Monday 14 October 2019

Twisting the question skews the reply of repeal or retain

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Stock photo
Ivan Yates

Ivan Yates

John Bruton was once in hot water as Taoiseach for not answering about a passing Dáil controversy. His subsequent riposte, "I wasn't asked the right question", didn't save him from his critics.

The framing of questions determines the answer you illicit. Angled answers can be procured.

Question A: Do you agree the prosecution case in the Belfast rape trial failed to establish 'beyond reasonable doubt' conviction for rape?

Question B: Do you agree rugby players' behaviour, as revealed in WhatsApp evidence in the Belfast trial, disrespected women?

Affirmative answers to both questions simultaneously permits endorsement for polar opposite opinions.

On a daily basis, media stories pivot on a hook of 'survey says…' - usually opinion findings endorse the campaign of paying client protagonists. Drinks, tobacco and pharma industries regularly sponsor supportive data to favour consumption of their products; while health experts scare us into submission with contradictory findings.

The outcome of the May 25 referendum hinges on the context of the proposition. The Government's detailed pitch is to introduce a prescriptive abortion regime that facilitates the following: unrestricted termination of pregnancy up to 12 weeks by way of two abortion pills, further to a registered doctor's certification, involving a cooling-off period of 72 hours; all other terminations will be illegal except where the foetus is unviable or mother's health/life is at risk, where another dual clinician role will be laid down.

These plans aren't on any ballot paper. They're merely policy proposals in the form of outline draft legislation. There's no constitutional or legal obligation on Dáil Éireann to enact abortion legislation within any time limit. If the Eighth Amendment is repealed, clinical protocols could be years away.

By then, Simon Harris may not be Health Minister. Micheál Martin may not lead Fianna Fáil. Free votes among FF/FG TDs create a lottery for committee/report-stage amendments. Ministers' assurances carry minimal authority. Even if everything is enacted as proposed, any future Dáil has absolute autonomy to amend the law as it sees fit.

This credibility lacuna isn't an argument against repeal. It's the strongest reason to remove Article 40.3.3 from our Constitution.

Political parties are convulsed by anti-abortion campaigners painting a blank canvas with dire warnings of the most liberal abortion regime. So they feel obliged to commit to specifics, despite an inability to guarantee their delivery or preclude future changes.

Standalone cases for repeal simpliciter are more viable than Simon Coveney's contortions of last week. "Politicians can't be trusted" equals not empowering the Oireachtas to legislate. This defies our entire democratic system of law-making. The primacy of parliament is a principled process that's not been bettered. A 51pc Dáil majority is the best enduring safeguard to implement public will. The centre of political gravity defines popular acceptability. Don't like 'em? Fire 'em.

Let's remember 1983. No abortifacient pills. No internet access. In another 35 years, scientific advances in fertility, birth control and antenatal science are likely to be as unpredictable.

Making concrete immutable laws in advance of knowledge about cloning, early scans and blood-testing capacity may seem absurd to future generations.

The succeeding cohort of parents will be entitled to exercise their own democratic autonomy to govern crisis pregnancies. Legislation rather than written constitutional articles is the optimal ongoing way to provide protection for both the unborn and mothers.

In the 1980s, societal morality towards crisis pregnancies was appalling. Joanne Hayes was forced into a false baby murder confession by gardaí - who only recently apologised. Ann Lovett, a 15-year-old, lost her life giving terrified birth to her dead baby in a Longford grotto. Eileen Flynn was sacked as a secondary school teacher at Holy Faith School, New Ross, Co Wexford, for cohabiting with a married man.

The stigma and shame of that period is unrecognisable from the vantage point of the Ireland of today. The pace of change in future decades may be equally as transformative.

Latest opinion polls reflect a decline in support for the referendum proposal, by as much as 10pc. This trend is quite different to the steady 65pc-35pc approval ratio throughout the equality same-sex campaign.

A marked advocacy difference is the pro-repeal tone. It's proving to be counter-productive. Instead of sensitivity, understanding and humility, there's a strident feminism that's conducting gender warfare. It's losing votes.

If you're condemned as "male, pale and stale", you're irredeemable. Here's the backlash. Numbers of eloquent, politically active young men in mainstream parties are surprisingly appearing. They're vociferously anti-abortion. Leo Varadkar held these views prior to becoming party leader. It seems a strain of feminazi has spawned male equivalent counter-zealots.

This nasty attrition, which becomes amplified in social media echo chambers, totally perplexes this old geezer.

I couldn't function without my mother, sisters, daughters and especially my long-suffering wife. Female work colleagues tell me what to do. I'm baffled by the requirement to have such visceral antagonism between the genders. Utter mutual dependence between men and women, particularly for parenting and ageing, is so patently self-evident. This interactive toxic hostility is jeopardising the referendum result.

Many will support the repeal vote in spite of misandry nuances within the pro-repeal campaign. Yes voters have multiple, varied views on the healthcare pregnancy termination regime or restrictions that may ultimately be enacted by this or any future Oireachtas.

The greatest repeal referendum electoral traction occurs when the net axis is singular. Is abortion law best determined in the Constitution or by legislation?

Rigid constitutional constraints cannot adapt to existential crisis situations like Savita Halappanavar or Ms X. Ethical front-line maternity and obstetric clinicians don't deserve constitutional criminalisation. Complexities of pregnancy, delivery and unviable unborn don't lend themselves to concepts about principled rights.

Strategic decisions to explicitly establish a precise abortion regime may prove to be a tactical blunder. Fearful of deliberate misrepresentation and scaremongering, pro-repealers have been bounced into a Yes/No choice for complex procedures that may prove deeply problematical when put under the white heat of referendum mayhem.

The Attorney General correctly asserts "there's no absolute certainty about post-repeal landscape of rights". This choice is binary - repeal or retain. Anything additional amounts to aspirational political promises. Permit parliament or not.

Irish Independent

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