Decades of emotive abortion debates have brought us only greater confusion
Published 20/08/2014 | 02:30
Imagine if, every time there was a TV debate about the latest abortion-related saga, an image of the relevant ultrasound scan came up on a screen behind. While listening to the arguments we could also look at the baby whose future was under discussion - see her snub nose and high forehead. Is it likely that such presentation could avoid changing the terms of the debate?
By now, you'll have worked out where I'm 'coming from'. This is generally the way we engage with such discussions: watching for signs of the contributor's leaning and nodding if we agree or switching off if we don't.
But here's another question: would the current controversy have arisen if the woman in question had been a middle-class Irishwoman whose coil had slipped during intercourse? Obviously not: had such a woman so desired, she would have been on the first convenient plane to London for an abortion. In this we can observe two irrefutable truths: (1) Irish controversies relating to abortion invariably focus on women of limited power and means, who become the agents of both commotion and change, and (2) in as far as the generality of Irish women are concerned, the 'abortion debate' is largely irrelevant to the choices they know to be open to them.
Perhaps now, at least, you are not so sure where I'm 'coming from'. So here's another question: what would any of us do if - God forbid - a daughter of ours told us she was pregnant as the result of being raped? Deliver an impromptu seminar on the sanctity of human life or log on to the Ryanair website?
I'm opposed in principle to abortion, but I cannot say for sure how I'd respond. Does that make me a hypocrite or just as confused as most Irish people?
Over the years, public opinion has vacillated in response to the emotive content of the most recent relevant episode. Last January, a Millward Brown poll conducted for the Pro-life Campaign found that two-thirds of those polled favoured medical procedures that treat mother and baby as equals. An Ipsos/MRBI poll conducted shortly before that for the Irish Times found that 85pc of Irish people favour abortion "in certain circumstances".
The trajectory of this debate over several decades has been driven by the emotive content of a succession of stories (X Case, C Case, Savita Halappanavar) which have confronted principled objections with extenuating circumstances. The latest appalling saga reads as a kind of culmination, as though forged deep in the addled unconscious of the Irish public mind. A distressed young woman has her body hacked open to deliver a baby with a slightly greater than 50pc chance of survival and less than a one-in-three chance of growing up without suffering any related health issues. I don't suggest this was done to whip up public emotion, but it certainly has done so.
Pro-choice activists, skilled in the dark arts of manipulation, have developed techniques to shift public sympathy away from principled positions into areas of confusion and/or conditional sympathy for identifiable individuals. Invariably, the recipients of this sympathy are the pregnant women, whose unborn children remain faceless, nameless abstractions, protected only by theological principles with dwindling powers of persuasion. Without a story or a face, the unborn child remains at the mercy of philosophy and law.
In truth, it is not possible to compel any woman to carry a child to full term who does not wish to do so. Irish society, like others, has long turned a blind eye to infanticide by mothers, declining to apply normal moral or legal criteria to a woman who has recently been carrying a child. In Irish law, infanticide by a mother is treated as manslaughter, not murder. The 1949 Infanticide Act stipulates that a verdict of infanticide should be returned if it be deemed that the balance of the mother's mind was disturbed by reason of her not having fully recovered from the effect of giving birth to the child or due to "the effect of lactation consequent upon the birth of the child". No matter what the Constitution says, this leaves the child with the weaker hand.
A noticeable characteristic of the Irish discussion is the assumption that we are moving towards some form of coherence. But there is no notional end-point of this discussion at which every loose end will be tied up, all relevant rights accounted for, the correct balances put in place and hard cases averted for the future. The only possible concrete destination point is a free-for-all, because that is the only resolution which will result in abortion advocates ceasing to use convenient victims to push their agenda.
Remarkably, in the wider world, abortion rates are coming down. In 1973, the US registered 29.3 legal abortions per 1,000 women; in 2011, the figure was 16.9, a reduction of almost 45pc. There's a whole other story going on out there that we're not getting to hear about because the local discussion is informed almost entirely by an ideological programme which equates abortion-on-demand with the achievement of total modernity, and which pits one extreme view against another with the implied intention of getting to the truth.
It is unsurprising that the result is more and more confusion, and that most of us continue to hold views which vary according to the question we're asked.