The Power of the Page: How a book could influence a divisive issue Ireland is set to decide
PUBLISHED: 15:00 21 May 2018
Charlie Connelly on a book that brings a new level of analysis to the divisive issue on which Ireland is about to decide.
Amid the intense national debate surrounding Ireland’s imminent referendum on whether to reform the country’s near-total ban on abortion, one book has emerged to help truly humanise the argument and, perhaps, sway it.
It has grown out of the grassroots campaign conducted by the ‘yes’ side – in favour of repealing the Irish constitution’s eighth amendment, and thus paving the way for new legislation – which has seen women, both high profile and ordinary, tell their stories, and get people talking.
Compiled by the journalist Una Mullally, the Repeal The 8th anthology, is a collection of fiction, memoir, poetry and interviews designed to add to the debate a calm, reasoned and well-argued representation of the ‘yes’ campaign in a nuanced and compassionate way.
It’s an effective and convincing collection, one that humanises the repeal side of the debate in contrast to the more hectoring didacticism that can characterise the most vocal elements of the ‘no’ campaign.
“Our art and our conversations are products of our environment,” writes Mullally in the introduction. “The acts of expression related to our restrictive abortion laws at this time take many forms. They are murals on walls and ideas for poems; they are essays and personal stories; they are screenplays and short stories; they are textile designs and photography; they are graphic design and things we need to get off our chest.”
In trying to incorporate as many forms of literary and artistic expression as possible Repeal the 8th can feel a little uneven, making the book a bumpy ride at times, but it’s certainly an important, informative and worthwhile addition to the debate whatever side you happen to be on.
The book opens with a valuable timeline detailing the history of the reproductive rights movement in Ireland from the Offences Against The Person Act of 1828, which legislated the death penalty for ‘post-quickening’ abortions, to the 2017 Citizens’ Assembly, essentially a people’s jury that listened to the arguments of both sides and recommended that access to abortions should not be restricted, prompting the taoiseach Leo Varadkar to call the referendum.
There are personal stories of heartrending circumstances, including a piece by the Irish Times journalist Kitty Holland who details the very different circumstances that led her to travel twice to England for abortions. It was Holland who broke the story of Savita Halappanavar, who died in the autumn of 2012 after suffering a septic miscarriage. She had asked staff at Galway Hospital for a termination but was refused, and died four days after her baby was stillborn.
Holland writes that she had wanted to refer to her own experience in Ireland’s newspaper of record several years ago but was talked out of it by an editor on the grounds that it could compromise her objectivity on the issue in future.
“How far we have travelled that in Ireland 2017 revealing you have had an abortion is no longer seen as an ideological standpoint, but rather a fact of one’s life,” she writes.
The entire issue of women’s equality is bound up in the abortion issue, she argues. “It’s about a woman who becomes unexpectedly pregnant being empowered to regain control of her body, to be able to make choices about her life – her education, her career, how many children she can afford, how many children she wants, if any. Accessible abortion is absolutely essential if women are to achieve political and economic equality with men.”
One of the more straightforward opinion pieces comes from Colm O’Gorman, the head of Amnesty International’s Irish office and leading campaigner against the Eighth Amendment. Unsurprisingly given his position O’Gorman’s argument is expressed in terms of global human rights.
“All the while, we will keep repeating the truth,” he says. “Access to abortion is a human rights issue and as long as the Eighth Amendment remains in the Irish constitution and the laws that flow from it remain in place, Ireland will be in breach of the legal obligations it voluntarily signed up to when it ratified the human rights treaties.”
One advantage of the book format is that it allows expansion of such arguments in much more detail than, say, a newspaper feature or a string of tweets.
Irish broadcast media has strict guidelines on providing equal airtime for both sides, a commendable ambition but one that sometimes leads to farcical situations involving stopwatches and a tendency for broadcast debates to become shouting matches, limiting the quality of important discussions.
It is a great shame that there is no equivalent collection from the anti-repeal side as books like this allow for depth and nuance rather than a reliance on swingeing slogans, facilitating the quiet reflection required before voting on an issue of such importance.
Fiction and poetry are used here to great effect. Bailey’s Prize winner Lisa McInerney contributes a wonderful short story The Important Thing Is We Start A Conversation, in which a classroom discussion about a pupil’s possibly autobiographical homework story detailing a ferry ride to Liverpool for a termination manages in just a few pages to capture the rhythms and schisms of adolescence familiar to all of us.
Mark O’Halloran, a leading Irish actor and screenwriter, provides an excerpt from a screenplay about Kelly, a young woman from the Irish midlands having to deal with an unplanned pregnancy. Often reading a script can be a limiting experience, but here it enhances a tender, non-judgemental insight into family, friendship and the uncertainties of life.
The actor and comedian Tara Flynn, one of the leading voices on the repeal side, presents a triptych of imagined accounts, one of a woman travelling for an abortion, one of an older Irish woman who is opposed to abortion and one from the viewpoint of a male internet troll, all of whom are presented as human and fallible. It’s this kind of empathy that thrums through the anthology, the humanising of the debate, the stories, real and imagined, of everyday people making choices about their lives and futures and living with the results.
Issues as important as this need space for arguments to settle and breathe and literature is an ideal way to put flesh on the bones of what could otherwise descend into a self-perpetuating tennis match of slogans.
Depending on how the referendum turns out Repeal The 8th, crowdfunded via the innovative publisher Unbound, where this writer secured a copy, will become either a historical record of its time or a vital document for continued campaigning. There are many voices in this book, a volume which helps to propagate a conversation long overdue in Irish society. Nobody is actively in favour of abortion, nobody is seeking to make them compulsory, but plenty are in favour of a woman’s innate right to choose. As the veteran feminist campaigner Nell McCafferty writes in the book, “abortion is the last resort, not the first, of womanhood”.
Whatever the result of the referendum this anthology helps ensure that abortion in Ireland is no longer an unspoken taboo. It shows that the women who travel to Britain are not the faceless, dehumanised hussies and sluts, fallen or loose women that many would like them to be, they are the women in your street, on your television, at your workplace and in your family.
The poet Sarah Maria Griffin puts it best when she writes in her poem We
Face This Land, included in the anthology:
“We ask for the land over the water. Home over trial. Choice over none.
For our foremothers, ourselves, the generations yet to come
Witches or women – these are our bodies which shall not be given up.”
Repeal The 8th, edited by Una Mullally, is published by Unbound and available through Penguin Books, priced £9.99