Monday 24 October 2016

I hear you're a misogynist now, Ireland

The question of who's right about abortion won't be solved with outdated stereotypes, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 25/10/2015 | 02:30

BINARY THINKING: Graham Linehan, writer of the ‘Father Ted’ comedy series, alongside his wife Helen, at an Amnesty International event in Belfast, calling for a change to Ireland’s strict abortion laws
BINARY THINKING: Graham Linehan, writer of the ‘Father Ted’ comedy series, alongside his wife Helen, at an Amnesty International event in Belfast, calling for a change to Ireland’s strict abortion laws
Father Ted

In 2004, Graham Linehan and his wife Helen discovered that the 12-week-old foetus she was carrying had a condition that meant the child would not survive more than an hour after birth. Doctors in England, where the couple were living at the time, advised a termination, and it was carried out soon after.

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Last week they went public with their story as part of Amnesty International's campaign to repeal the eighth amendment, which gives equal weight to the life of mother and child and which denies women whose babies have similar fatal foetal abnormalities the same chance to end the pregnancy at a time of their choosing.

The Linehans spoke movingly about their experience, and deserve every sympathy and support. The way the story subsequently played out, however, has become another exercise in national self-flagellation, to which there seems to be no end.

The country has been "shamed" for its Third World treatment of women, goes this narrative; the Irish can never take their place amongst civilised people until they legislate for abortion, is the mantra.

That message was reinforced by a short film made for Amnesty by Linehan under the title Chains. In macabre black and white cinematography, it depicts a landscape of sinister churches and swirling mist, over which Liam Neeson intones a doom-laden commentary: "A ghost haunts Ireland. A cruel ghost of the last century, still bound to the land. It blindly brings suffering, even death, to the women whose lives it touches."

It practically wallows in Gothic horror story tropes, as it peddles familiar stereotypes of Ireland as a dark country under the jackboot of Catholic authoritarianism. Short of showing locals with pigs in the parlour and nothing but potatoes on their plates, it's hard to imagine a message which is more rife with grotesque subliminal cliches. And because of Linehan's celebrity as one of the co-creators of Father Ted, his condemnation of Ireland's "barbaric" laws, and his belief that "I don't think it's safe for women in Ireland to be pregnant", it has drawn the attention of audiences in Britain and further afield, who are invited to accept this derogatory portrayal of the country at face value.

Watching Channel Four News cover this story last week was like seeing a modern day version of a Victorian cartoon depicting Ireland as a boggy backwater peopled with uncouth savages. The Guardian even spoke of pregnant women trying to "escape to England", as if Ireland was some hellish penal colony and Britain was the Promised Land. It was hard to recognise this caricature as the same place in which Irish people actually live.

In Graham Linehan's eyes, women in Ireland are "second class citizens".

Really? Not according to the Global Gender Gap index, which collates information concerning health, education, politics and economic participation. Notwithstanding our controversial abortion laws, the index puts Ireland eighth in the entire world for gender equality, 18 places higher than the UK, which is being lauded in this story as a model of decency for its treatment of women.

Indeed, it begs the question why, if he believes this to be a country where women are second class citizens, Linehan brought his English wife to live here? Why bring up his children here?

The same goes for the claim that pregnant women in Ireland are not safe. How many times must it be repeated? Ireland's maternal mortality rate is already lower than other countries whose example it is being asked to emulate, including Denmark, Norway, Germany, and, yes, the UK. The only difference is that awful tragedies in those countries are not leapt upon as symbolic proofs of a deep-rooted indigenous disorder.

It's almost as if it's not sufficient to tell a story as it is, and to trust that the story will speak for itself. Instead it must be turned into something far more horrifying in order to browbeat the correct response from listeners. There are enough things wrong with this country, as any country, without multiplying them for melodramatic effect.

Serious issues remain to be resolved around abortion, but many of those lauding the latest Amnesty campaign seem less focussed on building an effective consensus to change the law than on enjoying themselves by putting on sackcloth and ashes and wallowing indulgently in rhetoric which, in a kind of reverse jingoism, seeks to paint Ireland as The Worst Country In The World.

It's important to describe a problem precisely in order to set about putting it right. Instead accuracy is being sacrificed in favour of overheated rhetoric about women being "forced" to give birth against their will, or facing jail sentences for accessing abortion services.

No one is in jail. Thousands of women have abortions every year. They have to go to England to do so, and no one is stupid enough to pretend that's an ideal solution; but it's no more accurate to describe that as being chained to an unforgiving priest-riddled land than it is to say terminally ill patients are "forced" to live in pain in Ireland because euthanasia has not been legislated for either.

Pro-life and pro-choice advocates alike are addicted to defining their arguments in these highly emotive terms, in an effort to manipulate public opinion, and that's part of the problem, as Linehan should appreciate better than most.

A few years ago, he was invited on radio to discuss his stage adaptation of the classic Ealing comedy The Ladykillers. Arriving at the studio, he discovered he was expected to face off in an adversarial contest against a second guest. To his credit, he refused to play ball.

The same happened when he was on Newsnight to discuss with Labour MP Tom Watson, now deputy leader of the party, whether Tony Blair should be questioned over his role in the Iraq war. This culminated in Watson saying petulantly: "What would you prefer - the Conservatives?"

"I realised," Linehan later bemoaned, "that's what everything comes down to, this binary choice. That's the way political conversation is conducted in this country."

Yet here he is now, doing the same thing. Linehan's film for Amnesty, and his public statements and interviews last week, are classic examples of binary thinking - you are either for women, or against them; you're either for repealing the eighth, or you're for coercing women into having babies.

In midweek, he even posted a link on Twitter to Amnesty's online petition on this issue with the comment: "You don't have to be Irish, you just have to be human."

So anyone who doesn't agree isn't even human now?

How is that any different from what Tom Watson did to him? Why is this not intemperate binary thinking too? Why is saying "uugh baby killers" - as one prominent pro-life campaigner did to him online this week, to Linehan's rightful disgust - any more offensive than saying, in effect, "uugh woman killers" to those who don't want legalised abortion? Both sides have principled moral objections to the other's stance. Neither has a monopoly on truth.

Emotive either/or language has always been the curse of the abortion debate. It cannot also be the solution. It reduces dialogue to a clash of moral absolutes, and what polls increasingly show is that Irish attitudes on this matter are shifting and evolving in response to the complexity of messy, everyday life. Opinion is changing in a pro-choice direction, as it happens, and it's counter productive to sabotage that evolution by ratcheting up tensions.

Linehan put it best after his radio ambush: "It poisons discourse. It's an arena where there are no positions possible except for diametrically opposed ones, where nuance is not permitted... Replace it with anything - anything - because anything would be better."

Sunday Independent

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