I’m a writer who wants to be a novelist when I grow up. I love words. I’m an activist who wants to change the world. I love being involved in campaigns. I’m a man. I have a huge ego. I am convinced that if enough people would just listen to my words they would finally see every issue from my point of view and necessarily agree with me.
I often day-dream about going on Radio Kerry to discuss the Eighth Amendment and being so eloquent that Kerry becomes a bastion of pro-choice sentiment. It’s an enjoyable daydream. But I’m a writer, so sometimes I look at my daydreams for ideas. I examine the detail. And when I examine the detail of this daydream I quickly realise how full of shit it, and I, am.
I search for the words for my barn-storming appearance. They aren’t there. I know my opponent’s words. They run the full gamut of ‘unborn baby’ all the way to ‘unborn baby’ and she wipes the floor with me.
I’m an activist, I know pithy beats considered every time. What are my soundbites? I have; trust women, forced birth, Savita, choice, medical care, the UK, ten a day, autonomy. I could throw in, misogyny, hypocrisy, patriarchy and religion, but these have too many syllables to tap a nerve, inspire empathy, take the listener’s mind from…unborn baby.
I’m a writer. I try to imagine what it would be like to be someone else. I’ve tried to imagine what it must be like to experience a crisis pregnancy in this country. I last about two seconds before I’m overwhelmed by feelings of panic and despair.
I’m a straight man. The obstacles to my physical autonomy include not being able to smoke weed when I want to and the theoretical possibility that I may not be able to end my own life at some future date, if the circumstances call for it. How do I describe in soundbites the panic I imagine? How do I equate my moral outrage to their moral outrage?
I like telling stories. I like telling farfetched stories. Once upon a time, in a land far far away, a law was passed that gave an appendix the same legal status as the man it inhabited. Why would an unthinking, unfeeling clump of cells be granted such rights? No one could really remember, but they were pretty confident that it had something to do with control and keeping men in their place.
How dare you compare a vestigial organ with an unborn baby. A paragraph of talking, undone by a soundbite. How do I inspire empathy without soundbites? How do I inspire empathy when I do not want to bruise?
Imagine you became pregnant through rape. Do I want to ask someone to imagine that? Do I want to ask women, mothers whose entire experience of pregnancy was positive and joyous, to imagine something so ugly? Imagine your mother, sister, wife or daughter was raped. Really? Am I really going to ask you that? I can only manage about two seconds of imagining a crisis pregnancy and I’m asking someone to imagine something so vile as a loved one being raped?
This is the greatest weakness that we who support choice have, it is a weakness none of the tone policing columns ever hit on, we actually care about the feelings of others. But the downside of that is that we are fighting up hill, one arm tied behind our backs while taking the time to worry about the safety of those who are watching.
And because we care we end up trying to appeal to the mind, rather than the emotions. We speak in abstractions and ideals. And every time we hear, unborn babies, Down Syndrome and regret.
We hear ‘abortion on demand’ and because it has been so befouled we must condemn the term, though it is exactly what we want. It is a soundbite I wished we owned. But it does serve a purpose. We know who uses it and why. It is used by the fanatics to appeal to the middle. It is used to give comfort and protection to the sexism and hypocrisy of the middle.
We know what it means, who uses it and why. It is code for ‘no abortions for sluts.’ We know who uses it and why but we can’t always say it.
We need the hypocrites, the benign misogynists. The men and so many women, who value the foetus of the broken condom over the foetus of the rape victim. The men and oh so many women who value the foetus of the poor woman over the foetus that is unlikely to live. But how do you go into these hypocrites’ homes and help them see their hypocrisy for what it is?
And then we get a tantalising glimpse of what evidence, shorn of soundbites can actually achieve. Lock a hundred people in a room for five weekends and bombard them with facts and they will embrace free, safe and legal. But we know we can’t force four million people to examine the facts. We have to use soundbites and we must be true to our values so we won’t try to wound. We will fight their battle, on their terms, on their ground. And our allies will gripe and our false allies gripe even harder.
We will get a referendum and it will be so restrictive, so far removed from what the Assembly recommended that some of us may even vote against it. We are in the hands of cowardly politicians who don’t even know they are hypocrites. And we will continue to fight fair, declaring where our monies come from, expending energy on making our voices representative, caring for the feelings of those listening and greeting viciousness with calmness.
And in the end, we will be fighting for the right of some women, in certain circumstances, to be considered more important than a clump of cells. We will be fighting for the further institutionalisation of the concept that some women just don’t deserve the medical care they want. And we might even fail at that.
I’m an activist who does a bit. Just enough to avoid the shame of having done nothing. I do less than many but more than most. And I wonder at those who confuse agreement with support. I wonder about that gap between agreement and joining in. Is it laziness? Is it fear? Is it the misapprehension that their help isn’t required? Or is it the belief that defeat is inevitable? Or is it the belief that activism is what other people do?
We must speak in long sentences, inspire strangers unused to grappling with long sentences to think in long sentences. We do not have the soundbites. We do not have shortcuts. We must speak in long sentences. And to speak in long sentences we need speakers, so many speakers. Men and women who confuse agreement with support. Men and women who think joining in is for other people. We need numbers, so many more numbers.
To campaign for free, safe and legal abortions is to be considered extremist. We are considered by the lazy as the mirror of the anti-choicers. The lazy get to think this because there are still too few who have joined in, joined up, who confuse agreement with support.
There will be a referendum next year. It probably won’t be the referendum we want. But even at this late hour there is an opportunity to shape those words. All it takes is everyone who agrees with free, safe and legal abortions taking a single step. Joining in rather than passive agreement.
Join your local group, most counties have one. If there isn’t one, start one. It is so easy even I helped set up the one in Kerry. It’s a small step, but it could mean the difference between a dozen women a day fleeing this country and perhaps half a dozen fleeing, and one day, no woman having to flee. It’s a small step. Don’t confuse agreement with support. A hundred activists can be dismissed as extremists, a hundred thousand is a movement.
And a movement gets to speak in long sentences, it has the power to inspire thinking in long sentences.