independent

Thursday 17 April 2014

Week the Dail waved away the wizards and the witchdoctors

Witchdoctors rely on a limited repertoire of customs but they will never run out of customers. No matter how sophisticated or smart science becomes, there will always be punters who have greater faith in the medicine man than the medical professional. Remarkably, some of these dupes will happily marinate their brains as well as their bodies in witches' brew.

For decades, Irish debate about abortion has been bedevilled by extravagant reverence for wizards who claim supernatural authority for their medical opinions. Last week, however, the spell appeared to break. Despite dire predictions of double-double toil and trouble, Leinster House hearings on the Government's plan to legalise abortion in limited circumstances turned out to be calm, rational and largely respectful affairs. Participants vigorously disagreed but nobody invoked plagues or pestilence to settle the disagreement.

The line-up was not auspicious. A roomful of lawyers, consultants, academics and politicians is usually a room filled with overbearing egos. To their credit, however, almost everybody involved treated the subject under discussion with the seriousness it deserves. Impressive advocacy was made on behalf of both pro-choice and pro-life positions.

By far the most compelling submissions came from the medics. Drawing on their first-hand experience, they spoke as conscientious professionals who are in the business of saving lives, not ending them. Dr Rhona Mahony, master at the National Maternity Hospital, was one of several practitioners who persuasively argued the pressing need for greater legal clarity.

It would be naïve to believe that the tone of civility and sanity will last as political campaigning intensifies. For a few days, however, it was heartening to observe a public dialogue about the vexed issue of abortion in which mystical mumbo-jumbo was not the dominant feature.

Ironically, it was also a week in which reports about the practise of voodoo of a literal sort became front-page news. Gardaí are working with Interpol to investigate allegations that a 14-year-old Dublin girl suffered a miscarriage after taking a cocktail of chemicals. The "abortion potion" was apparently provided by an African witchdoctor.

Clearly, there is more to this story than is so far apparent. Nevertheless, it would be disingenuous to pretend that the use of sorcery as medicine is entirely foreign to these shores. Witchcraft is a trade that was once widely practised in this country – first by druids and then by druids who call themselves priests. The decline in its popularity is still recent enough to be worthy of note.

One of the defining characteristics of a witchdoctor is the pretence that he and his book of spells have the answer to everything. Uncertainty is anathema to those who claim other-worldly powers. Several contributors to last week's hearings spoke eloquently of their doubts and their distaste for the glib absolutes peddled by political ideology and theological dogma.

In their reasoned moderation, these individuals may well have discovered an antidote to the ancient Irish curse of ignorant certainty.

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