The Ugly Facts

One of the things I’ve mentioned a few times, here and elsewhere, is that aesthetics matter. That’s not in the sense that “we should make things beautiful,” although obviously that’s true. It’s something slightly more slippery – the notion of the aesthetics of morality, or conversely the morality of spectacle – the ugliness or otherwise of what we choose to see as right or wrong. In many cases, it’s easy to be swayed by how something looks but the only mistake people make is in assuming this isn’t a valid reaction.

In Ireland, something very, very ugly is happening right now. A family is having to go to court to argue for the right of their clinically dead daughter to die. She is kept alive because she is pregnant. Her child has a very, very slim chance of survival in any case. But, because of the Eighth Amendment, she’s forced to linger on while her family and her husband watch her decay.

I’m going to say early on: of course, the family are right. The starting-point for the state, or the law, should always be not to be cruel. Putting a family through the ordeal of the courtroom is, in itself, a massively cruel act. The court will rule on the 26th, which itself seems horrendous. The entire vista is simply grotesque; it crystallises the ugliness of the Eighth Amendment, in that even after death a woman has been reduced to a vessel.

What’s… hmm, how can I put this? What’s noticeable is how grounded this case in aesthetics. That’s not to trivialise it, just to show that aesthetics are important. The image tells us, instinctively, so much about how the state treats women; the barbarity of this situation says more about the Eight Amendment than any number of impassioned essays or rational argument.

I do run into a strange disconnect here, though. Essentially, this woman is suffering an indignity which the state enforces on hundreds of living women, constantly; she is being forced to carry a foetus to term. This case has – not surprisingly – become a potent rallying-point in the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment. There’s something about that which makes me… uncomfortable. I should say clarify that this is a very personal response rather than a criticism as such, and obviously no sane campaigner should give a toss if I’m uncomfortable or not – particularly since I’m too well-stocked in the cock and balls department for this to ever directly affect me.

But essentially – and there’s not really any way of making this sentence more palatable – I don’t see why indignities committed on a dead woman are somehow worse than those forced on women who are still alive. I find a strangeness to the priorities of a society that gives far more coverage to the fate of one dead woman – who is in no pain – than to the suffering of living people. I’ve used the word grotesque, but the fact that this has become a spectacle at all is part of that grotesquery.

In fact, much of the horror here – from my point of view, anyway – comes from the ugliness of death. There is something horrific about the notion that, after we die, our bodies just become so much biomass. I struggle with the notion that I go from being a unique, living being to just being a bag of possibly-useful organs and a decent source of compost – I just try not to think about it, and I’m probably not alone in that.

So yes, it’s horrific to think of a woman being used as a mere incubator. But I also find it horrific to think that I might be cut up by medical students who are making jokes about my beer-belly, or just mulched up and thrown on some crops by someone who says “if they all had arses like this fucker we’d double the crop yields” – but I’m still convinced that this is the responsible thing to do with my remains, once my consciousness is no longer in them. Obviously, there’s an issue of consent. But I also believe in compulsory organ donation, as I don’t see how a grieving family’s wishes should trump the need of someone who got hit by a bus. Given these views, the principle of using a human body as an incubator seems… well, okay, if I’m honest?

All of which goes to show how rationality without empathy can get you to ugly places. Just because something’s ugly doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong, but it’s usually a good indicator.

Images matter. This summation of the injustice and misogyny of Ireland’s social and political attitudes is a powerful, horrific one. And yet again I’m not entirely happy with this. Because this woman didn’t ask to be turned into an incubator, but nor did she ask to be turned into a rhetorical symbol, a meme, or a name to be followed with a hashtag. I don’t like seeing anyone being cop-opted without consent, which is what’s happening here.

None of this – how much can I stress this? – is to criticise people who link to the story and put #repealthe8th after it. Because, to paraphrase something written by Rob Matthews which has always stayed with me*… someone who’s more bothered by one dead woman than lots of living ones, and makes any gesture of dissent against that injustice, is still being more constructive than a person who doesn’t give a toss about either and then criticises others for their inconsistency. Ultimately, however society chose to absorb this case would have been ugly. And therein lies the ugliness of the Eight Amendment, laid out in all its glory. It has turned Ireland into a culture where a traumatised family have to go to court, at Christmas, and listen to barristers describe this young woman as a rotting cadaver while we gape in horror at the spectacle.

But it’s not just about aesthetics, and the misogyny of this case is not just based on the vileness of the image. The thing I find truly ugly about this is the double standard. This woman is being prolonged, against the wishes of her loved ones, because there’s a tiny chance that another human being might live. What makes this misogynistic, beyond the language of vessels and incubators, is simple: a man in the same situation wouldn’t be kept alive without consent on the off-chance that, in two months, someone might need his kidneys. That doesn’t even seem horrific, because it’s too absurd to be contemplated – a bad parody of Logan’s Run. I might believe in compulsory organ donation, but a country that only enforces something of the kind on pregnant women? That’s evil, right there.

Happy Christmas.

*A review of Lawrence Miles’ Dead Romance, which can be found at For those who don’t want to wade through Doctor Who criticism, here’s an excerpt:-
‘Miles offers an angry critique of pretty much any claim to morality us humans would like to make for ourselves. For him, our values are based on nothing more than expediency or vanity; the former in dire straits, the latter in moments of quiet reflection –
“You give money to fucking Save the Whales. You don’t bother giving money to cancer research, do you? You just give money to causes you like the look of.”
That’s one example. (…) Values and morality are all just a matter of perspective. I think Nihilism is the word I’m looking for here.
It bothered me a little. There’s no way I can take this on in my silly little review, there are thousands of good reasons in this world to be angry and pessimistic and despairing so I’m not going to try to redeem the world and say Miles is wrong. All I can really say is that a person who gives money to Save the Whales and not to cancer research is, in my opinion, still being more constructive than the person who does neither and sneers at her.’

Leave a Reply