Tuesday 25 June 2019

Pro-choice campaign now needs to look beyond repeal of Eighth

Protesters at the ‘Repeal the Eighth’ pro-choice march in Dublin . Photo: Gerry Mooney
Protesters at the ‘Repeal the Eighth’ pro-choice march in Dublin . Photo: Gerry Mooney
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

The success of Saturday's march for choice is the latest sign that the momentum for repealing the eighth amendment is becoming an unstoppable force. But what does repeal the eighth actually mean?

Despite the wind, the rain and the Dublin bus strike, 30,000 people took to the streets on Saturday to demand a change to our draconian abortion laws. The success of this grassroots political movement is due to the hard work of countless activists who have donated their time, their ideas, their energy and their passion to agitate for change.

Politicians have not propelled this movement. They have run from it. They are still in hiding, devolving their responsibilities to a subordinate citizens' assembly chosen by a polling company instead of a democratic vote.

Instead, ordinary people motivated by their own experiences, their empathy with others and their rage at decades of political inaction, have been the driving force, fomenting change. It has been exciting and exhilarating watching this campaign evolve and proliferate and become a real political force.

But, now the repeal campaign has reached a critical mass, it is time to prepare answers for the questions that are coming. What does change look like? What does repeal mean? If pro-choice groups don't want their vision for change to be hijacked, "Repeal the 8th" will need to become more than a slogan. It will need to be defined.

Before addressing what a post-repeal Ireland could look like, let me first pre-empt a complaint from the other side - those who say the right to the life of the foetus is always airbrushed from this debate.

Currently, doctors are not allowed to remove organs from a dead patient in order to save the lives of other people without first obtaining consent. In contrast, we don't ask pregnant women if they consent to continuing with their pregnancy. We strip them of that choice because of an insistence that foetal life be sustained at almost any cost, denying women the same autonomy we unthinkingly give a corpse.

How many in the self-described pro-life campaign, who insist women must be forced to continue with unwanted pregnancies, have ever thought of their own power to preserve life? There are 650 people in Ireland on a waiting list for a kidney transplant. How many pro-life campaigners have considered donating a kidney to save one?

How many would be happy if they were compelled to donate a kidney and the choice was removed from them? After all, life is precious so shouldn't it be saved no matter what the imposition on an individual? Or, is it just pregnant women who are expected to assume this absolute life-giving responsibility without being offered any choice?

Some may ridicule these analogies as specious, but it is easy to declare yourself fervently pro-life when doing so requires no physical sacrifice, no risk to your life, no threat to your health and no constraint on your bodily autonomy.

A woman may want to end a pregnancy for any number of reasons - her life may be at risk, her health may be imperilled, she may not be able to afford a child or she may not be ready to become a mother.

Every reason is valid. Your opinion about her choice is irrelevant. It is hers to make. She is the one who must live with it.

Understanding that others may not always be in a position to give the gift of life requires some empathy. The call for repeal is a call for some empathy in the law. But how can that compassion be manifested?

First, it is important to address the lie that repeal will result in a legal vacuum and no protection for the unborn. The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, which provides access to abortion when a woman's life is at risk, will still be in force. Repeal just means the constitutional constraints, preventing an expansion of access to abortion in any new legislation, would be removed.

While TDs like Ruth Coppinger and Clare Daly believe the detail of that legislation can be decided after a repeal referendum, in my opinion that view is dangerously naïve and underestimates their opponents.

Any referendum campaign is likely to be vicious and divisive. If post-repeal legislation is not in place, ready to be enacted, when the referendum takes place, the entire campaign will be filled with anti-choice hysteria about late-term abortions and terminations of babies with disabilities - despite the fact that politicians in Ireland would never vote to enact such an abortion regime.

During the marriage equality referendum, despite the issue being easily defined as same-sex marriage, opponents desperately tried to spin the vote as being about surrogacy and adoption. Imagine what they would do in an abortion referendum with no clear legislative plan outlined in advance?

Instead of arming the anti-choice side with the weapon of confusion, the precise details of when women will be afforded access to abortion need to be clear and unambiguous before any referendum takes place. People need to know what they will be voting for.

At a minimum, politicians will need to enact an abortion law that is compliant with international law - laws the State voluntarily signed and agreed to be bound by. This means offering access to abortion when there is a threat to the life and health of the woman or in cases of rape and incest.

One possibility would be to take inspiration from another predominantly Catholic country that recently changed its abortion laws. In Spain, since 2010, abortion is legal during the first trimester if a woman requests one and in the second trimester if the woman's health is seriously compromised or in cases of fatal foetal abnormality.

A law like this would recognise that most Irish people believe that women in the early stages of pregnancy should be offered a choice, but that that choice should be limited as the foetus develops and approaches viability.

It would also negate the need for law makers to find some way to legislate for abortion in cases of rape and incest, which would be almost impossible to do unless we wish to subject women to lie-detector tests - or expect mental health professionals to assume that role for us.

Children's Minister Katherine Zappone has recognised that this debate needs to start before a referendum is called, but we don't need to wait for a citizen's assembly to dictate the terms of the discussion. The pro-choice campaign has the momentum. It needs to keep it.

Irish Independent

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