I have never had an abortion.
You can draw no conclusions about me from that statement.
That statement tells you nothing about me or my morality, it tells you nothing about my sexual habits or my sexual history and nothing about my lifestyle or life choices.
It tells you nothing about my lived experience or my life.
Secrecy and stigma shroud abortion in Ireland. Abortion stories are not openly shared and so discussions about Repealing the Eight Amendment have tended to focus on facts, figures and anecdotes rather than on personal stories and lived experience. Conclusions are drawn and presumptions made about women who have had an abortion purely on the statement of that one fact. The death of Savita Halappanavar put a face to those statistics and moved many people from dispassion and judgement to empathy and understanding.
When presented with facts and personal stories during the marriage equality campaign the Irish public demonstrated a huge capacity for compassion. In the absence of personal experience it was with that kind of compassion that I began reading Roísín Ingle’s abortion story in the Irish Times (12/9/15).
As I read her story I realised that my compassion had an unconscious companion -judgement. I made judgements about Roísín as I read her story. I found myself thinking in clichés that are in complete contradiction to my current considered opinions. I had empathy too but it was tempered by judgement.
My unconscious prejudices are clearly deeply ingrained. Thankfully, I am aware that the culture in which I was raised and the religious indoctrination that I was subjected to, will, even now decades later, influence my thoughts and behaviours. Nevertheless, I was utterly taken by surprise as I heard myself think ‘oh she was divorced’ and ‘oh it was a one night stand’.
I could pretend that I didn’t have those thoughts but I’m pretty sure that if I made those judgements others did too. I think that it is important to own up to our own prejudices. For the record I do not think that there is anything wrong with divorce and while I have some opinions with regard to sexual and psychological health around serial one-night stands I most certainly do not take any moral high-ground but rather acknowledge what is very human behaviour. I understand very clearly that my prejudice stems from religious teaching imposed on me across my formative years to the extent that more than 30 years after leaving that religion I have to work hard to consciously over-ride that prejudice in order to think critically in an informed and compassionate way.
It is clear that I still retain implicit prejudices. Thankfully as a psychologist I have some understanding of prejudice and stigma and so I regularly question myself and self-check for prejudice to ensure that I don’t act on it. I commend Roísín’s unapologetic honesty and I urge everyone to self-check for prejudice should someone share their abortion story with you.
An edited version of this post was published in the Irish Times 15 September 2015
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