Ireland must decide this week if it trusts women

During the first abortion referendum back in 1983 I was living in County Donegal, which was so anti-abortion in its views at the time that I never saw a single poster in favor of the right to choose tied to a telegraph pole throughout the entire campaign.

Nevertheless, I still recall that campaign as being hysterically shrill and nasty, particularly in the closing weeks.

Back then it was assumed, rightly as it turned out, that our county was a lock for the anti-abortion side. Nothing was taken for granted, though. Although my peers and I were still years away from having the right to vote in elections, our school decided to make us watch grisly color slides of abortion procedures and then send us home reeling.

They had not warned us, nor did they apologize for this decision, then or later. We were all still at an age when figuring out the fraught business of romance and courtship was entirely novel. So to have that delicate process bookended by these nightmare color images was, I think, an unpardonable abuse, given that we had neither a voice nor a vote in what was happening.

It was never explained to us why our elders thought it appropriate to make us participate against our will in a debate we were not expected to vote in. But it was typical of the we know what's best for the like of you arrogance of the church and its acolytes that we were all seen as fair game.

Bad as that memory is, it still wasn't the worst thing I remember from that fractious era. That came a few months later after the vote was taken and the referendum finished and passed.

I was sitting in my kitchen having lunch one afternoon when the tragic story of Ann Lovett broke on RTE. Ann was a year older than me and she had just given birth in a grotto, the male newsreader said. Neither her infant nor Ann herself had survived the ordeal, he told us.

I remember looking up and seeing my father raise his newspaper over his face like a portcullis. Wasn't the referendum supposed to cure all this desperation? The message of my father's raised paper was do not discuss this with me.

Later my aunts arrived down to our house one by one and each of them made it clear that the topic would not be for discussion either. That girl had gotten herself into trouble, she had shamed her family, her town and her country.

No mention was ever made of the father. All the anger and condemnation was reserved for poor Ann. Look what that nasty girl did to the good name of Ireland. What on earth had possessed her to give birth to a child under a statue of the Virgin Mary? In a grotto of all places? What kind of message was she trying to send doing the like of that, hah?

It seemed quite clear to me at the time why she had picked it and what the message she was sending was, but I could not find an adult anywhere who was willing to discuss it with me. Instead I was silenced, told to be quiet and once even physically threatened when I brought it up.

The message Ireland was sending to me was that some conversations were just too dangerous to have. I was never sure who they thought they were protecting, the nation or themselves?

Later that same spring a girl I knew and liked stopped coming to school. She just vanished. No one knew where she was or what happened to her. We were told, or rather it emerged, that she would not be returning. She disappeared, as though she had fallen off the face of the earth, as though she had never existed.

I remember looking at her empty desk a lot in the weeks that followed and wondering where she was and if she missed us at all? She had figured out my secret and was kind to me always, so I was hurt by her unannounced and unexplained disappearance.

Ten years later I met her in a local supermarket. She recognized me right away. She lived in England now and she was very happy to see me. “Where did you go?” I blurted out, surprised I was still annoyed after so much time. She nodded toward her son. That was the answer.

We take away women's voices in Ireland. We silence them. We make them vanish into thin air. We make many of their biggest choices for them. We vote to give them rights, we vote to strip them of them.

We have to stop doing this. We have start letting them make their own decisions. We have to let them speak for themselves. We have to trust them. Trust women.