Today in Belfast a big ol’ crowd of people paraded and danced and chanted and even engaged some kind of whirling dirvish activity, all while holding yellow smiley faces and claiming to be “celebrating life”. What they were really doing was reinforcing the religious and patriarchal hegemony that seeks to keep women with their legs shut, their wombs occupied and their ambitions in the home. The last decade has seen the ongoing decline of the church’s influence throughout Ireland, not helped by the sexual abuse of children and subsequent cover ups, coupled with the growth of equality based democracy in Northern Ireland and human rights motivated legislative developments in the Republic. In short, this is something of an end of days for the anti-choice zealots. Their unfortunate misunderstanding of what happens when a sperm and an ovum meet has had good run of it but in this modern age when we tend towards evidenced-based decision making, there’s just too much damn knowledge all around us for their nonsense to survive. And so they need these marches, where they fill coaches paid for with American money, with mainly children and the elderly from every parish in every far flung corner of this island. They need them to keep on convincing themselves that they are right, to keep anyone who disagrees with them too afraid to speak out, and to keep the 7000 women from Ireland who travel for abortions every year, shamed into silence.
Today in Belfast, we didn’t let them away with it. We had a counter rally where brave sisters and brothers called out the bullshit and said “We are not ashamed”. We sat in a small theatre later in the afternoon and shared stories of real women’s abortion journeys while the last stragglers of the ‘Rally for Life’ passed by the window, oblivious to the truth they were missing out on just a few feet away. It was a strange day of mixed feelings. We were buoyant to begin with, Emilie and I half-running round to City Hall with the Belfast Feminist Network banner, desperate to catch our first glimpse of the crowd and buzzing with activism adrenalin. Later I talked to a lot of people who were surprised at their own rage as the anti-choice rally passed by, some were disgusted by the very fact that the marchers had felt the need to make the trip to our city to share their bigotry and ignorance, and others were really down as the sheer numbers passing by endlessly seemed overwhelming. Hopefully our pro-voice performance “Free to Tell” was a good debriefing experience, allowing the emotion of the protest to find a direction and focus on the whole reason we will continue to raise our voices.
The thing that angered me the most about Precious Life and Youth Defence and the whole movement they represent is their domination of the word “life”, in particular the way they use “pro-life” to define themselves. Last week while rehearsing for the play, we had a little cast in-joke where we wasted half an hour or so cracking ourselves up with how many ways we could reclaim the term for ourselves. A Facebook page was created as a result (of course) but perhaps the joke doesn’t have much mileage in it. It did get me thinking though, about all the ways I KNOW I’m pro-life and about the depth and breadth of what that term should mean. I believe in some version of the sanctity of life; that life is precious and should, with full consent, be preserved at all costs. I love the writings of John O’Donohue the Irish poet and philosopher who said “It is a strange and magical fact to be here, walking around in a body, to have a whole world within you and a world at your fingertips outside you.” I learned about injustice as a child and I knew it had something to do with people being denied the chance to live in the fullness of that mystery so I’ve spent most of my life looking for ways to do something about that. I’ve sat with children who’ve had more to bear than most of us could imagine, talked to them about how precious they are while they self harmed and my job was just to make sure they were safe. I’ve held the hand of a 9 year old as she proudly showed me round her house, 3 or 4 dirty mattresses on the floor in each bedroom, no photos, no toys, all 7 siblings adopted or fostered…and afterwards I took her out for ice-cream and wondered how many of the houses we passed on the way looked similar on the inside. I listened to a friend try to tell me about her mistakes, about what shame feels like, about what it means to never feel comfortable in your own skin because it’s like your body is the enemy, and missed the chance to understand her through being young and inexperienced and mostly drunk. But I’d understand now. I believe in human rights and equality, in creativity, in adventure, in community and family, in pleasure, in pushing yourself, in wanting more, and appreciating what you have. So that’s how I know I’m pro-life, and if someone out there thinks they can own that phrase because they believe one stupid thing about what god thinks about what women do with their bodies, then screw them. They can go to hell.