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.

My Silver Lining

OK, first my apologies. I haven’t blogged for a while. I stopped when the blockade happened, and I honestly got scared to write about how I was feeling or how (temporarily) it felt like our world had turned upside down.

But in the year while I’ve been away from this site, those of you who know me will know I’ve spent a LOT of time talking about the 8th Amendment and why it needs to be repealed. I’ve written before about my journey to pro-choice, and I mean unapologetically free, safe, legal no restrictions abortion (that’s another post, but sure, get cross if you want to but you might just want to read up on post-viability abortions and the reality of this first).

I’ve been struck by the bravery, the massive, immense, unimaginable bravery of women from across Ireland who have shared their stories through In Her Shoes – Women of the Eighth. But there’s still a part of me that believes that some people regard women who have crisis pregnancies as ‘uneducated durty young wans who can’t keep their legs closed’. And who genuinely think they don’t know anyone who has been in a crisis pregnancy or found themselves needing an abortion.

So… I want to help shatter that perception, that belief that it’s always someone you don’t know, or who perhaps deserves it. This is my story. Not one of choosing abortion, but one of finding yourself in a situation where it might have been needed. Life and fate ended up intervening to prevent me realising my choices were limited, but the 8th was there – staring at me, even when I didn’t realise it.

My Silver Lining

I can remember clearly the moment I realised I was pregnant.

I wasn’t someone who you would have pictured getting pregnant at 20, in the middle of a degree. I was good and quiet, not quite as studious as I should have been, but never been one for trouble or drama. I was exactly that girl down the road, who you think you knew but probably don’t. But I was immature and naive to the world, had barely been in what could be termed a “relationship”. My screwed up relationship with the opposite sex took place through the all-too-potent prism of alcohol and foolishly seeking affirmation that I was attractive and worthwhile. So I made mistakes, not many, but those I took were risky foolish mistakes.

It was the run up to Christmas. All I had been worried about was Christmas parties, concerts and presents for my closest family. My breasts had been feeling really strange and sore and for some reason, while I knew very little, I knew this wasn’t right. I sat in my bedroom in my parents’ house and checked my diary, looked back at my period dates and my strange one-day only period the previous month. I weirdly knew straight away what the pregnancy test would say, even before I took it the next day, huddled in a bathroom at the back of the shop where I worked.

I staggered home, in a haze of confusion, dropped an atomic bomb of life altering intensity on my devastated parents, and then proceeded to go out and get absolutely paralytically drunk.

The next morning, while I was desperately upset, the thought of ending it didn’t occur to me. I had no concept of life beyond my parents’ house, and romantic ideas of a baby were already deep in my consciousness. I had never seen someone struggling to raise a child alone.

I think my father might have mentioned options, but I brushed them aside, oblivious to the reality that lay ahead. Oblivious to questions of how I would support a child? Finish my degree? Get a job?

In town that day, fate intervened. I started to bleed. The bleeding didn’t stop. I went home.

My parents cared for me when I had just turned their lives upside down. Like a sick toddler, I was tucked up in their double bed. My mum gave me painkillers and brought me the next day to the GP, who confirmed I had been pregnant and was likely now miscarrying. I went to the Rotunda and sat among the heavily pregnant women, experienced a scan of an empty uterus, stunned by the sudden reality I was facing and shocked into confronting the reality and the loss.

It was the loss that won back then. I grieved for that child that never was. I cried through Christmas Mass and struggled for a long time afterward with depression.

In all of that chaos of those two life-shaping days, there were some words I can still remember, gently stated by my Mum and resented by me for many years after: “It was a silver lining.”

She knew. She knew what I didn’t. She knew what world lay ahead for me if I’d remained pregnant, unable then to fathom the realities of raising myself, never mind a child. She wanted for me what I subsequently got – a career, a partner, a family at a time of my choosing, a life that was easier. And what I thought for years when I reflected on those five words was that she was wrong; I could have done what so many other strong women do, done it all as a single mum. And I could have, but I’m glad I didn’t. I wasn’t ready for that.

Why am I sharing something so deeply personal? Why is it relevant to now?

I held my pro-life views so dearly for so many years that it clouded my reality on everything. I had counted through the weeks of pregnancy that would have been but never were. I see it now in the posters, the social media posts, the media coverage. I see the same things I would have said. I see now the constant focus on the foetus and not the mother. I didn’t value my life as I should have back then. As I do now.

I’ve now lived longer since the pregnancy than before it. That foetus that never became a child would have been 20 this year had it been born. It’s only recently that I realise what a lucky escape I had. When I look back, I now wonder whether a week later, two weeks later, when I stopped being in shock and started realizing what was happening (assuming I did), what would I have done? At the time, I would have had the right to travel for an abortion, but that was all. I couldn’t have chosen to end the pregnancy in Ireland had I realised that that was what I wanted. At that stage, abortion pills weren’t available. I was lucky though, I’m sure my parents would have travelled with me and funded it, had I wanted to. I am sure I had that luxury of their support. Many don’t.

I didn’t have to make a choice, or to realise that there was none really available to me. But I know now, and am furious, that my choices at the time would have been limited by the State. By the 8th Amendment. Rules introduced by people who would have put me in a Laundry two decades earlier, who fought against my right to use contraception, who fought against my right for information, who fought against my right to travel and who are now fighting to retain a law that makes me and any other potential child-bearing person, a prisoner in their own body.

To be clear, I don’t regret the grief I had at the time for the loss of my pregnancy, but I also recognize that that grief was for some romantic vision that would never have happened for me at that time. I wasn’t grieving a reality; I was grieving a fairy tale. I wasn’t prepared for the changes that would have come, and that the miscarriage, while it hurt like hell for a long time, was right for me. It saved me.

It took me years to allow myself to recognize that it was OK to feel relieved at how things worked out. It was OK to take a moment each year to think “What if…”, to mark a birthday that never was, but to not regret that I never carried that pregnancy to term. I’m glad I didn’t need to confront my situation, that my control was wrested from me by my body.

It’s now 20 years later. I have two daughters. I know that neither they nor anyone else can control the things life puts in their path, whether it’s crisis pregnancies, fatal foetal abnormalities, or something threatening their lives or health if they are pregnant.

If those things happen, I want to be able to support them and offer them choices. I don’t mean the type of choices that involve planes, boats or smuggled pills. I mean choices, real choices, close to home. In a country where they don’t have to hide behind anonymity. Where they, and only they, can control their bodies. And for that, that means the Constitution needs to change. It needs to put my daughters first over their pregnancy. I want them to have choices so I can hold their hands and bring them tea and support, when they need it, as they need it. Where I can tell them about the wisdom of their grandmother, the endless potential of their lives and the silver linings behind every cloud.

Please show compassion for every person who has found themselves living in a moment they never imagined. Repeal the 8th on March 25th. Vote YES.

Photo credit: Lady Dragonfly via Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/ladydragonflyherworld/4893579259

 

 

 

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)