Back in 2015, I voted ‘yes’ to marriage equality with joy, and pride in my country. There was sadness and regret too; it was hard not to think how lesbian, gay and bisexual people had suffered – and still suffer – in this country. But this felt like a huge step in the right direction, a collective decision to acknowledge and embrace a long-marginalised community, and I, like much of the country, celebrated. On Friday next, I will vote ‘yes’ in the referendum to repeal the 8th amendment, but it feels different. If the people vote to make this change, I will be relieved rather than joyful. I am not pro-abortion any more than I am pro-antibiotics. These are not things I enjoy or celebrate. Even when they are the right answer, they’re not an easy answer. They are not without side effects, and I believe there are moral questions over their use, and the questions around antibiotic use pale in comparison to those around abortion. I’m not saying the two carry equal moral weight, just that I see each as, to a greater or lesser extent, a grim necessity rather than something to be celebrated.
I can’t imagine anybody celebrating the end of any pregnancy unless that end comes in the form of a healthy new baby. I don’t think anybody is ‘pro-abortion’ as such, and I certainly am not. I understand that many people sincerely believe the unborn baby is a person with a right to life. I am not sure that they are wrong. I would personally be very uncomfortable with the idea of a healthy mother terminating a healthy pregnancy at, say, 24 weeks. Babies are great. Bring on the babies, like. But I am suspicious of the attitude that seems to value ‘life’ as a pure, abstract concept to the point that it precludes an appreciation of the complexity of actual lives, actual people. How can someone value ‘Life’ so much that they would force a 13-year-old girl, pregnant through rape (and how else could a 13-year-old be pregnant, legally or morally speaking?) to carry a baby to term? Why is the unborn baby so important that its needs trump those of the actual, already living person carrying it? It smacks of a weird preference for the potential over the actual, a prioritising of ‘Life’ over somebody’s actual lived, embodied, conscious reality. I cannot pretend to know what is in the mind and heart of another person but sometimes it seems to me that pro-life advocates think the pregnant person has been sullied by the world and is beyond help, but this pure, clean, new Life might somehow be better and so deserves a chance.
I get why people are afraid of the consequences of repealing the eighth amendment, I really do. Personally, I am scared at the thought of a future in which the right to life rests on some utilitarian calculus. I hate the idea of poor women being forced to abort wanted pregnancies due simply to economic disadvantage. I find the idea of abortion as contraception disquieting, whether I think about the wellbeing of the baby or that of the pregnant person. I consider it tragic that people might feel unable to raise a child with special needs in our society, and that they might feel they have to terminate a wanted pregnancy on that basis. But these are hypotheticals — outcomes that MIGHT come about if we skidded obliviously down some theoretical slippery slope. They are not inevitable outcomes of a ‘yes’ vote. What is inevitable is that, if we vote ‘no’, we, as a society, will be completely unable to help pregnant people who desperately need to terminate their pregnancy, no matter how ‘good’ any of us might judge their reasons to be. The eighth amendment, and the Protection of Life During Pregnancy act, have not worked. If we want anything whatsoever to change in how we care for pregnant people, we must vote ‘yes’. In this referendum, ‘no’ is radical. ‘Yes’ is the middle ground. ‘Yes’ is the safe option. ‘Yes’ is the conservative, prudent choice. Perhaps, for you, like for me, it may be a slightly trepidatious ‘yes’. A ‘reluctant’ yes. A gritted-teeth ‘yes’. An I-don’t-trust-politicans ‘yes’. A small, quiet ‘yes’.
Fine. So be it. Any ‘yes’ at all keeps our options open, individually and collectively. But a ‘no’ shuts off much-needed choices for individual girls and women, and for us as a society. After all this is over, when the posters have come down and the hashtags peter out, if we vote ‘yes’, it will still be possible to work to prevent abortion in almost all circumstances. There will still be charities, NGOs and civic groups crying out for resources to help families in difficult situations, trying to make it easier for people to raise children. There will still be scientists seeking to improve the outlook for mothers and babies in all kinds of pregnancies. There will still be opportunities to teach young people to deal with their sexuality in healthy and responsible ways. It will still be possible to eliminate the need for abortion in many cases, if that is what we truly want. Despite the rhetoric of the pro-life side, there are no ‘easy’ cases of unwanted pregnancy. If you are pregnant and cannot or do not want to continue the pregnancy, you are in a crisis pretty much by definition. If we repeal the 8th amendment, there is still so much we can do to drastically reduce the number of crisis pregnancies. But we will never be able to eliminate the need for abortion entirely. There will, tragically, always be cases of rape or incest, and cases where there is no prospect of a baby surviving outside the womb. If we vote ‘no’, there will be no way to help people in these so-called ‘hard’ cases. If we vote ‘yes’, we can still have a meaningful debate about how we, as a society, want to deal with reproductive ethics. We can still try to limit the need for abortion. We can still help both the unborn and the born. But if we vote ‘no’, there is no going back. There is no wiggle room, no ‘hard’ cases, no second chance. We will have made up our minds, and, in my view, we will have closed our hearts and minds in a sad and frightening way.
For me and most people of my generation, the ‘yes’ to marriage equality was an easy, joyful, unequivocal ‘yes’. This time around, it may not feel quite so celebratory. But it is, if anything, even more necessary. This is life and death.