Thursday 27 October 2016

Our dithering politicians can't sit comfortably on the fence on abortion issue for much longer

Gerard O'Regan

Published 18/06/2016 | 02:30

A woman on O’Connell Street, Dublin, at a Choice Ireland demonstration in protest at the treatment of a suicidal pregnant woman who was refused an abortion. Photo: Collins
A woman on O’Connell Street, Dublin, at a Choice Ireland demonstration in protest at the treatment of a suicidal pregnant woman who was refused an abortion. Photo: Collins

Deeply held beliefs on both sides of the argument, coupled on occasion with hypocrisy and self-delusion, are again part of a tangled web ensnaring us in another high-octane abortion debate.

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And lurking in the background for many is a quiet realisation that in the event of a personal emergency, there is always the option of taking a Ryanair flight to have a pregnancy terminated in a UK clinic.

But all the while, the underlying reality is that attitudes to one of the great existential challenges of modern life will continue to evolve one way or the other. Those politicians who like to sit on the fence, particularly on this issue, will in time find their middle-ground balancing act untenable. The politics of fudge and "constructive ambiguity" will no longer work.

In any case, the current round of exchanges have to be seen as part of an inevitable trend, which really began with those contraception debates in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Looking back, it all seems a bit juvenile - with Church and State playing politics in the face of social change which simply could not be halted.

The Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, famously asserted that "artificial'' family planning would be "a curse upon the country". Fianna Fail leader Charles Haughey, pictured, entwined as we now know in all sorts of financial wheeling and dealing, plotted and schemed to try and use the great divide at the time for his own political ends.

Then, within a matter of years, our politicians had to grapple with the divorce issue. Again, there would be plenty of verbal extremism by those for and against.

The late Fine Gael TD Alice Glenn articulated a widely held view when she asserted that a woman voting for divorce would be like a "turkey voting for Christmas".

However, as time went by, some of our mainstream politicians, and the Catholic hierarchy, found themselves chasing the popular mood. Almost overnight, there came that intangible tipping point which showed how attitudes and behaviour had subtly changed over the years.

A number of TDs were left scrambling to try and embrace what was previously unthinkable - but which was now acceptable to a majority of the population as proven by the divorce referendum.

By this point, lessons had been learned by most of those involved in these emotion-charged encounters. There was a growing realisation that simplistic hysteria in the television studio or elsewhere would no longer necessarily win an argument.

And so when we came to the run-up to the same-sex marriage referendum last year, there was more considered discussion all round. After all the votes were cast, Ireland, in a way, seemed to have surprised itself that such a seismic collective decision had been made, with relatively little personalised bitterness.

But the abortion question will test the middle-ground consensus like no other. The very nature of human existence itself is at stake. Those who believe unborn life cannot be deliberately ended - under any circumstances - will not change their mind on so fundamental an issue. On the other hand, the conviction that a woman has "the right to choose" on matters relating to her own fertility is equally deeply held by many.

The political instinct to be on the side of the majority, without alienating too many of those on the other side of the argument, has transfixed some TDs into a state of ongoing indecisiveness. Some, of course, also have their own conscientiously held beliefs, which they insist supersede their role as legislators.

And so the Government, with the quiet connivance of Fianna Fáil, kicks to touch with the establishment of the upcoming 'citizens' forum'.

Of itself, this initiative will certainly do no harm - and should provide a sort of national cleansing mechanism - before matters proceed further.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil will cleave to the idea of a free vote when crunch time comes in the Dáil.

This is all part of an effort to remove hardline politics from a scenario where the powerful combination of instinct and emotion could unleash unknown consequences.

However, repealing the current clause on abortion in the Constitution is one thing, but introducing subsequent legislation will be the real political test. Can a government as precarious as the one we have now agree and then force through what will be one of the most controversial bills in the history of the State?

In a way, the same ritual is being played out, as was the case with contraception, divorce and same-sex marriage. History shows us the current situation will prove untenable and change, of whatever hue, will come to pass.

Dithering politicians, trying to gauge what way the wind is blowing, might have to make up their minds sooner than they think.

And there may still be those who will abstain even if given the choice of a free vote. But is that a tenable position - given a choice must be made on the very pulse of life itself?

Irish Independent

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