I tend to avoid prognostication. Prediction. Dicey game, right answers stumbled upon seldom enough to imbue them with an aura. But I might put one out there after this week. I’m going to predict that what just happened in Ireland is the start of a movement and might come to be called The Irish Option. Just the fact that it occurred in, of all places, Ireland, that land of formerly austere and resolute Catholic dominance and abuse, will make it emblematic.
In an apparently overwhelming referendum, the Eighth Amendment of the Irish constitution, which banned abortion, has been removed, by more than 2 to 1. People returned to Ireland from all over the world just to cast a ballot. If nothing else, this should give Americans pause to reflect on how much we value the vote.
After arguing over this for most of the last century, the issue has come down to some very simple precepts. But the primary one, the one that will carry forward, is simple—women should be the ones to decide whether or not to bear children. Only the most obdurate and unaffected stubbornness can fail to see the reasons. This single right underlies all other arguments for equality. This single factor determines self-empowerment. This single option dictates how one can conduct one’s life.
And of course it is not only the individual woman who benefits from having the choice. But we should not lose sight of this central, primary fact. Historically, women have had little to say concerning their own lives, and this biological reality has been the chief excuse for varying degrees of disempowerment, chattel bondage, and denial of agency. Redressing that has been one of the chief issues of Western Civilization since the 18th Century at least. Along with general questions of inequality, the period from 1820 (just to select a starting point—others may serve as well) to the present has been defined by a constant discourse on what we mean by civil rights and civil liberties. At every point where significant transitions occurred, individual autonomy has increased. The arguments against have fallen because they are morally unsustainable. White people are not genetically superior to other so-called races, women are not constitutionally unsuited to political engagement or forms of work men traditionally claim as their own, property is not a sufficient condition to segregate the right to vote, money is not a basis for denial of rights to those who lack it. And so on and so forth. We come at last (or perhaps not) to what remains of the justification for keeping more than half the human race in some degree of bondage. Moral arguments about sex, national arguments about the duty of motherhood, economic arguments about the structure of the home, political arguments over resources, and finally turf battles over privilege have combined in a toxic morass to muddy the core issues and make the road to a simple understanding bloody and brutal and divisive.
Certain people chafe at losing control, however imaginary. Others chafe at not having it in a very real and visceral way.
The litany of objections have all come down to a few assumptions based on tradition and an obsolete configuration of moral constraint that are more distraction than legitimate. Now in Ireland, with its history of sectional strife and tragedy, people have decided that it is time to set aside that mountain of gilded offal under which people squirm to meet standards that have nothing to do with hopes, dreams, or even practical abilities. Time to say enough to the history of sadistic denial, perverse chastisement, and unexamined fear of the female and say “We’re all people, human beings, and we want the same things, and those of us who never have to deal with a biological condition that can derail everything have no right to put chains on those who do have to deal with it.”
Choice frightens a lot of people. Because it takes power out of one set of hands and gives it those whose choice might make us uncomfortable. Because it takes away privileges. Because it unsettles. Because it changes arrangements that have given some a sense of worth at the expense of others’ freedom to live a life of their own choosing.
Now we see that some people, still, are simply terrified of the idea of the self-possessed woman.
Just as some are terrified of the idea of the self-possessed individual of a race not our own.
I have nothing to say to them, other than you will not dictate the terms of civilization anymore. Maybe you should talk to someone about what you fear.
In the meantime, I suspect more and more we’ll be seeing The Irish Option. The pushback against fear, ignorance, and hate is happening.
For those who will resort to the war cry “But the babies!” No. A zygote is not a baby. It’s not a baby until the woman carrying it says it is. But, then, it’s never really been about that anyway. Has it?