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Eilis O'Hanlon: We need a 'Good Friday Agreement' on abortion

LAST Wednesday, I happened to be passing the Dail as an impromptu pro-life rally got under way. It had been organised at short notice but already there were a few hundred people there, carrying placards, chanting slogans, children amongst them. I'm not a big fan of bringing children to political demonstrations at the best of times, but this one seemed particularly inappropriate, considering the gruesome pictures of aborted babies that were being prominently displayed. It should be possible to have a serious dialogue without traumatising vulnerable imaginations with corpses in full colour.

Pro-life campaigners, of course, are not the only ones using emotion and hysteria in an attempt to manipulate public opinion. Pro-choice campaigners are fond of flinging hypothetical suicidal teenage incest victims into the debate too, as if challenging those opposed to legalising abortion to force these hypothetical victims to carry their hypothetical babies to full term against their will, so that they can then affect outrage at the inhumanity of it all. Too much of the debate on abortion is still centred around such extremes and caricatures. The suicidal teenage rape victim. The irresponsible young woman using abortion as a form of contraception. The woman with hormone-sensitive cancer for whom pregnancy may be a death sentence. The dogmatic feminist insisting on her right to kill fully formed babies in the third trimester.

Abortion, by and large, does not take place at these far-flung outposts of human experience. They take place right in the heart of ordinary women's ordinary lives. The figures are there for all to see. In 2011, only 37 girls under the age of 16 went to England for abortions, with a further 111 aged 16 or 17. They're a hugely unrepresentative group, on whom attention is only concentrated for its propaganda impact.

Most abortions are carried out on women in their 20s and beyond. In 2011, out of 4,419 women who gave Irish addresses when getting an abortion in England, 755 were between the ages of 30 and 34; 534 were between the ages of 35 and 40; 257 were women of 40 and over. That's 1,546 women over 30 – a third of the total. Break down the figure further, and only a quarter of women seeking abortions in 2011 were single at all; the rest were either married, with a partner, widowed, or divorced; half have never had

an abortion before, and a massive 86 per cent of the women over 35 already have children.

These are the women boarding the plane to England. Just ordinary wives and mothers with children, at the end of their tether, struggling with ordinary problems made worse by the recession. They're not women avoiding motherhood out of selfishness or as a lifestyle choice. They're already looking after children at home.

Concentrating the abortion debate on convenient cartoon characters on the hysterical fringes – whether it's feckless teenage floozies or selfish career women – is as counter-productive as basing a discussion on debt relief on the minority who maxed out their credit cards on buy-to-let property in Bahrain. That's not where most of us stand in either scenario. We live in the muddy middle where we're just trying to get by, balancing our finances and families alike so that we don't sink under the weight of the pressure.

All that's happening now is that we're finally having to address the contradiction at the heart of abortion, which is how to set off the universal human right to life against the civil right of women to safe treatment for legal medical procedures.

For pro-life advocates, that's an easy one. Fundamental human rights take precedence every time. Pro-choice groups have a harder task. Even if it is accepted that abortion is a "right", it still has to be balanced against the right of the unborn to life. At the moment, they seem to be trying to get around that conundrum by reclassifying a foetus as, effectively, a parasite.

That seems a rather monstrous way to look at pregnancy, turning what is natural and healthy into something exploitative and sinister. Surely it's also unnecessary to turn babies into the rhetorical enemies of female health and liberty, since there already exists a precedent for deciding between conflicting rights?

The Irish Constitution may give equal weight to mother and child, but only in words. If there is ever a conflict between the two, the mother's right to life precedes that of her unborn child every time, and most of us would consider it heinous were it any other way. What's more, even in jurisdictions with the most restrictive abortion laws imaginable, where terminations are forbidden even to save a woman's life, such as Chile, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic, the penalty for procuring or assisting abortion is significantly less than that for killing, say, a child once it is born, only three to five years usually, as against a life sentence or the death penalty for murder.

The idea that a child in the womb has, up until a certain point, fewer rights than an adult woman seems, therefore, to be universally acknowledged even by those who hold the most vehemently anti-abortion views. Possibly this agreement could form the basis for some sort of understanding of the issue? We certainly can't go on screeching certainties at one another and pretending that we're having a meaningful conversation.

In a way, we're where Northern Ireland was during the Troubles. It was either "Ulster is British" or "Ireland for the Irish", with both sides budging not an inch. The Good Friday Agreement found a way of neutralising that conflict by fixing future settlements firmly on the concept of consent. Once both sides accepted that nothing could happen without the consent of the majority, then disagreements could be parked.

Abortion needs a Belfast Agreement too, and perhaps consent wouldn't be such a bad place to start either. For long periods in history, pro-life opinion had that consent from the Irish people; but whether it's on questions of rape, suicide, life-threatening conditions for the mother, or fatal foetal abnormalities, opinion has shifted radically towards a tolerance for abortion. Pro-lifers cannot ignore that shift. It's unreasonable to ask them to change their moral view of abortion as the killing of innocents, but it's not unreasonable to ask that they accede to the democratic will of the majority. By the same token, if we genuinely do believe in principles of consent, then that means the new majority, if that is what pro-choice opinion does indeed now comprise, needs to respect the deep-felt dissent of the minority, rather than continually ridiculing them. Consent works both ways. It's about both respecting majorities and respecting minorities.

Just because there's precious little sign of that happening doesn't mean the Government is right to use its strength to bully through legislation in the hope that the door closes on the debate behind them. It only takes another Savita to blow it open again.

Irish Independent