Ellis O'Hanlon: Slogans are no help in dealing with heartbreak
Abortion campaigners on both sides are smug in their certainties, writes Eilis O'Hanlon, but most of us are in the muddled middle
Published 24/08/2014 | 02:30
There are two sides to every story. Sometimes there are even two stories, one for each side. First there was the story of a pregnant woman who presented late and was refused a termination. Pro-lifers liked that story as confirmation of their own fears that the new Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill, hurriedly enacted in the wake of the death of Savita, could potentially be misused to end the life of a healthy child.
The second story which emerged was of a young non- national, pregnant after rape, with no money and limited language skills which would have allowed her to avail of the services available to other women, who asked for an abortion at eight weeks, was refused, and had to wait for a further 17 weeks before being forced to agree to give birth by Caesarian section.
Pro-choicers liked the second story much better, as it allowed them to present once again an image of Ireland as a backward, misogynistic country which forced rape victims to bear their rapists' babies to term, as if they were incubators rather than human beings. In this version, "force fed" became the new "dumped in a septic tank", with the most sensational aspects of what happened being cynically exploited to present a caricature of the country to the world.
Which story turns out to be most accurate remains to be decided by an inquiry. The likelihood is that there will be elements of truth in both versions. The difference matters, because most people - those of us in the muddled middle on abortion, that is, as opposed to absolutists on either side, smug in their certainties - would naturally respond to those two scenarios in quite different ways. If a young woman is raped and wants an abortion at eight weeks, compassion would surely demand that she be given one. Equally, if a woman presents herself to doctors at 20 weeks and thinks an abortion should be immediately given to her, no questions asked, then it's much more troublesome, not just legally, but morally too.
It's absurd to pretend that these issues can be easily resolved. One consequence of accepting that a woman has a right to an abortion in cases of rape, for example, is that women will lie about being raped in order to get an abortion. Pro-choice campaigners are incensed when this is pointed out; but even in the famous case of Roe vs Wade, from which all US abortion law ultimately derives, the woman in question initially considered pretending to have been raped in order to get an abortion under Texan law and only subsequently decided instead to contest the law.
Changing the criteria to allow abortion on the grounds of rape would effectively force women into a position where they had no alternative but to say they were raped in order to get one, and I'd certainly support any women who chose to lie in such circumstances. What else could she do? But it's demeaning that women should have to go through the motions of claiming to be suicidal or to have been raped in order to obtain an abortion. It makes a mockery, not only of the law, but of women themselves. It also introduces arbitrary distinctions between women. The woman who lies about being raped or suicidal to get an abortion could have one and the woman who refuses to do could not, although there's really no difference between them.
That turns abortion provision into a sort of semantic game, which infantilises women, and it would be wide open to a challenge in future from any woman who decided, as in Roe vs Wade, that she was not prepared to play that game in order to access a service to which she felt she had a right. In these circumstances, abortion on demand would actually be a better alternative, because at least it would be open, honest, more mature; it would force us as a society to grow up and take responsibility for the problem of unwanted pregnancies instead of trying to magic them away with constitutional sleights of hand.
If we are moving, though, towards a situation where abortion on demand is becoming a realistic possibility, then the pro-choice movement needs to come down off the barricades and engage in a serious debate about limits. If women who find themselves pregnant are to be allowed abortion without question, then it can only be up to a certain point, otherwise the nightmare scenario is of abortion on demand at any stage, which would inevitably lead to what is, for most of us in the middle on this debate, whether instinctively pro- or anti-abortion, the morally repugnant situation where viable babies are terminated.
Not foetuses, as many campaigners continue to insist on describing them, but actual healthy babies. That would, in effect, be giving the nod and the wink to infanticide. We might all agree that constitutional clauses granting babies and mothers an equal right to life are unworkable; but if pro-choice campaigners are serious about wanting to build a consensus around liberalising abortion law to make it easier for women with crisis pregnancies to end them safely and with dignity, there has to be a corresponding recognition from them that there comes a time in pregnancy when the child is a separate being with rights that need protecting.
Men who attack their partners and kill their unborn children can, in many jurisdictions, be charged with murder. Recently in England an 18-year-old man was charged with so-called "child destruction" for repeatedly punching his 16- year-old girlfriend in the stomach to cause the woman, seven months pregnant at the time, to miscarry.
The pro-choice movement would surely not quibble with the criminal charge, but then how can they continue to insist that a woman's right to choose is sacrosanct throughout the length of a pregnancy? Does the question of whether a child has been unlawfully killed depend entirely on a mother's feelings on the matter?
There is no evidence, as yet, that the pro-choice movement is prepared to have a serious debate about limits. A "woman's right to choose" has become a slogan which allows for no deviation and no nuance. Polls consistently show that Irish people are prepared to allow abortion in certain circumstances, and that those circumstances are widening, but the stridency of the pro-choice movement could easily end up bringing about the defeat of any constitutional referendum by alienating those who don't have the luxury of hiding behind comforting certainties, thereby leaving more women in the same position as the girl in this latest case.
They should be forging common ground instead of wallowing in delicious melodrama, either by angrily blaming the pro-life movements for legislation which they vehemently opposed from the start, or else by throwing around words like "torture" and hoping that emotion will carry the argument.
People are right to be shocked by what happened to this young woman. It's always disconcerting to be reminded in such a raw fashion that the power of the State rests ultimately on force.But then why was there no equivalent shock, when the High Court granted an order to doctors this week to continue feeding a young anorexic patient, detained since May under the Mental Health Act, against her will? Perhaps we should have a laissez faire attitude to these issues too and insist that the State has no right to interfere with what an individual does with his or her own body, regardless of their state of mind at the time or the consequences of their actions.
But most of us wouldn't go that far, recognising instead that life is a series of difficult choices between equally valid and tenable positions and that slogans are no help when conflicting rights are at loggerheads.
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