Friday 15 November 2019

Abortion is an issue for all of us, not just the doctors

Yes campaigners have arrogantly used pro-repeal doctors as a human shield in the referendum debate

EXPERT OPINION? Dr Peter Boylan and Minister Simon Harris both joined in the criticism of last week’s televised debate
EXPERT OPINION? Dr Peter Boylan and Minister Simon Harris both joined in the criticism of last week’s televised debate

Eilis O'Hanlon

Writing at the start of the last century, GK Chesterton saw the future of propaganda. And it was wearing a stethoscope. "There are many strictly modern things which could be used very easily as instruments for suppressing opinion," he observed. "For instance, doctors."

The referendum on removing the Eighth Amendment from the Constitution has been an extended exercise in proving him right. Nowhere have fallacious arguments from authority been thrown around more prodigally than in this campaign. The Government may even have deliberately taken a back seat from the debate in favour of doctors, in the mistaken belief that this would depoliticise the issue of abortion.

Every time certain doctors speak in favour of Yes, the great unwashed are expected to look on in awe, doffing their caps to their betters.

Dr Mark Murphy, who appeared on last Sunday's Marian Finucane Show to argue for the legalisation of abortion, made direct reference to the fact that he was a doctor to back up his arguments on more than a dozen occasions ("I'm a 37-year-old GP... being a GP.. as a GP... as GPs... as doctors... I'm a working doctor.. doctors like myself... as a doctor... the reality for doctors like myself... as a doctor... we are saying as doctors..."), as well as indirectly alluding to it many more times.

His justification for doing so would likely be, as he put it elsewhere on the show, that "our professions, our backgrounds inform our perspective on the world".

That is undoubtedly true. But that applies to every single person who votes on Friday. Their backgrounds and experience inform their perspective on the world, too.

The position of pro-repeal doctors in this debate seems to be that their backgrounds ought to lend their opinions more weight, and, sorry, that's not how democracy works. Abortion is not simply a medical issue, it's a social and political and moral issue as well, and everyone has an equal right to speak out on that.

Thrusting forward certain doctors and demanding that opponents lay down in the face of their majestic authority makes no sense, since the argument that we should give more weight to the opinion of doctors would mean that we must give more weight to the arguments of doctors even when they're anti-repeal, of which there are many. It's difficult to provide accurate figures, but there are more than 20,000 doctors in Ireland and only a minority have made a public declaration one way or another. Certainly there are plenty of obstetricians who've declared for No with every bit as much conviction as Dr Murphy has for Yes.

The No campaign has been much better at adopting a language of inclusivity, and of not (largely speaking) using appeals to authority. Dublin-based priest William Dailey even uttered a remarkable sentence when he appeared on Radio Ulster's Talkback show to debate the referendum last Friday when he declared: "Nobody should vote (No) because a bishop told them to."

Yes campaigners, by contrast, are repeatedly telling people that they must vote a particular way because a certain consultant obstetrician has told them to. It's astonishing that the pro-repeal camp is so deaf to the arrogant patricianism in this message.

What the No side has also been effective at doing is addressing some of the arguments made against them in language which is engaging and pertinent to the point. That hasn't always been the case on the other side.

Another guest on last Sunday's show was retired judge Catherine McGuinness, who is, as Dr Murphy also declared in another plea to authority, a "foremost legal mind".

This, though, is a verbatim account of her answer when David Quinn, of the Iona Institute, asked her what rights babies should have in the womb: "They are not a baby in that... they are... when a baby isn't born yet, it isn't, it isn't to say... I'd certainly, at the very beginning like that, I think that you can... it still remains a balance as to whether the mother... I'm not saying they have no rights." It's astonishing that, despite years thinking about this issue, pro-repeal campaigners have still been repeatedly thrown by such basic questions.

The foremost authority who's been thrust forward in this campaign, of course, is Dr Peter Boylan, chairperson of the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, who's found himself at the centre of a number of controversies, and who was defended by no less than the Taoiseach himself in the Dail last week.

Speaking on last Tuesday's Pat Kenny Show on Newstalk, where he'd been invited to have a second crack of the whip after what was widely seen as a bad night for the Yes camp on the previous evening's Claire Byrne Live on RTE, Dr Boylan said that the televised debate had been an example of "the old thing of shouting down the experts".

Dr Boylan couldn't be more wrong. It's not that experts are not listened to. Experts are listened to all the time. Experts run the world. It's that experts think their expertise should be the end of the argument rather than merely a contribution to it. They also seem to think that being "experts" means they shouldn't be challenged on anything, not merely their areas of expertise.

Doctors may be experts in the sense that sick patients should trust them to provide medical care when it's needed, but they're not experts on the deeper ethical and philosophical questions around abortion, not by any stretch of the imagination. They're just muddling through that moral labyrinth in exactly the same way as the rest of us. No one has an infallible map to that landscape.

If Yes loses, it won't be because gullible people stupidly refused to listen to experts, but because the experts overplayed their hand and overestimated their cleverness. GK Chesterton saw through that one, too. He said that one of the benefits of education was that it reduced the "horrible and deadly danger" of taking educated people too seriously.

Sadly that inbuilt BS detector has stopped working among the professional classes, who are constantly overawed by each other's qualifications, and it's certainly nowhere to be found in the corridors of power. Health Minister Simon Harris's condescending sniffiness about the "jeering, whooping, hollering, laughing, sniggering" during last Monday's RTE debate was certainly an unbecoming trait to see in such a young man. Those exercising their democratic right to a say in this referendum need neither his permission or approval. The voters are his masters, not the other way round.

Thankfully, ordinary people still have the facility to see when they are being talked down to by people using their qualifications as a bludgeon. Some will be voting No on Thursday, and some will be holding their noses and voting Yes, but it doesn't mean that they haven't been equally irritated by the hectoring, superior tone of certain doctors in the pro-repeal camp.

The figures still suggest that Yes will scrape a narrow win, but they made this fight far more difficult than it needed to be by their peevish, thin-skinned contempt for anyone who dares - and dares is undoubtedly the right word - to disagree with them. A little more humility would have gone a long way.

Sunday Independent

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