Tuesday 25 October 2016

Insults and abuse: debate that divides nation like no other

Both sides have sparked off each other on many occasions since abortion ban became an issue in the 1980s. Is there any prospect of a more civilised discourse this time?

Published 10/07/2016 | 02:30

Abortion is banned in Ireland under the eighth amendment to the Constitution
Abortion is banned in Ireland under the eighth amendment to the Constitution

Janet O'Sullivan was looking at old footage about the abortion issue on Today Tonight, RTÉ's 1980s precursor to Prime Time, in recent weeks and was struck by how similar the rhetoric was then to the soundbites of today.

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"The language from the anti-side hasn't changed one bit," she says. "Sometimes it's hard to believe that it's 2016 and we're still talking about women's bodily autonomy."

O'Sullivan is spokesperson for the Abortion Rights Campaign (ARC), a lobby group seeking to repeal the Eighth Amendment - the contentious law that has been on the statute books since 1983 and places the life of the unborn child on the same footing as the mother - and to make abortion services widely available in Ireland.

She travelled to the UK when she was younger to have an abortion, making her one of 170,000 Irish women whom ARC conservatively estimates have had terminations in Britain since the early 1970s.

"Those women come from all walks of life and all parts of the country," she says. "They could be your sister, mother, wife. People have started telling their stories and that's really helped stop the stigma surrounding abortion. I remember meeting a woman in her 60s… she had had an abortion years before and gone on to have several children, yet she had never told her husband.

"At the moment, the State is turning its back on an issue that won't go away. At the very least, we need a referendum on the Eighth Amendment. It's a human-rights issue, and yet many of our elected representatives are happy to think that we don't have abortion here, when in fact we do because so many of us are forced to leave the country every year."

In 2015, an estimated 3,400 women travelled to the UK for terminations, which averages around 65 per week, but O'Sullivan believes it is high time these people were catered for in Ireland. "Enough is enough," she says. "At the very least, a referendum on the Eighth needs to happen, and soon."

For the past fortnight, the abortion question occupied much of the discussion in the Dáil, with independent TD Mick Wallace putting forward a bill to amend the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act. But the proposed bill was dogged by controversy, with Attorney General Máire Whelan insisting that it is unconstitutional.

The bill was a carbon copy of the one introduced by another independent TD, Clare Daly, during the last Dáil and while there is still a sense that senior party TDs are dragging their heels on the issue, there has been a groundswell of support for a referendum among newer deputies, which appears to mirror that in society in general.

An Irish Times/MRBI poll in February showed 78pc of respondents wanted to see the amendment repealed - something which can only happen following a referendum - while a March poll conducted by Red C on behalf of Amnesty International indicated that 80pc of people wanted to repeal the Amendment.

Fine Gael's Kate O'Connell - one of a new batch of TDs - spoke movingly in the Dáil last week about why the Eighth should be amended. She talked of the situation she and her husband faced when told their son had a "profound defect" during the neonatal scan.

"Today, as we sit here," she said, "people are receiving a diagnosis that tells them to prepare for a death, and not a birth - and that their misery cannot be relieved in their own country."

Her sentiments were echoed by junior minister John Halligan, who declared that he "doesn't know and doesn't care" if the proposed bill was unconstitutional. "I care about the women tomorrow, next week, the week after that, who will have to get on a plane or a ship and go to Liverpool, or Newcastle or Manchester, and bring the foetus back in the box in the back of a car, which has happened. This is Ireland 2016, not Ireland 1920."

O'Connell believes the abortion issue cannot be swept under the carpet any more. "I would hope that the Citizens' Assembly [to be established by the Government imminently] will operate in an entirely clinical and professional manner, free from hysteria or hyperbole, and that arising from it there will be a referendum on a repeal of the Eighth Amendment."

The deputy hopes that the referendum will happen by year-end 2017, at the very latest.

"Nobody sets out to have a crisis pregnancy, and no one ever imagines that they'll be the ones getting a diagnosis saying there is no possibility of a happy ending for their pregnancy," she says. "The Eighth doesn't stop Irish women having abortions. It just stops them having them here.

"The utter hypocrisy that enshrines 'the right to travel' simply compounds the idea that 'it's okay to have an abortion, once it's not here' and ultimately fails to consider the implications that such a statement has upon our citizens."

O'Connell believes some TDs are afraid to put their heads above the parapet on abortion, irrespective of their views, for fear that they will upset enough constituents to risk not being re-elected.

"The discussion around abortion is always so contentious and emotive, and I think that because of the depth of feeling around it - from both sides - it's a nightmare issue for politicians."

Those who consider that some TDs run scared from the issue would have had their views compounded by a survey undertaken by Journal.ie last month, which asked all 158 members of the Dáil if they were in favour of repealing the amendment and if they wanted to see a referendum held on the matter. Just under half - 76 - responded and of those, 47 said they wanted it repealed and 49 thought there should be a referendum during the lifetime of the Government.

An advisor working for a Fine Gael TD, who does not wish to be named, says abortion excites emotions like no other subject does.

"It's about as complex as you can get, and there are no easy answers. The deputy I work with is in favour of abortion in the first trimester, but is horrified by the fact that some pro-choice campaigners feel there should be no time frame applied. And then, frankly, there are the career politicians who've made a fine art out of saying as little as possible and simply want to put their heads in the sand on the issue."

Although not an elected politician, 'First Lady' Sabina Higgins was strongly criticised from some quarters for suggesting that it was an "outrage" against women that in the case of "foetal abnormality" a person should be "made (to) carry" the baby.

Tracy Harkin of Every Life Counts, an advocacy group for parents of children with life-threatening conditions, says: "It is really appalling that, in an age where we expect our commentators to be cognisant of harmful language and of the rights of people with disabilities, that the President's wife has made these remarks."

And Senator Rónán Mullen said Mrs Higgins's intervention in the abortion debate was regrettable. "Many of those who voted for her husband in the 2011 presidential election would have done so on the understanding that there would be no inappropriate interference from the presidential household in political matters."

Cora Sherlock, deputy chairperson of the Pro Life Campaign, says she is not surprised that some politicians feel afraid to express an opinion either way. "It's a more contentious subject than any other," she says. "It's about life and death. There is so much unpleasantness in the way the debate has been conducted in the past, and as a pro-life campaigner, I've had a certain amount of abuse. Sadly, there are extremists on both sides of the debate."

She cites the #shoutyourabortion social-media campaign from last year as being particularly unedifying.

"They don't seem to be interested in hearing the stories of women who regret their abortions," she says, "and I know several people who do, including one who hasn't worked in 10 years because of the trauma of it."

Sherlock says such information is an "inconvenient truth" to pro-choice campaigners, and she finds herself regularly being shut out of debate.

"The other side often don't want to engage in any of the points I bring up," she says. "I try to be reasoned and yet I get blocked on Twitter for simply having an alternative opinion. In so-called liberal Ireland, I get accused of misogyny simply because I want all lives to be saved in a pregnancy. Why can't they see that you can be both a feminist and a pro-life advocate?"

Colm O'Gorman, who heads the Irish branch of Amnesty International, says he has been exposed to "the most horrific abuse" as a result of a long-held stance that abortion is a human right that should be extended to all Irish women.

"Some anti-abortion campaigners take a most toxic, aggressive approach," he says. "They deliberately try to shut down debate, they do things like picket the homes of TDs [as then minister Alan Shatter discovered in 2013] - it's an affront to honest debate."

O'Gorman believes there is a much greater willingness among politicians to engage with the subject now than at any time in the past and points out all political parties - with the exception of Fianna Fáil - are committed to having a referendum.

At 22.1pc, this Dáil boasts the highest proportion of women in the history of the State - a significant leap from the 8.4pc who made up the chamber when the Eighth Amendment was first introduced 33 years ago.

"It can only be a good thing that there are more women TDs now than then," Janet O'Sullivan says, "but there's still a long way to go.

"But it's not just female politicians who have to engage with this subject, but men, too, and it's good to see that has been happening. Hopefully, the days of turning a blind eye are gone for good."

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