She’s a lovely woman. She often stops by to chat when she’s on her way somewhere and my two sons are playing in the front garden. She tells me they’re adorable, such a gift. And she’s right – they are a gift. She means it in a slightly different way to how I see it, of course; she thinks of them as gifts from God. But we agree that they’re a blessing, if in a non-religious sense for me.
When we first moved in, she asked if we were renting or had bought. She wanted to know if we were truly settling, I guess. She told us she’d grown up around the corner, one of 11 siblings. They’re tiny houses, even tinier back then. Eleven of them! That would’ve been cosy – at best. And she loves the area, loves seeing new families settle and make it their home.
And so today she came to my door and called me a murderer. She said there was a special place in hell, waiting for me. And I knew she wasn’t trying to hurt me; her intent was someplace else altogether, wrapped up in gory images of babies branded as aborted foetuses that in reality never looked that plump and fully-formed, in notions of motherhood as holy and children as gifts from God. I don’t know why I even opened the door. This was a no-win situation.
Nor do I know why I asked that we remain respectful to each other and leave it be, our ‘Yes’ sign proudly on display in the window. Of course she couldn’t respect a baby murderer. Of course she wouldn’t hear me when I said I lost a baby, I lost him. Those images don’t wash away that easily – I get that. And I wasn’t trying to convince her, I wasn’t trying to win her over. I didn’t want to lecture her, nor to make her feel uncomfortable or upset. So I stood on my doorstep, a lovely old neighbour repeatedly accusing me of being a murderer.
And yes, we’d bought – we were hoping to settle here.
What has the Catholic church done to us as a society? What has it done if we can no longer talk to each other, listen and disagree, hold the hurt and pain and still live side by side without calling each other names? How did the teaching of loving thy neighbour so utterly fade away?
I grew up in a religious family – not a religious family like the one she came from, and not of that same religion, but one where faith was present, however unorthodoxly. And in everything I saw, in everything I was taught, there was one sentiment that overpowered them all, an omnipresent message that came to define my values and politics long after I left the church: we all have intrinsic value, and we all deserve to be loved and respected and treated as equals, regardless of where we come from and what we look like and how we choose to live.
For me, that’s what this referendum is all about. It is about the right of that woman whose baby is dying inside her to be surrounded by her family and non-judgemental medical professionals when she grieves. It is about the right of a woman whose health – mental or physical – is at stake to be treated with respect, whatever decision she makes when she discovers that she is pregnant. It is about the right of a woman in an abusive relationship to be trusted when she says that she is not safe if pregnant, and of a mother of four whose contraception fails to be met with compassion and support when she realises that there is only one decision her finances and family are able for. It is about the right of a student who always wanted to be a mother to give in to the feeling that it couldn’t possibly come at a worse time, that it just can’t happen right now – and to own that decision, whether she ends up regretting it or not.
This referendum is not just about abortion, but about those core values we as societies and communities owe each other to uphold, even when the posters we display in our windows don’t match. In some ways it’s not about abortion at all, because abortion is a fact of life and always has been; but it is about how we deal with it and how we treat those who need it – with trust and compassion, however reluctant, or with promises of a special place in hell.
She’s a lovely woman, and I don’t need her to agree with me to think that about her. I can see beyond the God that promotes silence and shame and sweeping secrets under the rug and crying behind closed doors, see that beyond that, we share a faith in defending what we believe is right. But this referendum isn’t going away, and one of us is going to be at the losing end.
It won’t be easy, but I’m hoping that – with time – we’ll be able to smile at each other in the street and she’ll find it in her heart to compliment my children again and ask how we’re finding the neighbourhood. Because I can accept and respect differences of faith and conviction, even reach above and around them, celebrate them – but I can’t let you walk up to my door, call me a murderer and yet claim to ‘love them both’.