Peter Mathews was a former Fine Gael TD who was known for waving rosary beads around their parliamentary party meetings and for famously declaring in response to being asked a question regarding whether women should be forced to carry life-threatening pregnancies to term with the phrase “Sure we’re all going to end up dead anyway.”
He also once declared that the decision to allow a 14 year old rape victim an early stage abortion as in the X Case as being “repugnant” and on occasion said it would be better lock women up, if that was what it took, to stop them having an abortion.
When news of his death emerged yesterday, many people wryly commented that at least Peter was right about one thing, we would all end up dead anyway. In response of course, men on the internet, defenders of the hurt feelings of a dead man, came out in their droves to tell women who used his literal own words that they were “scum” for doing so. Indeed, the fact that I had pointed out the irony of being reminded that the feelings of a dead man are important than the actual lives of the women who Peter Mathews would have preferred dead or in jail for want of an abortion, I attracted tweets from men to tell me I was “thick” for doing so.
Others were more measured in their replies to women remarking on Mathews’ death saying that their emotional responses to his death would result in less support for the pro-choice argument despite it being highly unlikely that a person who doesn’t think a woman deserves basic bodily autonomy is going to change their mind based on whether they think a woman’s reply is polite enough.
The mantra “do not speak ill of the dead” was taken to heart by many yesterday. Ordinarily most people would probably agree, but Peter Mathews was not an ordinary person. He was a former public representative who was elected to the Dáil, who on multiple occasions had an audience to which he could pontificate on the value of my life as a woman. He spoke at length throughout the debates on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill debates during 2013 in which he advocated a position that, despite his protestations otherwise, would result in women dying for want of legal abortions. The only reason that Bill ever saw the light of day in a Dáil chamber was because a woman died. Peter Mathews had a hand in formulating the State’s legislative response to the right of bodily autonomy of every woman in Ireland. This is all the more remarkable when you consider that no woman of childbearing age has had a vote on the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. My own mother was not old enough to vote when that referendum was passed.
Although politically marginalised by the end of his electoral career, he had a platform and influence and power over the lives of those who are actually marginalised; the women who he would round up and jail for having abortions; the women who he believed would be better off dead than having an abortion because “sure we all end up dead anyway.” There is no value in tone-policing the reactions of those women who Peter Mathews did not recognise the basic humanity of. The only value in it is for those who need very little excuse to have a pop at them anyway.
Of course, no one is arguing that pointing out Mathews’ comments that women should be forcibly prevented from having abortions should be the thing shouted at his grieving family, but we are not his grieving family. That said, unlike the majority of men rushing to berate me and others for even the mildest of comments on Mathews’ death, I actually did know him – at least in passing. He was a remarkably affable man who wouldn’t pass you without saying hello. I remembered on one occasion in 2014, I walked past him and said hello and he said “It’s a lovely day, isnt’ it?” It was a lovely day and it took every fibre of my being not to reply “Yeah but sure we’re all going to end up dead anyway.” In the end I said, “yes it’s lovely” and smiled and kept walking.
The thing was, no matter how gentlemanly and courteous he was, every time I passed him in real life and said hello, I was presented with a physical reminder that my life, in the eyes of this man who was an elected legislator, should not be saved if I had a medical condition that required an abortion. When I passed him and he remarked upon the rain, I thought of the women I know who he would let die rather than have abortions. When he smiled and asked “how are you?” to whoever he was passing, I would think of the women he would jail for having abortions. I would think of X, of A,B,C, of Ms. Y, Miss D, of Savita, or a woman who was clinically dead but kept on life support because people like Peter Mathews believed a foetus was equal to a born woman. Now that he has passed away, it is bizarre that there appears to be some unwritten code that says the only valid reaction is to narrate how polite he was and his work in relation to banking issues.
The criticisms of women who point out what Peter Mathews himself went to great lengths to talk about during his life is important for anti-choice activists and their supporters because it enables them to paint anyone who takes issue with what he believed in, and by extension their own beliefs, as being uncaring, heartless witches, or “thick” and “scum,” depending on the your preference. It serves to undermine the views of those who thought that Mathews was very wrong to dismiss the death of a pregnant woman with “sure we all end up dead anyway.”
There is something grotesque about a society that expects women to listen to male political figures pretend they know better for their bodies than they do themselves and pontificate on their potential death or jailing, and then further expects them to remain silent when one of those political figures passes. Their death does not magic away the impact of their actions when they were alive.
Those who are anti-choice and berating the rest of us might like for us not to speak ill of the dead, but seeing as they agreed with Mathews views and mostly people are just stating Mathews’ own words, it is odd that it is considered speaking ill at all. They can’t have it both ways, but even if it is speaking ill, it brings to mind Hired Knaves comments following another death, “A generation ago in Ireland it was customary not to speak ill of the dead but it was deemed fair enough to bury them in unmarked graves and tell their mothers that they were in limbo. Or hell, if the dead had killed themselves.”
The objective of criticising women for speaking out about Mathews’ comments is to silence them. It is not about politeness or his family or respect for the dead. Most of us do not have the luxury of standing up in the Dáil chamber to debate philosophical points regarding the bodily autonomy of others in a disconnected, dispassionate manner. We don’t have the platform to move seamlessly from discussing whether women should have abortions or not to how we knew Hugh O’Flaherty because we’d met him at rugby match or at tennis clubs, or make bizarre comments connecting abortion rates in France being somehow related to French women being given the vote. Most of the women affected by the Eighth Amendment aren’t shooting the breeze in the tennis club with the judges who decide what letters we’ll be known by in the High Court cases concerning our wombs.
Instead, we live with the prospect of being denied medical care if something goes wrong in our pregnancies. We live with the Eighth Amendment being used as an excuse to keep us alive even though we are clinically dead because women in Ireland are viewed as little more than vessels. We live with the prospect that a hospital will let us die if the risk to our life is not deemed “substantial” enough to warrant an abortion at that time. The ruaille buaille of the middle aged, middle class misogynists in Dáil and Seanad chambers is a sport to its participants as the outcome has little impact on their own lives. Meanwhile men scream at the people who are against forced pregnancies that they should have manners and then tweet at their employers and co-workers to flag up the audacity of being a woman with an opinion.
It is not the responsibility of marginalised people and those who are denied bodily autonomy to respect the opinions and words of those who made it so. We are not obliged to be kind to people who would lock us up for deciding we do not want to continue a pregnancy, whether they are living or dead. We are not obliged to be mindful of the feelings of a man who thought that the feelings of a woman who stated she would take her own life if she had to continue her pregnancy were irrelevant.
A society that respects a dead man, more than it does a living woman, is a society that is in itself, morally bankrupt, and those who defend the customs of such a society deserve no respect at all.
We all end up dead anyway, and personally I’d rather have that respect when I am alive.