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)