Sunday 19 November 2017

BBC's Irish abortion debate provides no answers

Abortion: Ireland's Guilty Secret; BBC 3 Ireland Live at 10; UTV Charlie Brooker's Weekly Wipe; BBC 2

24 year-old Tara, who travelled from Ireland to England to have an abortion.
24 year-old Tara, who travelled from Ireland to England to have an abortion.

Back in the early 1990s, I was starting out in a now-defunct magazine. Desperate to pitch fresh ideas, I suggested accompanying a female friend on her journey to London, where she was going to procure an abortion. The country was still reeling from the social scab that had been ripped open by the X case and abortion was a cultural hot button which everybody had to have an opinion on, whether they actually wanted to or not.

I suggested it at the weekly editorial conference and expected to be congratulated on my idea and sent on the job with a nice expenses cheque and the expectation of numerous awards for journalistic excellence. As you do.

Instead, the editor - a liberal in almost every other sense - went puce with anger. In the face of their obvious contempt for the idea, I expected my boss to berate me for exploiting a vulnerable young woman just to get a story, which is always an ethical concern.

Instead, however, the anger came from a different place - the editor said they wouldn't collude in the murder of the unborn and I learned, pretty damn sharpish, that this was not a topic to be broached if I wanted to continue in that particular publication.

More than two decades after that first clumsy blunder into the toxic swamp that is the abortion debate, it would appear that nothing has changed. We hardly needed the BBC to inform us that our system is broken and in desperate need of repair. But in the provocatively titled Abortion: Ireland's Guilty Secret, reporter Alys Harte did a good job of explaining to viewers of the yoof-oriented BBC 3 just how deep the divisions run.

The secret to her success on this particular topic lay in the fact that - apart from showing emotion on several occasions - she simply allowed protagonists on either side of the debate to give their point of view.

And what a weird, profoundly depressing range of views were on offer. Despite being part of the UK, Northern Ireland has punitively restrictive abortion laws at variance with both the mainland and common sense. And while you don't get much comedy material from this particular debate, the sight of the usual Norn Iron God-botherers trying to pray their way to a theocracy was something that belonged more to a satire than it did from any Western country in 2015.

But as much as the idea of a bunch of fundamentalist Christians using their religion to dictate the laws of the land may terrify you (and if not, why not?) the mystical hyperbole of those religious types was easily matched by the Afghan doctor working in Belfast who claimed that the only difference between her new home and her old was that: "In Afghanistan you could tell the Taliban, here the religious fundamentalists wear suits."

That certainly makes for a nice soundbite and has been dutifully picked up on by the media, but really?

After all, the Taliban recently murdered 130 children in Peshawar and as ludicrous as the average God-fearing, Bible-thumping, Presbyterian Billy may be, school massacres remain one of the few delights that we haven't actually seen up North.

The real power of Harte's programme came with the varied reasons and experiences of Irish women who have had abortions.

One of those women travelled with her boyfriend from Cork to London, and she gave her reasons as stark ones - she wanted to save for an apartment and go to the States on a road trip. Nobody's victim, her choice is, as they say, her choice. But some of the more considered Pro-Choice campaigners will surely have been irked that one of the central characters featured here was making a lifestyle choice, rather than a life and death one.

The truth, of course, is that people of good conscience can agree to disagree on this most emotive of topics without demonising their opponents as either baby killers or religious lunatics. Similar ground was covered on what appears to be one of UTV's few pieces of home-produced programming, Ireland Live At Ten.

Caroline Simons, of the Pro-Life campaign, debated Jennifer Schweppe, a legal expert who has helped to draft the proposed latest bill on termination for medical reasons (TFMR).

Regardless of where people stand on abortion, I would have assumed that everybody is opposed to forcing a woman carry a foetus to full term, knowing that the child will soon die.

In what is a scenario straight from a Margaret Atwood novel, Irish women are still denied the right to terminate a pregnancy even when both the mother and medics know that she is effectively an incubator for a dead life form.

You don't have to be a woman to be horrified and repulsed on a visceral level at such a thought, which certainly wasn't helped by the assertion that some of these babies live for as long as six months.

Simons would argue that she is consistent in her opposition to abortion, and I suppose she is. But it must be great to have so much moral certitude that you're prepared to compel someone to endure such a traumatic experience.

In fact, it's exactly the kind of moral certitude I'm rather glad I don't possess.

Charlie Brooker's Weekly Wipe made a welcome return last week, and reminded us that, at least on the evidence of the last season of A Touch Of Cloth, he is better at slagging programmes than he is at making them.

Still, he's a much-needed presence on the box and his withering comments are always likely to elicit a snarky laugh...

Irish Independent

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