Compassion and the 8th

Compassion

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?

Murderers

Child killers

Evil

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.

All I learned about motherhood, I learned from you, Mum

On this strange Mother’s Day, where my inner calendar is set on Irish time and Qatar celebrated it last Thursday (yup, it is as strange as it sounds), I want to say Thank You to my own wonderful mother, who taught me all I need to know about motherhood.

I have two girls upstairs who are plotting breakfast in bed for me tomorrow morning. I know them, I’ll get it, perhaps with a splash of milk on the duvet, or cereal spilled on the tray, but it’s delivered with love and the best open hearts. I can remember doing the same as a child, and my heart fills with gratitude that my own girls are taking this and running with it.

We say we become mothers when we give birth or welcome a child into our lives, but actually that’s not true. It happens when a woman enters our lives and starts shaping for us that image of what motherhood is: unconditional love, kindness, gentle steering in the right directions for life. Many of us, myself included, are lucky that this woman takes the shape of our mothers. I know I started learning how to be a mother when my knee was kissed better after a fall; when I was shown how to care for and respect my granny; when I saw her juggling work, housework, kids; when I saw her deal with the struggles life handed her, and the joys too, with grace, dignity and creative embrace. She handed me poems about beloved departed budgies, offered tea when teenage hormones got too much and stood back when I muddled my way through early adulthood.

She was the one who welcomed my early tears of motherhood. Who laughed when I couldn’t stop talking about those first windy smiles. Who advised gently when I didn’t know which way was up from exhaustion, hormones and general muddled-ness. Who took my kids, one by one as the brood grew, and minded them every Friday, and more. Who loves them unconditionally.

So here she is with me now in Qatar. Again helping me — us — on another journey into the unknown. A source of immense support and wisdom as I, and my family, try to shape a new life. She is putting us first at a time that I know must be difficult for her. We’re creating a new distance but I know the relationship will remain as integral to my life as it always has been.

She is joined by so many other mothers as the rocks of my life — aunts, mothers-in-law, sisters-in-law, friends. All mothers with their own strength and wisdom. All women who have shared their experience with me and helped make me the mother I am today.

So on this day when we in Ireland celebrate our mothers, I say Thank You Mum. For being my Mum, my rock, the much loved Nana of my children. For teaching me, and my girls, how to be a mum.

mum.jpg

I love you.

Sinéad

xx

@sineadorourke

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)