Ireland’s Abortion Referendum and Its Inconvenient Truths

Nothing in life is black and white. No one is ever completely wrong or completely right. So when we choose between people, between sides, always and inevitably, a loss is incurred.

The Irish referendum to repeal the 8th amendment and remove the legal barrier against abortion takes an issue of immense complexity and reduces it to a yes or no answer. It has taken place within the public forum, pitting one grass-roots movement against the other. Battle lines were drawn. Adversaries were marked. The voting decisions of the Irish public were the spoils of war. Persuading others to also pick your side is a always a tricky business, one that requires certainty and conviction to keep the facts afloat. But matters of public morality elicit the resolute stubbornness of a crusade, a vertiginous unassailability that elevates its ideological underpinnings to biblical heights.

The pro-choice and the pro-life movement carved their memoranda on stone and handed it out to their cheering followers, but in doing so they deprived themselves of the ability to accommodate views that did not mirror their own. Turning a moral issue political leads to such polarization, compounded further by the media-circus documenting the entire affair. The single-mindedness campaigning strategy of both groups conducted their campaign may have been politically astute, but with such rigidity it becomes hard to appraise one’s own actions and ideology honestly. The hostility and vilification that ensued created such a tense atmosphere that empathising with the opposition become a mammoth task.

Moral debates are rarely black and white, but we have made the false binary of the ballot papers our reality.

Language, Images, Numbers and Truth

Since its conception, the Irish abortion debate has inhabited two opposing ends of a spectrum; the mother on one side, unborn on the other. Split and divided, a separation impossible in nature. Together the pro-life and the pro-choice movements have engineered this divide with the many tools at their disposal: stories, emotions, history, rhetoric, words, images, art, facts, statistics, the vast world of science. Those which favour their own agenda are selected and isolated, the rest shed, cast aside, wilfully ignored.

That which is a “baby” or an “unborn child” to one side of the debate is a “zygote”, a “foetus” or an “embryo” to the other. One side employs terms like “beating heart”, “saving lives”, “protecting humanity” while the other side talks about “bodily autonomy”, “self-determination” and “empowering women”. Both wear the mantle of preserving human rights. “Support her, don’t export her”, echoes on both sides of the divide. Amongst the publicly broadcasted vitriol, sparring matches and creative wordplay, one sometimes needs to be reminded that both campaigns are referring to the same physical phenomenon of pregnancy. The pro-choice movement have chosen to co-opt the vernacular of scientists. Pregnancy is viewed through the clinical lens of medicine, a condition with a symptom that can be treated and cured. Pro-lifers talk about the miracle of life. Emotive language hijacks the maternal and paternal tenderness inspired by a new-born. Abortion is equated with murder.

The image of the foetus is the greatest weapon in the artillery of pro-lifers. They point towards its human features to remind us of our own identical beginning, drawing upon non-existent memories. It reminds me of those jelly aliens toys we had as children, embalmed in gloop and enclosed in a plastic egg. But they fail to elicit from this a higher principle of a right to life. What do tiny fingers tell us about personhood? What do tiny fingers tells us about the ability to feel pain or sorrow or less, or even the ability to register and comprehend one’s own death? What do tiny fingers tell us about the right to have one’s life protected above the bodily autonomy of another?

How does this foetal image, plastered across the length and breadth of our country, help us to find answers to the philosophical and ethical questions about the beginning of consciousness? The meaning an images conveys is never limited to its contents alone, which functions symbolically to point us towards something further. This distant and abstracted thing rises silently from the depths of the image, meets the surface of our mind, transacts, transfers, then plunges deep once again. A silent and algorithmic fusing of knowledge and emotion. Caught unawares, we are highly susceptible to manipulation. A constant state of critical hyper-vigilance must be maintained if we are to retain mastery of our own mind, authorship of our own opinion.

On the LoveBoth website, a cartoon strip documents the progression of the unborn from conception right up until the day it is born. The unborn is painted with a smiling face and rosy cheeks, frolicking and cavorting across the screen as it coos goo-eyed at its parents. The unborn is imbued with a voice, self-awareness and a fabricated personal identity as it reports to its mummy and daddy the changes that it is undergoing. “Mark the calendar — I can’t wait to see, Mammy!”, it exclaims.

When the facts are sterile, diffuse them with whimsical fiction to pull at the heartstrings.

Where there is no voice, supplant it with your own and mute the Other.

For the longest time the profusion of Irish abortion stories that accrued over decades were denied the light of day because it made the lies will liked to tell ourselves easier to believe. When the repeal campaign began, for the first time women in Ireland were given permission to speak. Once the floodgates were opened the stories poured out. In these stories the mother was cast as leading role. A developed and intelligent being with the capacity to think, to feel, and to articulate. A voice that speaks for itself.

In Ireland’s public sphere two opposing narratives run side by side; never touching, never interacting, a single protagonist the focus of attention. Choose a side. Choose a perspective. Choose the facts that work in you favour and overlook those that don’t. Shift the emphasis. Tell the truth, but only the useful bits. This is how people are convinced. This is how campaigns are won.

Inconvenient Truths

A crisis pregnancy is an inconvenient truth, the beginning of a chain of inconvenient truths from which many more spring. As much as we may loath these truths they will not disappear on their own, hence the inconvenience. Whether we speak of them or not, they exist and persist, they duplicate and they multiply, they fester if ignored. Both the pro-life and pro-choice groups have been indulging the ignorance of inconvenient truths when it is at odds with their campaign strategy. Here are some truths they have sought to avoid:


  • It is an inconvenient truth that by choosing to save the unborn, the physical and mental health of Irish woman is jeopardized.
  • It is an inconvenient truth that by prioritizing the life of the unborn over the mother, Irish women are denied their bodily autonomy.
  • It is an inconvenient truth by that the 8th Amendment disproportionately affects the disabled community, migrant women and the lower social strata of Irish society.
  • It is an inconvenient truth that Irish women who travel to England to procure an abortion will not receive adequate health care.
  • It is an inconvenient truth that even though abortion is illegal in Ireland, 12 women in Ireland have an abortion anyway.


  • It is an inconvenient truth that by ending an unplanned pregnancy you are ending another human life.
  • It is an inconvenient truth that the provision of abortion services might disproportionately be used against those with disabilities.
  • It is an inconvenient truth that some women regret their abortions.
  • It is an inconvenient truth that some men who want to be a father will have their unborn child aborted.
  • It is an inconvenient truth that abortion services may be used by mother’s who want their child, but can’t afford it.

Unpalatable. Unsavoury. Inconvenient. The solution to a crisis often is. The undecided middle are all too aware of the inconvenient truths that are absent in the Yes and No campaign. They remain undecided, sceptical and unconvinced.

Coming To Terms

When I first started learning about abortion, it was described to me as a procedure that terminated pregnancy and would end the life of my baby.


A word with pleasant associations. A salty-sweet smell. A tiny fist grasping one long finger. Pure innocence. Death. Baby. Death. Baby. Words that do not look or sound good together. Words that do not belong together. I was terrified of becoming pregnant long before I lost virginity. This is the legacy of the Catholic Church and Ireland’s education system. The fear of pregnancy, even at a distance, prevented me from ever judging someone for having an abortion. But could I carry out one myself? Could I bring myself to kill a baby? My baby? As long as the conversation involved the word ‘baby’, abortion was going to be a guilt-laden affair.

But that was the point after all, wasn’t it? With England only a ferry or a plane ride away they couldn’t outlaw abortion completely, but they sure as hell could fill us with regret and shame till we rotted from the inside. Until a non-Irish friend of mine had an abortion it never occurred to me that this was a decision that could be made easily. By easy I do not imply that it was a light or casual affair. By easy I mean it was a comfortable decision that was not wrought with guilt or shame, and didn’t require a plane ticket.

A guilt free abortion? This was something new and strange. To an Irish woman, this was something radical. Around the same time the Repeal movement was really kicking off and for the first time in my shortish life I was invited to consider this possibility on Irish soil. The impact the incorporation of abortion services into Ireland’s health services would have should not be understated. Women in Ireland were supposed to travel for abortions. Women in Ireland were supposed to pay for abortions. Women in Ireland were supposed to be denied medical aftercare. Women in Ireland weren’t supposed to have abortions at all, but if they did, it would be the Catholic way, secret and alone, shamed by society. Up until recently this is what abortion meant to me; I may have long since renounced the Catholic Church but I was only beginning to grasp the extent to which its ideologies still coloured my worldview.

Reckoning with abortion’s terminating human life was still an aspect of abortion that tripped me up so I turned to science to fill in the gaps. Embryo. Foetus. Zygote. I said these words and thought of a goo-ey alien in its plastic egg belonging to my childhood. Words without association. Clean. Hard. Rough. Unhuman. Clinical. Medical. These words belonged in the mouths of doctors. Shapeless and faceless in their white coats and surgical masks, always male in my mind’s eye. I could say these words and feel nothing.

Battle on the Homefront

The repeal movement was a contentious topic in my household, particularly between my pro-life mother and me. On the surface we argued about politics, knowing however that one other’s emotion ran deep. We disagreed on every single point there was to discuss. Eventually I vetoed it as a conversation topic for the sake of peace. When friends came over our chats inevitably drifted to abortion and the repeal campaign. They were always firmly on my side and my mum would find herself outnumbered.

One such typical Sunday morning spent moralising abortion, my friend and I left my mum at home while we went to fetch a coffee. An hour later I returned alone to find my mother in the kitchen in the exact same spot we had left her, hunched over an ironing board and visibly upset. When I asked her what was wrong, she told me the conversation we had earlier had upset her. I was filled with remorse. The hurt that pro-life supporters might be feeling was not something I had dwelled on much, prevented by my indignant anger. I said nothing except to offer her a hug and wrap my arms around her.

My belief that appealing the 8th amendment is right and correct course of action is unwavering. As the tragic stories of Irish women poured out, stories which they had held on tightly to for years, my conviction that I was right and she was wrong became evermore steadfast. I had grown righteous. I had a wealth of facts and stories and letters of the alphabet to hand. I had thousands of my peers agreeing me. I had stopped listening to her arguments (if I ever listened to begin with), instead waiting for an interlude and an opportunity to hear my own voice. It was time to start listening again, not to change my mind but to acknowledge my mum’s perspective. Suddenly it was important to me that she felt heard and understood.

There are many troubling ideologies buoying the No campaign, but they do hold one fundamental belief that is untainted: all human life is precious and deserves the right to live, no matter how fleeting or tenuous. Taken on its own, it is a pure intention. Talking to my mother forced me to confront the inconvenient truths of the pro-choice position, and critically examine my decision to push against the natural instinct to preserve human life. This was something I had to admit silently to myself. I understood the nuances between the different stages of life. I had weighed the conflicting interests of mother and unborn. I accepted the loss, without guilt or shame. I will cast my vote to repeal the 8th amendment appreciating all its consequences. Somewhere along the line we forgot to seek the humanity in one another’s arguments, opting to build straw men out of one another’s arguments.

May 26th will bring winners and losers, a victory and loss that will be black and white. But let us not forget we live in a world of grey.


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