Counters counting the votes at Punchestown
In the week before the referendum to Repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, to give it its full title, campaigners for a Yes vote were working their way through a housing estate one evening in Kill when they came across a woman who had settled in her mind on a No vote.
She was very nice, they said, and polite.
“She said she would be voting ‘No’, but she wished us all the best,” one of the canvassers said.
“Fair play to ye,” she said.
I laughed it off at the time as yet another example of one of the delightful quirks of living in a country where nobody is ever sure about anything.
(We mustn’t be, we keep asking each other.)
But reflecting on it afterwards, I realised it might well sum up the whole experience of the referendum.
The results show that an overwhelming majority of people voted Yes, but I’d put a week’s wages on it that whether they voted Yes or No, the vast majority did not arrive at their decision without some second thoughts.
Certainly many were predisposed to going one way or another, but few did so without a doubt, I believe.
Only those for whom certainty is a comfort to the mind, the zero sum game absolutists, had no doubts about their vote, I’d suggest.
As somebody said to me last week, nobody wants an abortion, nobody likes either the idea or the reality of abortion and nobody wants ever to be in a position where they have to consider having one — but a lot of us like the idea that if somebody found themselves in the tragic circumstance of needing one, most particularly in a life or death medical emergency, that they could get one, because it would, in the circumstances, be the least worst option.
The image of the doctors who cared for Savita Halappanavar consulting the Constitution was one that stuck in my mind.
Surely a medical journal would have been more appropriate at that moment?
I think most people, despite their views on abortion generally, fundamentally understood that in medical emergencies especially, the equal protection afforded to a mother and her unborn baby could prove unnecessarily dangerous to both.
From a simple healthcare point of view, it scared people — and there were plenty of personal stories told of gravely ill women getting onto Ryanair flights to Liverpool.
I heard one woman who moved from ‘undecided’ to Yes on the day of the referendum, saying that although she hated abortion, she liked the Eighth Amendment even less.
Yes was the compromise she came to in her own mind, she said.
We need to remember that the Eighth Amendment in 1983 did not ban abortion.
The Offences Against the Person Act of 1861 did it, and it’s important to see that the Amendment was nothing more than a pre-emptive strike in a brewing culture war.
But culture wars are stupid. Nobody on either side of one ever wins and the more keenly they are fought, the more entrenched either side becomes.
Ireland is far too small, ambiguous and ambivalent about law and morality for a blanket ban on something as complex as this was. We are, as Fintan O’Toole pointed out correctly afterwards, “too double-minded for these single-minded crusades”.
Post referendum, we all, yes and no voters, need to recognise the honest struggle within each other to find a solution that is fair and compassionate to all, and to continue to steadfastly plough that furrow.