WHY don't we discuss abortion? That might seem like a silly question – given that something called "the abortion debate" has been raging in recent weeks, and gets louder by the day. But the current shouting match is about a relatively minor adjustment to the law. Why do the alleged "pro-lifers" not mount a campaign relating to the thousands of Irish foetuses aborted each year?
They're very loud about the State's constitutional position on abortion – oh, they'll gab all day about that. It's as though they love a good row about the State's official position on abortion. They'll talk your ear off about what politicians should or should not do, about promises made and broken, about their own moral superiority.
To cause maximum offence, they slag their opponents as "agents of the culture of death". It's as though the whole thing is about scoring points.
Meanwhile, decade after decade, the alleged "pro-lifers" seem less than energetic about the four or five thousand Irish foetuses aborted annually. When is the last time they proposed that the State vindicate the right to life of those foetuses?
There's a good reason for their reticence. Twenty years ago, the Irish political establishment, along with many alleged "pro-life" types and the Catholic church, ensured that arrangements were in place to process the stream of Irish women seeking abortions. That's something we just don't talk about.
Let's do so now.
In the Eighties, the Nineties, the Noughties, and now in this decade, we have had recurring political skirmishes about legal clauses in the State's official position on abortion. These squabbles are sometimes about significant issues – but they are sideshows to existing services that ensure thousands of Irish abortions.
The current row arose from the death of Savita Halappanavar. Public distress and the European Courts have forced the
politicians to act, after 20 years of cowardice. They have to legislate in line with the Supreme Court judgment in the X Case. They're doing so to the minimum extent possible.
This gives us some exquisite legal clauses to fret about – how to make the law clear for medics? How to deal with the suicide threat without "opening the floodgates"? Many happy hours are spent by activists shouting at one another across radio and TV studios. Politicians and columnists get to wring their hands in public and emphasise their own moral righteousness.
Whichever way this goes, it will affect a handful of cases each year. It is an important but relatively minor part of the Irish abortion set-up. Compared with the scale of Irish abortions, it's small beer. Yet, the emphasis is on the "official position" of the State.
You'd almost begin to think that the establishment, including the alleged "pro-lifers", are embarrassed about something.
In the Eighties, anti-abortion activists sought to stamp their image on the republic. The Catholic church was powerful, politicians were as cowardly as they are today. There was a sustained attempt to narrow the opportunities for any citizen of the republic to get an abortion – regardless of the circumstances of her pregnancy.
First, in 1983, there was an attempt to make Ireland shine out across the world, as a "beacon" of traditional values. In a country where abortion was already illegal, it was easy to get an anti-abortion clause inserted into the Constitution, requiring the State to vindicate the right to life of every foetus.
Then, anti-abortion activists moved to make it harder for Irish women who might seek an abortion abroad. There were women's health groups who gave women information on where to get an abortion in the UK. Anti-abortion activists sought an injunction against these and in 1986 the Supreme Court banned the provision of such information, citing the 1983 amendment to the Constitution.
All of this was wholly in line with the beliefs of the anti-abortion activists, who acted according to their consciences.
Then, in 1992, on the basis of the 1983 amendment, the State stopped a 14-year-old pregnant rape victim from seeking a UK abortion. That was the X Case. Ireland shone out across the world, as a beacon of authoritarianism. North Korea with leprechauns. I remember getting into a taxi in New York, that year. The usual taxi chatter. Where are you from? Ireland. "Ah, the place where they force raped children to have babies."
Fearful of our image, and the consequences for an emerging economy seeking foreign investment, the Irish establishment rushed to water down the 1983 amendment. Two clauses were inserted. In vindicating the rights of the foetus, the State could not prevent anyone travelling outside the country. Nor could it deprive anyone of information on services that are legal abroad.
The establishment backed the clauses. The Catholic church backed the pro-abortion amendments. Most of the alleged "pro-lifers" stood idly by.
The Irish establishment dared not be blunt enough to say this was a pro-abortion measure. It was all about the theoretical right to travel, the right to information. These, you see, are human rights. And we're big on human rights, like the right to travel, aren't we? From the way it was argued, you might imagine that Irish people were being stopped from travelling to shop at Harrods, to visit the Tate Gallery, to watch a Shakespeare production at Stratford.
Everyone knew this was a pro-abortion move. In its origins, in its placement within the Constitution. Essentially, it was giving Constitutional protection to the abortion trail to the UK, trod annually by about 5,000 women.
Henceforth, Ireland would have a Constitutionally approved abortion service, but outsourced to our neighbours. Because what was important then, is important now and ever shall be of utmost importance – is not whether Ireland has abortion services. It's that we can claim that there are no such services on the part of Ireland ruled by our allegedly "pro-life" establishment.
Last week, Senator Ronan Mullen equated abortion with a gunman's recent massacre of 20 children in Connecticut. He was condemned immediately, which wasn't fair. This is Mullen's genuine belief. Prominent anti-abortion activists speak of "the culture of death". The many and varied reasons for which women seek an abortion are brushed aside – such women, and those who respect their choices, are "agents of the culture of death".
What's puzzling is why the alleged "pro-lifers" don't follow the logic of their position. If there's the equivalent of a Newtown massacre every two weeks, as Irish women take the abortion trail to the UK, why is there not a clamour to close that trail?
Why no campaign to take the specifically pro-abortion clauses on travel and information out of the Constitution?
Why no proposals for draconian measures to stop women smuggling foetuses through customs, to murder them – as Senator Mullen might categorise it – in the UK?
Certainly, this would isolate the alleged "pro-lifers" from many who have no wish to be intolerant, but who have qualms about abortion.
Could it be that there's little that's "pro-life" about all this? Could it be that this is about the "traditional values" of Catholicism, fighting the old fight against the reality of life as it is lived by the vast majority of humans on this planet?