Saturday 25 November 2017

Abortion: Ireland's Guilty Secret? - First Review

Whether pro-choice or pro-life, viewers will have been forgiven a flutter of trepidation as they sat down to this BBC documentary about the abortion debate in Ireland.

Historically British journalism has demonstrated a tin-ear towards Ireland and the nuances that set us apart. This was especially apparent during the recession, when the UK media was full of hysterical accounts of families subsisting on tea-bags and cornflakes and of ghost estates stretching from Sligo to Santry.

 Such flummery would be amusing were it not for the fact that great swathes of the wider world remain instinctively anglophile. For that reason, international opinion of Ireland tends to derive from British rather than Irish sources, so that tiny distortions have the potential to become huge and materially damaging.

Thus it was a relief that Abortion: Ireland's Guilty Secret? did not take the Father Ted route of blithe condescension. It helped that presenter Alys Harte, from Letterkenny, opted not to conduct herself as though she had washed up on Craggy Ireland writ large as she traveled to Cork, Dublin, Galway and Belfast to take the temperature of the pro and anti abortion campaigns.

In the run-up to the broadcast the bulk of the attention had focused on Leesider Tara, whom we accompanied to London for a termination.Tara (24) made for a sympathetic protagonist. She was articulate and self-assured as she explained why she felt she could not continue with her pregnancy. However, her composure splintered when we joined her in the UK on the day of the procedure. "I feel relieved – and guilty for feeling relieved," she said, choking back tears on a park bench near the clinic."It feels…surreal. It is weird to think [the foetus] is no longer inside of me."

Seated beside her, Harte tried not to be judgmental or condescending. She seemed at pains to play the part of passive bystander – a stance she also adopted spending the day with Youth Defence canvassers in Galway, as they bickered with (and sometimes appeared to haraunge) passersby.

There's a temptation to regard the hardline wedge of the pro-life movement as rosary-bead thumping zealots and Harte is to be commended for humanizing the activists. Though unflinching in their views, they did not come across as the dead-eyed fanatics they are often taken for. It would be over-stating the case to say they were nuanced in their outlook – but they did at least appear cognizant as to how they must appear in the eyes of most people.

There were two truly shocking moments in the documentary. The first was an interview with an Afghan doctor in Belfast, visibly upset as she likened the North's antiabortion religiosity to the extremism of the Taliban. "In Afghanistan you can tell who the Taliban are," she said. "You can't tell them here in Northern Ireland. They all wear suits. You can't tell who is a religious fundamentalist, and has these ideas, and who isn't."

The real hang-your-head bit, though, came as Harte reported on a suicidal refugee forced to carry a child against her will (and which was removed by caesarian section). We watched pro-choice activists take to the street, incandescent with rage, and rejoined the pro-lifers as, back at their eerily neat HQ, they plotted their response. The anger on both sides was palpable and it was strange to imagine this was the country we wake up in every day. It felt like something from another time and place.

Indeed, if Ireland's Guilty Secret had a flaw it was that it overstated the centrality of the abortion debate to the national conversation. By Harte's telling here was a hot-button issue approaching boiling point. While there are obviously a great many on both sides with passionately-held views,  she failed to acknowledge the huge number in the middle not especially engaged either way.

Harte appeared puzzled, for instance, that pro-choice campaigners advertising the availability of abortion medicines had not been prosecuted by the gardai. What the British viewer may not understand, but which an Irish audience will instinctively appreciate, is that this is how it is here. Laws are inflexible but not always enforced and, so, onward we muddle. To outsiders, that may seem a terrible cop-out. What's scary is just how much sense it makes to us.

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