Friday 23 February 2018

Here's to civilised and reasonable abortion debate

Kate O'Connell TD
Kate O'Connell TD
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

The Government has finally made it official: we'll be having a referendum, on repealing the Eighth Amendment, in May.

On The Pat Kenny Show (Newstalk, Mon-Fri 9am), stand-in host Jonathan Healy spoke, I think, for many people when he said: "The question I want to ask you, the listeners - because you're the ones who are going to vote on this - is this: how respectful do you think the debate is actually going to be?"

Will it, he wondered, be like the "very civilised" Constitutional Convention, discussing legalities and technicalities around the issue of abortion? Healy was "not optimistic".

"I don't know if we can have that civilised debate," he added. "The reaction on social media has been very angry. The tone of the language is vicious, on both sides. It's not good, and not healthy, in my opinion."

That's certainly the case on social media (it's always the case on social media, no matter what's being discussed). But in the real world, where most of us live, you'd hope that people can be mature and decent about all of this - and there were some encouraging signs on radio.

On Morning Ireland (Radio 1, Mon-Fri 7am), for example, we heard from Fianna Fáil TD Mary Butler. She agreed with the fact of holding a referendum, but took a very clear pro-life stance. Importantly, however, she came across as eminently reasonable - even to those of us with strong pro-choice views.

"I personally am against repealing the Eighth Amendment," Butler said. "We are talking about the lives of unborn babies…about stopping a baby's heartbeat, with no restriction as to reason, up to 12 weeks.

"It's a hugely emotive, divisive and personal issue. (People) must look into their own conscience and decide what way they want to vote."

On the converse, her fellow TD Kate O'Connell appeared on Lunchtime Live (Newstalk, Mon-Fri 12pm) to advocate for repeal. She, too, was perfectly reasonable. (This sounds like a faint praise; it really isn't. People being reasonable is what makes societies able to function.)

If you're against repeal and a change in the law, O'Connell argued: "You're supporting the export of our problem. You're pro the idea that people with children with a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality will be sent to the UK and then have the trauma of bringing back their deceased child's remains in the boot of the car, or sent by DHL."

On the broader level, she added that countries with proper family planning tend to have very few abortions. So "what we're looking for, as a Government," O'Connell said, "is safe abortion, legal abortion - and rare abortion".

The Late Debate (Radio 1, Tue-Thu 10pm) had a typically overstuffed panel - four guests plus host Cormac Ó hEadhra is at least one voice too many - but it was civilised and moderate all the same.

Sinn Féin TD Kathleen Funchion welcomed the announcement, describing this as "one of the most important issues that we'll ever discuss in the Dáil."

"We need to stand up for women in this country, trust them and respect them to make the right decisions," she added. "(Voters) need to read up, get the facts and information, and decide for themselves."

Fine Gael's Martin Heydon wants the Eighth removed - "I don't think any issue should be so prescriptively tied up in the constitution" - but admitted to being "conflicted" on the 12-week limit. He won't divulge his own personal views until he's "worked through" all the information, but "at the moment, as a member of parliament, I will be voting for a referendum - to give the people their say."

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