add drink to that mix and your ability to concentrate just gets worse, not better. So you either dance (on a good night) or drink (on a messy night) and there are few nights in between.

From a barely passed degree to mature office jobs and relationships. All continuing as normal as can be. Roll on travel plans and a growing sense of trepidation of wading into a world that was going to be real life encounters of those aural tapes from school. How would I manage bus stations? Ordering food? (And to be clear, my now beloved husband and then it’ll-make-or-break-us travel partner, had the linguistic capacity of a rock.)

So I figured, maybe it’s time to get a new hearing aid. You know, it might just help.


This was the print out.

So I get what you’re thinking. What the blazes does this all mean? I felt that too the evening I saw this chart for the first time.

It meant, however, a lot to the audiologist standing across from me. His exact words stick with me to this day: “You’re seriously telling me you got through school and college without wearing your hearing aid? And you definitely only ever had one hearing aid?”

His incredulity gave me a little indication that “a little hard of hearing” might just have been wide of the mark.

The first thing you need to understand about that small chart is that it contains a lot of information. During the test they play sounds to each ear at different frequencies and record your reaction to this. The numbers across the top are the frequency of sounds. Frequency is best understood as ranging from low frequency (noises like the bass notes on a piano) to high frequency (like a bird cheeping). Across the left it shows the decibels required to hear that sound during the test. That record then is mapped like above in a chart called an audiogram. Hearing Link explain this better than I can!

Let’s interpret this from my perspective:

  • Those little Os and Xs on that chart indicate the right ear and left ear. Yup, both ears are exactly the same, equally poor at doing basic ear-functions like hearing. I had no “good side”. Simon, to this day, still walks on my right!
  • A person with “normal” hearing will hear their softest sounds between -10 and 20 Db. Mine is therefore normal up to 500 Hz frequency, but then you’ll see it starts to drop, fast.
  • I had severe high frequency hearing loss, not a “slightly hard of hearing, sure-shout-a-little type hearing loss”. This is better known as ski slope hearing loss, given that it’s basically an uncontrolled downhill slide from which there’s no recovery. Unfortunately, it doesn’t come with après-ski!

My speech banana

All of the above is theoretical, but it can be hard to see how this relates to “real” hearing. This is where a speech banana comes in. Now, don’t laugh at the name, but look at this graph and you’ll see how it relates to the audiogram above. It basically shows where common sounds would fall on the audiogram.

For me, this speech banana helps to explain my everyday struggles. It becomes easier to see when I map my results on it.

This is my speech banana:


I can’t hear high frequency sounds, like the consonant sounds “t, c, s, p”. It’s which I can never distinguish between f and when people spell their names. It’s why birds singing are silent to me. It explains why I sometimes speak strangely. It also explains why I was (excuse my french!) buggered when I did reception cover in a busy Chicago bank during my J1 summer. Names I’d never heard of being spelled out over the phone! Quite a few people got “cut off” that summer or their messages never passed on!

So what?

So, I didn’t quite get all of the information above in the first visit to the audiologist but I did hear something that would become a mantra for my life. Basically, my hearing loss is hard to treat with hearing aids. Think about how a hearing aid works: it amplifies volume. Old aids, such as the helpful single 1980s aid I had during my youth, would simply make everything louder. Great in theory, but when the challenge is distinguishing high frequency sounds, having louder background noise doesn’t help.

Modern technology has improved, but it’s still a challenge. It’s also why I largely get away without wearing my hearing aids. I find them hard in a busy office environment, as even with the latest technology embedded in them, I still can’t handle the extra amplification of background noise. I end up shutting it all out, leading me to embarrassing moments where colleagues are practically jumping up and down beside me to get my attention!

Hear like I hear

This handy video from Phonak might help you hear as I hear:

So what?

I guess I’m self-consciously sharing this story and my experience in the hope that people might understand my hearing loss a little better.

I asked earlier whether it defines me, and I suspect there’s another blog post (or several) needed to answer that.

However, I definitely learned plenty about myself after my initial anger at being misinformed about the extent of my hearing loss for so many years. Knowing the extent of my hearing loss allowed me to discover, and embrace, subtitles on page 888 on Teletext and fueled an interest in accessibility and the need to ensure subtitling of video/TV content. It allowed me to accept my lack of ability in noisy group settings and to forgive myself for being the person engaging in 1:1 chat at parties versus the centre of group talk.

There is much more to say, especially regarding my fears regarding living in a country with a multitude of accents and strange names, but that’s best saved for another day in which I can share my love of Amy Cuddy and faking it until you make it!

Image source: Ear, by Hana Tichá