The debate on the 8th Amendment to the Constitution, which criminalises abortion, has largely become a debate between progressive female activists and conservative and influential men, some of whom have significant profile in journalism or counter-activism. In politics, Enda Kenny is opposed to progressive abortion rights, his apparent successor and current Minister for Health, Leo Varadkar, is opposed to progressive abortion rights, and Míchael Martin, a former Minister for Health and possible future Táiniste, is opposed to progressive abortion rights. These are all powerful and conservative male voices with the capacity to dictate the agenda. These men are shaping the lives of thousands of women each year: not just those who seek, or have sought, an abortion, but also those who might one day need to. These men do not speak for me. I am a man, I am a political candidate, and I believe we need to repeal the 8th Amendment. In its place I believe we should allow women to have an abortion when they feel they need it.
But progressive male would-be politicians, and those already elected, are not speaking out. This may be rooted in two causes. First, some men may view this as an issue they should not speak on: they respect that this is, fundamentally, about a woman’s right to choose. But with such prominent men speaking against abortion rights, this argument loses its merit. In this case, deferring to female campaigners can be self-defeating. If it is only men who oppose abortion who speak up, the debate is imbalanced. The greater the number of men opposed to abortion rights who speak out, the greater the obligation on men in favour to do likewise. Second, men in favour of abortion rights may be fearful that speaking out will be viewed as self-serving. They may fear that listeners or readers perceive their argument as one seeking to provide themselves with an ‘out’ in case of being faced with an unexpected pregnancy. Unease about perception should be secondary in matters like these.
Coincidentally, Mr Kenny is also a man conscious of perception. He recently said that he wanted the next Cabinet to be a 50:50 split between men and women, suggesting that he accepts that men and women are equally skilled at making ministerial decisions that affect the nation. And yet, when it comes to reproductive rights, he does not trust women to make decisions that affect their own lives. This dichotomy is at the heart of why our most powerful male politicians are opposed to abortion. For powerful men to favour a referendum, they have to accept that abortion is not about them. They have to be prepared to cede control.
That control over women’s reproductive rights is one of the few remaining checks men have over women in this country. Trading that veto brings relatively limited political gain, since female political candidates remain in the minority. For female voters, it is not always possible to choose a female candidate with otherwise similar ideological views to their preferred (likely male) candidate, the abortion issue aside. In that context, it is crucial that men who support abortion rights also insist that male politicians cede control of the issue. We must tell them to empower and not remain didactic.
I do not want our laws to mirror those of some patriarchal countries of the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa, as they do now. I don’t want Ireland to remain an outlier. I do not want to export this issue any longer. I want that women are free. There is nothing to fear about abortion rights. They are logical and just. But being granted them is difficult unless men stand up. Progressives must lobby the powerful conservative men of this country and ask for more. We need to be very clear and tell them: this is about the women who are living and not the men that might.