an open letter to Larissa Nolan

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Mo chorp, mo rogha = My body, my choice. Protestors block O’Connell Bridge in Dublin City Centre on International Women’s Day 2017. Image via thedailyedge.ie

Dear Larissa Nolan,

I’m writing this open letter in response to your article, published in the Irish Times on 8th March 2017, entitled Why The Repeal The Eighth March Will Backfire. I thought this was an odd article to feature on International Women’s Day, especially considering the day’s events were indisputably dominated by the Repeal Movement across the country, but of course, you are not responsible for the Times’ editorial choices.

In your article, you admonish Repealers for failing to listen to dissenting voices and to engage with women like you, women “in the middle” who do not see abortion as a clear-cut issue. You say that this is the reason a referendum would fail. However, having engaged with your words to the best of my ability, it seems that – even though you place more value on life in the womb than I do – we both believe that the Eighth Amendment is a draconian and inhumane piece of legislation that needs to be repealed. You identify as pro-life, but you also say:

“I do not judge anyone who has ever come to the decision that an abortion is the best choice for them at a given time. That is their own business, borne out of their own individual circumstance.”

As a commenter points out, this sentiment is the essence of pro-choice.

You state your belief that young and unmarried women should be able to go ahead with pregnancy, “despite the emotional, physical and financial struggle of single parenthood.” You will have a hard time finding a pro-choice advocate who disagrees with you. You also ask: Why aren’t we talking about the discrimination and social stigma levelled at single mothers in our country? Why aren’t we marching for those women?

The answer is fairly simple: we are talking about it. Everyone’s talking about it. The Tuam babies dominated the Irish news cycle this week, yet another entry in the horrific litany of abuse that the Catholic Church has visited on unmarried women and their children within living memory. For most of us, it’s hard to escape the painful awareness of how abysmally the complicit State has failed and continues to fail all of its female citizens.

However, nobody is marching for women who continue with an unexpected pregnancy because we live in a country where it is illegal for a woman not to continue with an unexpected pregnancy. Yes, there is shame and social stigma, but the decision is still protected by law. On the other hand, Irish women who choose to terminate their pregnancies are not just social pariahs in eyes of their country, but criminals as well. That’s why repealing the Eighth Amendment remains the most pressing issue for those of us who are concerned with women’s welfare. Once we’ve got this sorted out, I will happily march by your side to secure better maternity coverage and social protection for young mothers and to get the Catholic Church (the source of so much of that social stigma) out of our state-run institutions.

Your primary gripe, it seems, is not the goal of the movement, but the fact that the movement exists at all. Specifically, that we’re loud and in-your-face and “trying to force what to think on people”. In response to this, I throw my hands up and say: Guilty as charged! You’ve found us out! One might even go as far as to say that being loud and visible is the entire point of the exercise. After all, no movement in human history has ever changed anything by sitting quietly, asking politely and waiting patiently. To be effective, you have to be hard to ignore, you have to persuasive and you have to try to win people to your cause. But while the existence of such a vocal pro-choice movement may be grating to you, it’s important to retain some perspective: your free speech is not under threat, nor are you a victim of bigotry simply because a lot of people disagree with you. (Considering your article was published in a national newspaper in a country with liberal free speech laws, I think you probably know that this claim rings a bit hollow. Melodramatic, even.)

However, you and I do agree that there are lines that should not be crossed. You share this anecdote as an example of unacceptable tactics:

“I hated the holier-than-thou Youth Defence crews that were allowed into secondary schools in the 1990s. They attempted to brainwash teenagers, handing out their “precious feet” badges, which apparently depicted the size of a baby’s sole at 10 weeks old. Rubbing it in the faces of the girls who had been unfortunate to go through the ordeal.”

I agree that this is awful behaviour and I wouldn’t trust Youth Defence alone in a room with a cactus, let alone a group of teenagers. But leaping off this anecdote, you assure us that the Repeal Movement and “liberals” in general are just as militant and fanatical these days. This is a damning accusation, but you cite no examples. I agree that it is never acceptable to bully and deceive vulnerable people in service of a political or religious agenda. I’m sure you were as horrified as I was to discover the existence of “crisis pregnancy centres” spreading the myth that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer. If you can name a pro-choice group using similar tactics to pressure women into having abortions, I will be among the first to publicly condemn them. But I would hazard that you can’t name any, or you would have done so in your article.

You asked Repealers to engage with you. But engagement goes both ways and it feels like you have not made an honest attempt to engage with those of us who identify as pro-choice. Instead, you are raging against a fictional coven of fanatics who want abortion to be the mandatory response to crisis pregnancy. If you’re being honest with yourself, I think you know that these people don’t exist and are certainly in no way representative of the pro-choice movement. You’re knocking the stuffing out of a strawman instead of engaging with what pro-choice actually stands for.

Pro-choice is the belief that women are the experts on their own lives and their own bodies. A pro-choice person believes that the decision to keep or end a pregnancy should reside solely with the pregnant person and no one else. The pro-choice movement believes that the State’s role should be to ensure that everyone has access to the full range of reproductive choices and to provide transparent, fact-based, unbiased information to those who seek it. That’s the goal of the Repeal Movement: no more, no less.

And if you engage – honestly –  with this simple fact, I think you would realise that your views are really not so different from mine after all.

Yours sincerely,

Marianne

2 thoughts on “an open letter to Larissa Nolan

  1. I’m surprised at how many people are reading this as a fundamentally pro-choice piece. Yes, she says she doesn’t “judge” anyone who has an abortion and that it’s her “business”, but that’s a far cry from thinking it’s her right to make that choice. Look at when she does give an example of someone who should be allowed to have a choice: a seriously ill woman who already has six kids. It seems pretty clear to me that she’s one of these anti-choicers who carefully couches her words because she thinks she’ll be taken less seriously if she admits she doesn’t believe in the right to choose, but ultimately her aim is not to make the pro-choice movement more “open”, simply to discredit it.

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    • I think you’re probably correct. I don’t think the article is “fundamentally pro-choice” on any level, nor do I think you can support the repeal of the Eighth Amendment while simultaneously opposing all action that might lead to the repeal of Eighth Amendment. Nolan doesn’t want a more open pro-choice movement, she wants it to disappear altogether.
      But she also demanded “engagement”, so I decided to take her words at face value. And discovered that even when giving her the extreme benefit of the doubt, her “arguments” hold no water.

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