Fionola Meredith: It is perfectly possible to dislike the idea of abortion but still recognise it as a necessity
Activist Nell McCafferty should be applauded for facing up to reality of terminations, writes Fionola Meredith
I'm always interested in people who say unsayable things. So much public discourse today is ploddingly conformist, everybody in their own little tribes, parping the same smug platitudes, staying obediently on-message. It gets boring, because whether it's petulant loyalists, Bible-brandishing preachers, ruthlessly programmed Shinners or Corbynista zealots, you always know exactly what they are going to say.
So when somebody breaks the rules of their tribe, my ears prick up. Who's this saying the wrong thing? Independent thinkers are as rare as hen's teeth these days.
This week, it was veteran feminist activist Nell McCafferty, the founder member of the Irish Women's Liberation Movement, and a woman who's known for having a mouth on her, as they say, who spoke up and got into big trouble.
McCafferty dared to express some fears and doubts about repealing the Eighth Amendment, which effectively bans abortion in the Republic.
Simon Harris, the Irish health minister, has said he will legislate to permit terminations up to the end of the first trimester of pregnancy - in other words, 12 weeks - if the eighth is repealed.
"They suck their wee thumbs and they have toenails, fingernails and arms and legs," McCafferty said after looking up what a foetus looks like at 12 weeks. "The pro-lifers are right. Out come the wee arms and legs, and I thought, 'Oh God, is this what I am advocating?'"
Crucially, McCafferty added that she would still be voting to repeal the eighth, despite her concerns: "I believe that abortion is necessary and [it is necessary] to have it [available] as freely, legally and widely as possible."
This important bit, where McCafferty affirms her support for reproductive rights, has oh so predictably been drowned out by shrieks of outrage and abuse on social media. Of course, she's a traitor to the cause, her intervention at this stage in the campaign to repeal the Eighth slammed as "unforgivable".
Inevitably too, and depressingly, McCafferty's remarks about the 12-week foetus have also been seized on and selectively appropriated by anti-abortion campaigners for their own one-dimensional purposes.
But I think that McCafferty is worth listening to in full, because she has articulated what many people think and feel about abortion - they don't like the idea of it, but they know that it is sometimes necessary.
If the campaign to repeal the illogical, inhumane and discriminatory Eighth Amendment is to succeed, as I passionately hope it does, then those who are uncomfortable about the reality of abortion, yet committed to the right to choose, must be brought on board.
They must be persuaded that scrapping the eighth is the decent thing to do if you believe that a woman, not the State, should have sovereignty over her own body and that her life, as an autonomous, fully-realised human being, must take priority over that of the foetus.
People should certainly not be howled down for daring to express some degree of ambivalence about the reality of the procedure.
Besides, is there anybody who really doesn't know what abortion means? It's not exactly a secret. Refusing to speak about the practice, as though the general populace haven't a clue what's involved, is both nonsensical and patronising.
Here's what I'm worried about: that the more extreme end of the pro-repeal movement is so self-righteously up itself, so convinced of its own absolute rightness, that it cannot tolerate non-conformist voices like McCafferty's.
If so, they will seriously alienate the very voters that they need to win the day. It's the great mass of silent, thoughtful, ordinary people, not excited activists on either side, who will swing this vote.
A Trump-style revolt, where the people refuse to be lectured into voting 'the right way', is a real and awful possibility.
Such a prospect has already been invoked by Damian Thompson in The Spectator magazine. He describes Ireland's shift from "something close to a Catholic theocracy into a society dominated by strident-but-smug media-savvy liberals", promoting a "preachy and joyless" form of political correctness that is curiously reminiscent of Irish Catholicism.
No wonder people find themselves smarting under it, resenting being chivvied, lectured and brow-beaten into speaking or behaving in approved ways. I know I frequently do.
This is why, in the final run-up to the referendum on May 25, it's vital that painfully pro-choice voices like Nell McCafferty's are heard, not suppressed or excoriated.
If people see that it's perfectly possible to dislike the idea of abortion but still recognise its fundamental necessity, then the eighth will be repealed.