Sunday 20 January 2019

Ian O'Doherty: The referendum will be bitter. But we need to lance this boil

'A' bomb debate: Prepare for the fun and games to begin. Photo: Gerry Mooney
'A' bomb debate: Prepare for the fun and games to begin. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

Are we nearly there, yet? Are we nearly there, yet?

This week's decision by the Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment - not to be confused with the Citizens' Assembly squawking shop on abortion; at least this committee involves elected representatives, not busy bodies - actually looks like it will finally move this incessant issue forward and, for that, we should all be grateful.

A 16-4 vote in favour of repealing the Eighth Amendment has now cleared the path for Leo Varadkar to carry out his promised referendum on the issue, most likely to be held in May.

To which most of us can only say - good. About time.

Apart from the obvious personal toll exacted upon those who have had to travel abroad for an abortion, the whole complex, messy, strikingly divisive issue has long been the third rail of Irish society, and this is one boil which needs to be lanced one way or the other.

Rather unusually for an Oireachtas committee, this sitting actually produced some concrete suggestions and corrections.

Their first and most obvious point is to allow for unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks, and they also want to remove the previously mooted stipulations of terminations only being offered in the case of either rape or incest.

The 12-week rule, if it stays (which it probably won't, but that's Irish politics for ye) is one which many people, instinctively uncomfortable with abortion, but aware of the realities of the world, could accept.

After all, many of us are pro-choice up to the three-month level, and become pro-life after that, which is understandable.

But what was genuinely impressive about the committee's suggestions was the eradication of the ridiculous fudge about rape and incest.

As they noted: "Due to the complexity of legislating for cases of rape and incest, it would be more appropriate to make terminations legal with no restrictions on the reason up to 12 weeks into a pregnancy."

This is a rare moment of intellectual and moral clarity from our politicians and it removes a particularly Irish piece of muddled thinking from the equation.

After all, what many of those who had called for abortion to only be introduced under those strict circumstances failed to realise was, was that it was indefensible from a moral point of view and would be virtually impossible to enforce. For starters, people who thought such a policy was acceptable were, to use the current parlance, engaged in victim blaming of the worst kind.

After all, if you believe that every foetus is precious and that abortion is murder but are prepared to allow abortion under those circumstances, then you are quite literally killing the child because of the sins of the father.

Also, despite what fools like Lena Dunham might say, nobody actively wants to have an abortion, so wandering into a muddled moral arena where you force women to lie about their circumstances merely transforms an already horrible experience into a needlessly traumatic and intrusive ordeal.

Almost lost in the word blizzard which followed the committee's findings was the fact that they also recommended terminations be made available in the case of fatal foetal abnormalities. Regardless of any of the qualms people may feel about abortion in general, it's staggering to think that there are still people out there who would force a woman to continue with a pregnancy when both she and the doctors know the child isn't viable.

It's a tragedy for any expectant parent to discover that the foetus won't be viable when it's born. But it's truly obscene to force anyone to endure what must be the incomprehensible hell of carrying a child to term in the knowledge that it will soon expire.

That's not just cruel to the mother who wants the termination, it's bordering on sick to force a foetus which is 'incompatible with life' (a rather horrible phrase, but one that is sadly accurate) be born and then die in pain. Some women, of course, choose to carry a FFA to full term and they should be encouraged and supported in that choice as well, but nobody should have the authority to force someone to go through an experience like that.

So, if we are to assume that these are the broad recommendations which will form the nuts and bolts of the forthcoming referendum, most reasonable people will be reasonably satisfied.

But we all know that it wouldn't matter if they come with a proposal so wise and measured that even Solomon would weep with envy. That's because the mere mention of the 'A' bomb is enough to send up some people into paroxysms of splenetic, incoherent fury as they simply refuse to listen to the other side.

The pro-life side simply aren't as vicious and genuinely nasty as they were back in the 1980s. A combination of age, demographics and the changing nature of Irish society now means that holding a giant crucifix and screaming hellfire and damnation at your opponents won't cut it anymore, thankfully.

But those of us who can remember the rancour and genuine hatred of that campaign are also aware that nasty, vicious intolerance is a two-way street and there are plenty of the pro-choice who are just as dogmatic and contemptuous of the 'other' side.

Brace yourself for some fun and games over the next few months as both sides go for each other.

So, are we nearly there yet?

No. In fact, we've only just begun...

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