Sunday 17 February 2019

Political cowardice replaces conscience

Our political leaders want it both ways on abortion: for it and against it, writes 
Gene Kerrigan

Cartoon by Tom Halliday
Cartoon by Tom Halliday
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

Looking at the mess we've made of this abortion thing, maybe we should just follow the lead of one of our notable leaders of the past, WT Cosgrave. Willie was a reactionary conservative who dominated politics in the first decade of this State's existence. I'm not saying you'll like what Willie did, but it has the virtue of being honest.

Well, honest-ish.

In 1925 Willie had a problem with legislating for a moral issue - divorce. He tried some imaginative cute hoor strokes - special political courts, no less - then he stopped messing about and took decisive action.

Right now, faced with a broken and cruel abortion set-up, Enda Kenny juts out his chin, adopts his Man of Action stance - and makes it utterly clear that he will do absolutely nothing.

Mr Kenny and his mates, who may be in office until 2016, are focused on the next election. No matter how traumatised the victims of our lousy laws, no matter how many of them there are, they can bugger off.

Which is how we got into this mess in the first place. Back in the early Eighties, Haughey and FitzGerald were planning an election tussle. They were challenged by anti-abortion people - although the abortion issue didn't exist. (Look at how nervous the issue makes Enda today. Imagine how it frightened politicians 30 years ago.)

To neutralise the issue, Haughey and FitzGerald immediately agreed to put a decorative ban on abortion into the Constitution. It was never about abortion, it was about throwing shapes, jockeying for political advantage.

And that opportunism is the source of the problem. Other countries have legislation to allow or ban abortion - we put it in the Constitution. Inevitably the courts found things in the wording that opened up all sorts of possibilities.

Which is why, when a distressed young woman comes in, desperately seeking an abortion, our medics call a doctor - and a lawyer.

Abortion is a moral issue, a matter of conscience. With most moral issues there's an agreed line between right and wrong. You'll find even today there are two views on, for instance, slavery. But the line is agreed and well-defined by the collective conscience, so slavery is illegal.

There is no such agreed line between right and wrong on abortion.

And, unlike - for instance - the licensing laws, it's not a matter of agreeing a compromise based on the efficacy or the social effects of the law. Abortion is an issue of conscience.

And on issues of conscience, people should have the freedom to choose.

Lucinda Creighton put her political career on the line rather than go against her conscience in reaching a decision on abortion. She was right to do so, and Enda Kenny was wrong to pressure Fine Gael TDs to act against their consciences on this issue.

Most of us agreed with that at the time. But, bizarrely, Ms Creighton doesn't appear to believe that any woman in the country, other than politicians, should have freedom of conscience on the issue of abortion.

It's possible to have a personal position against abortion - which means you will not have an abortion; you hold that abortion is wrong. And at the same time to have a political position - which is that every woman should have the right to make that choice based on her conscience. Not yours or mine.

Otherwise, you're saying no one has a right to do anything except what my conscience allows.

When the decorative 1983 Abortion Amendment created issues - the X case and so on, right up to the current trauma - politicians were too scared to do anything other than cobble together a temporary fix for the latest problem.

In the course of such cynical playacting we became the only country in the world to ban abortion - and at the same time to put into its Constitution the absolute right to travel to another country specifically for an abortion. As a State, we're so pro-abortion that we gave Constitutional protection to the abortion trail to England.

Do it, but not on our soil.

We've tied ourselves in knots, seeking to face in several directions at once. Why, for instance, do we have an obstetrician on a panel that's deciding if someone is psychologically disposed towards suicide?

In what other area of medical practice does an obstetrician have expertise - diabetes? Kidney disease? Ingrowing toenails?

Does the heart transplant assessment team include a motor mechanic? If not, why not?

We get into such muddles because we're thinking of things other than the welfare of the patient.

But, aren't there two patients in a pregnancy?

No, there are not. There are two patients when the woman has decided to carry the pregnancy to full term. Otherwise, there is one patient.

There are women who very much want the baby inside them, then they're told the baby will die at birth. We allow politicians deny these women the medical treatment they may require - an abortion.

There are two courses open to a woman with the condition of Fatal Foetal Abnormality. Continue for months with the doomed pregnancy, or have an abortion. Some women choose the first course and they are right to do so - for them. There are women who do not want to do that - they want to terminate the pregnancy and that should be their choice. That choice today is made for them by Enda Kenny, and the decision is always no.

Women who have been raped, and are pregnant may be encouraged to leave the country and have an abortion. But we cannot help them here.

There are women who just don't - for reasons that are not your business or mine - wish to go through with a pregnancy they never wanted.

We may disagree with them, but we do not have a right to speak for their conscience.

Imagine it was the other way around - that people who are in conscience opposed to abortion were required to undergo abortions, because - for instance - the state imposed a policy on the number of children allowable.

Our politicians have always funked moral issues - terrified they'll offend someone. In 1925, the Catholic bishops leaned on politicians to ban divorce. It was a cumbersome, expensive and rare business even then, and banning it would offend some Protestants. But in those days all moral decisions were based on the consciences of the Catholic bishops.

People like WB Yeats were saying things like, "Once you attempt legislation upon religious grounds you open the way for every kind of intolerance and for every kind of religious persecution."

Willie Cosgrave didn't want to look like a tyrant. So he wrote a letter to a bishop, which explained that he'd already discussed this with another bishop, who told him not to worry about Protestant consciences.

"It was from his Grace that I learned that His Holiness had jurisdiction over all baptised persons." Protestants, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses - seems they're all under the Pope's jurisdiction. Who knew!

Willie, the cutest of cute hoors, suggested he set up a court comprised of politicians, which would consider each petition for divorce. And arrange to deny every single one. Then, no one could say he was legislating on religious grounds, yet there'd be no divorce.

And the bishops said - Nah, don't fancy that.

So, Willie did what Enda Kenny and Joan Burton don't have the courage to do. He told the Protestants, screw you, and the conscience you rode in on - and he banned divorce. And in 1937 Dev put the ban into the Constitution, and divorce was banned for 70 years and neither Willie nor Dev gave a damn what WB Yeats or anyone else said about them.

Conscience, in these matters, doesn't make cowards of us - it is the cowards in office who devalue the concept of individual conscience. They lack the courage to ban abortion and prevent women seeking abortion abroad. And they lack the courage to allow women look to their own consciences in the most intimate decision of all.

Sunday Independent

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