If you’re not from Ireland, you’d be forgiven for not being aware of the incredible movement that’s happening. I hope you’ve read about it somewhere or have a friend who’s told you about it. But I’m not sure it’s getting the amount of attention it deserves.
Irish women are fighting back. We’re standing up for our rights, our minds, and our bodies. We’re fighting to repeal the eighth amendment of the Irish constitution, which amounts to an outright ban on abortion.
This essay is about guilt. Or maybe I should call it shame. I’m not sure. My guilt is towards all the strong, unabashed, empowering women in Ireland who have had abortions.
I believe I feel this guilt because although I support the Repeal the 8th campaign, I don’t show it. Here’s my attempt to explain why.
Outerwear To Give a Voice to a Hidden Problem
How does a piece of clothing influence an onlookers opinion on something? That’s the point of statement wear — to arouse a feeling or a reaction, be it positive or negative, towards a particular issue. In this case, I’m talking about REPEAL jumpers. A piece of clothing designed with one purpose: to get people talking. They are, in their creator’s own words, ‘Outerwear To Give a Voice to a Hidden Problem.’
Abortion has long been a taboo subject. We’ve come a long way with bringing the issue to the fore and fighting for our reproductive rights, but we are nowhere near a consensus. In reality, of course, there will never be a consensus. But there can be a conversation. And that’s what these jumpers and their architect, Anna Cosgrave, are attempting to do.
In Ireland, you would have had to have been hiding under a rock over the last few months not to have noticed it. #TwoWomenTravel took Twitter by storm in August as we followed their nightmarish live journey to England to avail of an abortion. Some 20,000 women and men walked side by side in the #MarchForChoice protest. Women are telling their heart-wrenching abortion stories to the masses on live TV. And every day more wonderful women open this hugely private door to their lives and share what’s behind it with the world. All in the hope that one day soon, women will be able to decide for themselves and have a safe, free and legal abortion at home in Ireland.
By writing this down, I’m trying to determine how feeling so strongly about repealing the 8th amendment has led me to feel guilt or shame. I’m putting it to paper because I don’t think, nor can I believe that I’m alone in it. The guilt I feel stems from my lack of outward support. For some reason, I don’t feel qualified to show it.
It could be because I haven’t had one or it could be my unconscious way of identifying, I’m not sure. But I do know the reason I feel for the cause. Because it’s a women’s rights issue. Every woman should have a say over their bodies, should have the freedom to make their own choices and have access to free, safe, legal abortions. So how then, with all this pride and admiration bubbling under the surface, can I feel guilt?
There’s a myriad of reasons why people show support for repealing the 8th. Whether they’ve gone through it themselves, know someone close to them who has or can simply empathise; it got me thinking about the reasons people do support but don’t show it. For some, it could be guilt or an avoidance of outward displays of personal feelings. For others, and particularly those who have had an abortion, it could be fear of brandishing or possibly even shame. I feel that there is a body of women out there just like me who are afraid to show their support, for whatever reason.
I’m working on understanding my barriers and getting over them.
I asked a good friend of mine some questions around this. She, like many others, has had an abortion.
You know, a lot of people are getting behind the movement because it’s the popular thing to do. I read the articles and I watch the debates. I’m participating. And when I read someone’s first-hand account, it makes me feel like my experience was not unique or solitary. More people made the decision and feel ok.
I feel like it’s important that younger women hear these stories. Obviously, nobody wants to go through this. Nobody wants it to happen to them. But if you make a mistake and learn from it, you want to share it with other people in the hopes that others won’t make the same mistake and have to go down that road. Nobody wants this to be the reality, but it is, unfortunately, for a lot of people. And talking about it helps to inform people and promote understanding for the better.
The Dead Dad Club
It reminds me of a time in an old job of mine. There was a girl, a colleague of mine, let’s call her Sandra. We never had much to do with one another except that we joined the company at around the same time and exchanged the odd small talk in the kitchen. She seemed lovely, we just never had anything in common and we never worked on the same jobs.
Until one day, trailing behind a group of people from the office on our way to after-work pints, we got talking. Somehow the conversation drifted towards family. She mentioned that her dad had passed and that it’s difficult for people to get. I told her that my dad had also passed a few years ago.
And there it was. We were no longer colleagues; we were now fellow members of the Dead Dads Club. A secret society of bereaved children who will instantly bond over learning of the other’s membership. Everything became easier — the flow of conversation, the topics we talked about. We ended up spending most of the night talking and from then on, no more small talk. We were friends now because our dads were dead.
I know. The link between having a dead dad and an abortion is tenuous. But what I think connects the two is the privacy of it all. Coming out to people with something so private that it almost defines you. And finding companionship and strength in the bosom of others who have experienced what you have experienced.
I put this thought to my friend. Does she believe a person needs to have gone through this huge ordeal in order to firmly associate with it? Am I unqualified to comment?
It changes you forever, and I think losing your dad also changes you forever. So in that sense, I totally get the connection. I can never understand what that was like for you.
I think what you’re asking is what can you do. I think having those relationships with people and being open with them helps. I’m more likely to open up about it now that the culture is changing, but I wouldn’t open up to most people. Feeling supported is important. Everyone coming out and marching makes others feel supported.
I think people forget about it most of the time. ‘Oh yeah, that thing that happened.’ Because it’s almost a coping mechanism that kicks in. You can’t beat yourself up about it, and you can’t be thinking about it all the time. Because it gets in the way, so you just push it right down into your subconscious. I think a lot of people now, I can’t speak for everyone but for me, it’s kind of coming back up to the surface.
I didn’t feel guilty; I felt like it was the right decision. And I feel like a lot of people are now confirming for me: ‘Yes you did the right thing.’, and that feels good.
She doesn’t even go here!
Can I have such an affinity to a cause if I haven’t experienced first hand, the injustice that makes it a cause? I think I can. To such an extent that I mentally shake myself when I get a pang of guilt after a moment of overwhelming pride. Pride when I read an article about a woman braving the journey overseas, or see someone doing something in support of the cause. I shake myself to quash the guilt about not doing something myself.
I know I shouldn’t feel this, but I do.
Maybe it’s to do with empathy. I’ve been doing some reading on this theory. Gerald Guild wrote an article called “The Guilt — Empathy Connection” and in it, he writes:
The guilt of emotion follows directly from the thought that you are responsible for someone else’s misfortune, whether or not this is the case.
So perhaps it’s ingrained in us from birth? We are doomed to feel guilt over someone else’s hard decisions.
This article seems to back up the theory even further:
Guilt-proneness is linked to both the ability and the willingness to consider the other’s perspective.
So it that it? Am I just a ‘guilt-prone’ person willing to consider other women’s perspectives? I think it’s deeper than that. I hope it is.
Is there a connection between empathy and guilt or are they mutually exclusive? Surely if I have empathy for someone, meaning I feel for them in whatever they are going through, then guilt is a very different emotion to guilt. Surely empathy trumps guilt.
From this abstract from a study on Empathy and Self-Absorption, the authors write:
Proneness to guilt would predict self-reflection (and perspective taking and empathic concern). Results […] revealed that self-reflection mediates the relationship between guilt and perspective taking.
So then maybe this is just another form of self-reflection or self-identification. Perhaps my guilt is my way of identifying with the cause.
I asked some friends in a pub recently if they would wear the REPEAL jumpers in public. Another of whom has had an abortion. Here’s what they said:
Friend 1: “I wouldn’t wear it out in public because I’d be worried about offending someone or forcing my opinions on people.”
Friend 2: “I wouldn’t wear it as I don’t want people to think it’s some form of badge — it’s a very inward, personal thing.”
While I understand and respect their individual positions, I can’t help but wonder that if these were the prevailing opinions, repealing the 8th wouldn’t be receiving the attention that it is. Because nobody would speak up for fear of offending or of coming across as victimised.
Walk in my shoes, why don’t you
It seems one driving factor of this guilt is a propensity to be in another person’s shoes. So maybe that’s my problem or lack of thereof. Although there is guilt — it’s coming from a good place.
I want to feel empowered like the women I see out on the streets marching for women’s rights and the unrelenting minority organising fundraisers for the cause. I really want to. And I think I’m building to that by writing this. I can’t fathom or believe that it’s hypocrisy I feel. If everyone felt like a hypocrite for selflessly supporting a cause, nothing would get done. We wouldn’t have collectively been awesome and voted YES for marriage equality. We wouldn’t be working towards a fair wage for all, and those of us with lady parts certainly wouldn’t be able to vote. We need these admirable people to keep doing what they’re doing so that change happens.
What question is this answering? None, I guess. It’s simply a different perspective.