This week has been the second of a rather strange and disorientating fortnight of sickness- so I’m a little off schedule. Not being and/or feeling quite on top of things has meant not having the concentration, free time or inclination to engage with or write about things going on in the world as fully as I’d like and yet I’ve been acutely aware of things that I really care about unfolding, comment being made and conclusions drawn.
Unfortunately I don’t know enough about the detail of what went on in Stormont (NI parliament) earlier on this week, but what I do know is that those politics resulted in a lengthy discussion about abortion (where it is still largely illegal here) in the Assembly and a lot of discussion, activism and subsequent coverage in the media. As with a lot of issues like this, it doesn’t take much for very unpleasant/unstable/irrational comments and arguments to come to the surface of public debate in Northern Ireland. It also doesn’t take long for the discussion/issue to become polarised and simplified into two very extreme perspectives, for example “killing babies” versus “killing women’.
I have two key criticisms, as would others, of the way this issue is framed and the discussion is conducted in Northern Ireland:
The politicians who speak out/are consulted often talk about speaking for Northern Ireland/the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland and I really think that this is not true.
I think that to interpret people’s votes to be suddenly about these issues, when the rest of the time people’s votes are only encouraged, promoted, discussed and managed in terms of unionist/nationalist terms is short-sighted, unintelligent and misleading. Politics (and lazy politics at that) in this part of the world is mainly determined by the colour of your kerbstones and/or the community/background you grew up in and very little to do with the specifics of manifestos/policy. Similarly, political sources tell me that when it comes to issues many politician vote according to the sectarian politics that pervade all political processes and policy decisions. It’s about point scoring and maintaining the unity of constituencies and not alienating big donors, rather than running a political career/race based on serious debate and the integrity around issues and ethics regarding what makes society a better place.
Sure I know that politicians care about the issues, but what is more important is the colour of the flag as the events and politics of recent months show. So when it comes to abortion, as with equal marriage the issue becomes partisan/sectarian and completely ignores the stories of the people affected by the issues within both communities. There are people who are pro-choice and pro-life on both sides of the divided communities in Northern Ireland, similarly there are pro-choice and pro-life people worshipping in churches on both sides of the divided communities.
One of the bravest and most stand up and cheer comments I heard a politician make this week was Steven Agnew from the Green Party challenging the sweeping statements being made about Northern Ireland by suggesting a referendum for people to be able to say what they want, what they think and what they would choose. I’d love a referendum on loads of the issues – not just flags or the union – let’s get people’s votes and voices on schools, equal marriage, family courts, adoption, prisons and abortion. I don’t really gamble but if we got a referendum on these issues I might put some money down – I’ve a lot more faith in the views and choices of the Northern Irish people than I think even the politician have.
The men. The men who speak about abortion morally, religiously and politically. The men who don’t help but make the discussion and the issue continuously a head and paper topic rather than a body story.
The men who talk about health and wellbeing as if it is a type of justice to be doled out to poor women who don’t know, who don’t understand and who don’t absorb the enormity of abortion. Who persistently, and most likely intentionally miss in the hearing or telling of the women’s stories; the bodies and the justice wrestled, wept and sweated over. The violence of the stories, the exclusion of the stories and the simplicity with which the stories are batted away confounds me.
I can’t bear to see men in ties talking about abortion politically in a clean and brightly lit television studio or on parliament benches. How many of these men have ever sat with a woman whose tears are running down her nose and her neck because she is terrified; terrified of her partner, terrified of another baby and terrified of how sick being pregnant and having another baby will make her in both her head and her body.
I will be the first person always to say that a baby is half the father and half the mother and that father’s have voices and insights – but the difference between the men who moralise on television and in parliament and the men who wrestle and weep and fight with their women is the body – the body they’ve touched, comforted, pictured and perhaps already seen swollen and torn apart in pregnancy and birth. There are not many men who have touched and often loved those bodies who you will see on television, parliament or at the forefront of prolife demonstrations. The men who have wept and wrestled understand choice; as do the women. They understand that being told they have no choice is one of the most paralysing and frightening experiences held within the body and then in the places and spaces you are required to live and be with that body. I want the men with the smart ties and the intellectual and moral quips, the political agenda and the insults to step back and let the stories about choice or lack of choice come forward. This is what will change the conversation, change Northern Ireland and indeed change the world.