It’s been difficult, bordering on impossible, lately, to avoid the issue of commentary on tone and attitude around the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment. We are accused, in turn, of being alternately obstinate and flighty, bleeding-heart and obdurate, organised and disorganised, omnipresent but unsupported. We are the darlings of the media, but we don’t speak for the people; we have the support of some politicians but not the right politicians; we are outliers in public opinion, but we’ve also brainwashed the country.
And I don’t recognise us in these portrayals. I don’t recognise the bravery shown by families who have come forward with their own stories. I don’t recognise the rooms of eager young people ready to campaign for a referendum. I don’t recognise the dignity of activists who have been fighting on this issue since the 1983 referendum and who have not given up and will not give up. I don’t recognise our core message, which is that we support a right to choose and a right to support and freedom from stigma whatever choice is made.
If the campaign to repeal the Eighth was as it is portrayed in the media, I don’t think I’d want anything to do with it.
Thankfully, that is not the experience I have had as part of this movement. I have attended, participated in, hosted discussions; I have written hundreds upon hundreds of words and engaged with people from all over the country, and at no point have I experienced hostility or alienation, even from people whose politics and opinions do not map neatly onto mine.
When you see yourself misrepresented repeatedly, it’s easy to be frustrated. I resist that impulse. I ask, cui bono? For whose benefit are these things being said? Who stands to gain from delegitimising the pro-choice position? It is not the ‘centre’, the mass of moderate voters with an interest in social politics but without a drive to become an activist on either side. They do not gain from this. It is a politics of fear. It is a race to the bottom. In framing their argument as being on the side of the voter in the street, the anti-choice lobby seeks to position themselves as the centre. 81% of Irish people, this summer, told an Irish Times poll that they would support a liberalisation of abortion policy past that allowed by the Eighth. That other 19%, fewer than one in five, is a minority. Forgetting that is dangerous.
Because this is where we live now. In post-Brexit Britain and post-Trump America, in a Europe divided and an international order shifting ever more toward the extremist right, minority but vocal positions, pushing the politics of fear, have told their populations that they are the moderates, speaking up for the average person and attempting to normalise a social order built on intolerance and removal of human rights. Don’t be fooled. This is not normal. No part of this is normal.
Do I fear that a repeal referendum would fall at the last fence, like Clinton’s presidential bid or the unlikely, shocking result of the Brexit referendum? Of course I do. I’m human. I’m invested in this campaign and I want it to succeed, so naturally I fear the chance that it might not. But what we learn from the experiences of 2016, this annus horribilis in so many ways, is that fear is a weapon and it is being wielded against us.
Somehow a message of choice is being corrupted into something ugly; somehow people who believe in affirming human rights are being painted as intolerant. This. Is. Not. Normal.
Delegitimisation, then: cui bono? Those who are effecting the campaign to delegitimise, of course. The reason the anti-choice lobby do not want the Eighth removed is the same reason which spurred their forebears to amend the Constitution in the first place: they fear that a future activist government or Supreme Court bench will liberalise abortion laws in Ireland. Their position is built on fear. Their lobbying is based on pleas to emotion, often so divorced from fact as to seem ludicrous. They do not have the support of international human rights law. They do not have the support of medical science. It is so important that we do not let them position themselves as the new normal. They are not.
The lesson for Ireland from our international disappointments has to be as follows: we need to inform people about the law and the facts around pregnancy, abortion, and maternity services in Ireland. We need to rebut false promises and scaremongering, and at every point to reassert where the centrepoint of the country actually is. We need to understand that people are inherently rational, but that fear is the most powerful motivator in the arsenal of extremist tools. We need to show the Irish public that fear is not the only way, and that rather than an attempt to keep them in darkness, ours is a campaign of bringing these issues into the light.
Amnesty International’s founder, Peter Benenson, started the organisation with the philosophy that “it is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness”. Rather than giving in to frustration or letting ourselves be swayed or frightened by the politics of fear, we have to realise that, in the matter of human rights, we are the keepers of that flame. We will not lose this. We will not let ourselves lose this fight, and we will not let the Irish people be bowed by fear, intolerance, and oppression. This is too important.