Friday 23 March 2018

'Abortion: Ireland's Guilty Secret' review - 'an exemplary, intelligent and elegantly shot documentary'

Abortion: Ireland's Guilty Secret - Presenter Alys Harte - (C) BBC - Photographer: Adam Patterson
Abortion: Ireland's Guilty Secret - Presenter Alys Harte - (C) BBC - Photographer: Adam Patterson
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

I’ve just watched Abortion: Ireland’s Guilty Secret?, and now I kind of wish I hadn’t.

Not that Alys Harte’s documentary, originally made for BBC and reshown tonight on RTE, wasn’t good – it was very good. But the abortion debate is such a depressing, emotive subject. All that anger and resentment and pain and sorrow and fear and suspicion and dogma and ideology and righteousness and self-righteousness: it’s hard not to feel profoundly dispirited, almost overwhelmed, by it.

And it’s so hideously intractable, the quintessential Hobson’s choice (pardon the pun). No matter what happens in the future – whether the laws in Northern Ireland and the Republic change or remain the same – a lot of people will be very upset. Genuinely so: in fairness to both sides presented here, and regardless of one’s personal feelings, almost everyone seemed sincere and well-intentioned.

That doesn’t mean they were all equally right, or their positions equally justified; but there, again, one’s personal bias comes into it. I’m pro-choice; I do not agree that a foetus is of the same value as a living woman; I want abortion on demand, within reasonable parameters; I vehemently, sometimes viscerally, disagree with so-called “pro-lifers”.

And yet: they did seem sincere. Alys spoke to pro-life activists in Belfast and Youth Defence members in Dublin; we saw religious protestors whispering the rosary outside an abortion clinic. They all came across as genuine, as wanting the best for others.

Their viewpoint is partly incomprehensible and pretty much indefensible to me. But I can understand, in the abstract at least, why they hold it; I think I understand them.

On the flipside, Alys also spoke to a young Cork woman who went to the UK for an abortion, a Belfast native who suffered a horrendous termination aftermath on her flight home, another who offered to source abortion pills for Dublin women, a doctor who compared the North’s draconian legislation to the Taliban of her native Afghanistan.

All of these people struck me as genuine too, as caring and well-meaning. The easy stereotypes, so beloved of too much news media, were in scant supply; the film was admirably balanced and fair.

And yet (again): it doesn’t matter how much either side understands the other, or how much common ground they find. The blunt reality is this: sometimes a woman will want an abortion, for any one of a myriad of reasons, and some people want to legally prevent her from doing it.

It’s that simple. And that intractable. And that depressing.

And it’s complicated, fiendishly so: one young Northern Irish woman’s child had fatal foetal abnormalities. The law told her she couldn’t terminate unless her own life was in danger.

That’s where my willingness to listen, to give both sides a fair shout, departed. Denying an abortion, when the foetus will assuredly die once delivered, is beyond a mere moral stance: it’s spiteful, bad-minded and unfathomable. Literally: you sit there thinking, why would you do that to this woman? What, exactly, do you think you’re gaining here?

This exemplary, intelligent and elegantly shot documentary ended with pro-choice and pro-life bracing themselves for the next battle in a continuing war. And probably an endless one: as I said, no matter what happens, one side will be bitterly disappointed.

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