The 1983 abortion referendum in Ireland was a circus.

I wasn't old enough to vote in the last major abortion referendum in Ireland in 1983, but I remember it well. It would be impossible not to, it was so toxic and shameful.

In particular I remember the atmosphere of undeclared civil war that had erupted by that summer, filling the airwaves with enraged fanatics. Whisper campaigns and innuendo flourished everywhere, insane conspiracy theories were being presented as fact.

It was a circus. The most retrograde and regressive citizens of the Republic were being consulted like sages. It made Father Ted look like a documentary, not a satire.

In particular I remember the rosary beads and all the sad looking holy statues that were carried into protests like mute witnesses, and I remember the much smaller bands of progressive reformists and the handmade placards they carried being jeered at from the Dublin pavements.

That referendum, even more than the war in the North, changed how I thought of Ireland, about what kind of people we were. We must oppose abortion in any and every circumstance we were warned from the political podiums and the Sunday pulpits. We must protect Ireland's sacred standing among nations. We must protect our basic decency.

That was in September, 1983. The following year was barely a month old before 15 year old Ann Lovett was giving birth alone and unaided in a grotto in Granard, County Longford.

In protecting our shining image of ourselves, we had neglected to protect the rights of the most vulnerable. She had quietly bookended our national convulsion, another mute young witness like one of those sad eyed holy statues.

I never forgot Ann. It was because of the utter loneliness of her passing. She was described as a lively intelligent girl who had felt so shamed by her condition that she couldn't ask for help from anyone until it was too late.

Who had taught her all that imprisoning shame? How had it surrounded her so tightly that she felt that she had no one to talk to and nowhere to go?

Anyone who lived through those times will remember how widespread the silencing of women's voices was. How systemic it was. How many women actively colluded in their own oppression and that of their sex as a whole.

To me at the time, and subsequently, it all reeked of fraud. On the surface an image of wholesome religiosity was being presented to the nation by the people who were simultaneously running a vicious and personal intimidation campaign.

You could be one or the other but not both, I had concluded. You can't claim to be doing God's work and also blackguarding your neighbor night and day. Hypocrisy was what glued our nation together, not compassion I discovered.

The echoes of that far off summer will be heard again this spring when Ireland goes to the polls in another abortion referendum. I have no doubt there will be many who wish to protect the tottering image rather than the lived reality of Irish life once again.

But I am also aware there are many like me who saw what happened the last time our mask slipped and what was presented as piety was revealed to be cruel pomposity.

Primate of All Ireland Eamon Martin and Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin.

Primate of All Ireland Eamon Martin and Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin.

They haven't gone away, you know, as Gerry Adams would say. All those retrograde and regressive voices. Speaking on RTE this week, Archbishop Eamon Martin, Primate of Ireland said that abortion was wrong in all cases. Martin was asked if he believed rape victims should be denied the morning after pill and abortion access and here is how he answered.

“A woman who has been raped has suffered the most horrendous crime. A terrible violence on her body. I'm not sure doing further violence by taking away the innocent child's life...I don't feel that is the answer. We can't deceive her into thinking that this can all suddenly be taken away by taking away the life of her... child.”

Her child. From rape. This is language of The Handmaid’s Tale. A pregnant woman becomes a simple vessel of conception even when raped. No need to consult her as to her own views. She must carry the rapists child to term. Presumably she must then raise it and learn to forget the violence of the original conception. Ironically, it's the immaculate conception story in reverse.

This view, let me put it plainly, is fanatical. It insists that a conception over rules all other considerations. It removes the woman's own voice.

Asked about families where a diagnosis of a Fatal Fetal Abnormality has been reached, Archbishop Martin then said that “we have to keep reminding ourselves that there are two lives, and we need to love them both, we need to protect them both."

But tell that to the husband of Savita Halappanavar, the 31-year-old dentist, originally from India, who died on 28 October 2012 at University Hospital Galway due to the complications of a septic miscarriage that Irish law prevented doctors from addressing.

It's time for Irish law to trust women and their choices, not silence them.

 

Irish women protest following the death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012Getty