Monday 17 June 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: 'Abortion battle is won, so what's next on the agenda?'

Those who campaigned to liberalise Irish abortion law are now in charge and will have no one else to blame for what goes wrong

YES MINISTER: Health Minister Simon Harris at the launch of the Vote Yes to Repeal the Eighth Amendment in April last year in the run-up to referendum on abortion a month later. Photo: Sam Boal/
YES MINISTER: Health Minister Simon Harris at the launch of the Vote Yes to Repeal the Eighth Amendment in April last year in the run-up to referendum on abortion a month later. Photo: Sam Boal/

Eilis O'Hanlon

It may be the most overused word in politics, but, if anything deserves to be called "historic", the launch of legal abortion services in Ireland undoubtedly qualifies.

As of the first day of January, Irish women will now be offered terminations of pregnancy free of charge at home rather than having to travel to another country, and 20 of them called the HSE-funded MyOptions hotline in the first 24 hours of 2019 to speak to counsellors.

After decades when pregnant women's choices were constrained by the Constitution, Ireland is now the same as any other European country. Indeed, according to the CEO of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, the UK's largest provider of abortion services, Ireland's law is now even "more progressive" than that of its neighbour.

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Pro-choice activists have every right to savour this moment after a successful referendum campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment.

How soon, though, before the comedown kicks in?

There's always a feeling of anti-climax after momentous change, as those who overturned the status quo realise that winning doesn't magically change reality and there's still plenty wrong with the world.

For those whose tireless activism finally ended Ireland's prohibition on reproductive choice, a bigger problem may be that, having fought and defeated the forces of conservatism in the country, they now no longer have those same forces to blame when things go wrong.

For decades now, every fault in Irish health has been laid at the door of conservative Catholics who controlled women's sexuality and reproduction. If women were mistreated, it was the bishops' fault. If women were denied services to which they should have been entitled, the hierarchy was to blame. The church was an easy scapegoat for everything that was deemed to be backward, and not only when it came to hospitals.

It was always much easier to put the existence of industrial schools or Magdalene laundries down to vindictive nuns and priests than it was to admit that the Irish State had palmed off the duty to look after its most vulnerable citizens on to the church, and that ordinary families enabled the abuse of those they were meant to protect by their own cowardice and complicity.

No longer is that the case. Now, when things go wrong, there will be no man in a mitre or nun in a wimple to blame.

The religious have been sidelined from public life and replaced by liberal surrogates, who must own the outcomes, whatever they happen to be.

That still doesn't seem to have dawned on liberal opinion formers and enforcers in Ireland, who have wallowed so long in the role of a minority silenced and disempowered by a conservative majority that they still struggle to realise that they themselves are now the dominant authority and need to grow up and act accordingly.

So much of their identity was bound up in resisting the church that they're floundering to find something else to fill that psychologically necessary function.

For the time being, there are still some battles left to fight. That a small number of anti-abortion protesters gathered peacefully outside a GP clinic in Galway last week was treated as if it was a major emergency, with the Together For Yes campaign calling for legislation to be introduced immediately to create exclusion zones around medical facilities which offer abortion services.

Predictably enough, Amnesty Ireland soon jumped on that outrage bandwagon.

Women accessing legal health services should, of course, be free from harassment, but it would be silly to suggest that this threatens to be anything other than a minor irritant.

The main pro-life movement has no plans to mount similar pickets. The same goes for the sanctimonious tut-tutting over the Primate of All Ireland's recent comments, when he said that the new law on abortion "has to be resisted", urging Catholics to "call and work diligently for its limitation, amendment and repeal".

Once that might have meant something, but now? The hierarchy has little power to enforce its religious ethos. All it can do is make its case, and it has as much right to do that as any other group of committed campaigners.

For those fixating on an imaginary threat from social conservatives, it's not about making sure that abortion can be legally provided, because that's a done deal. Instead it's about maintaining the need for an enemy.

The single figure gaggle of protesters in Galway fits the bill - at least for this week. In months to come, new enemies will be needed.

Only a few hundred out of 3,500 registered GPs have signed on to offer terminations to women in the first nine weeks of pregnancy, as mandated in the legislation. There is a complex range of reasons why the numbers aren't higher. Wrangles over the cost and a lack of guidelines have put off many GPs from signing up as first-stop providers. Understandable worries about their names being made public have also played a part.

But doctors who have conscientious objections to providing abortion services will undoubtedly come under increasing pressure if and when the new regime runs into difficulties. The sniping at them has already begun, as if they should just submit their moral agency to the tyranny of majority opinion.

Even Minister for Health Simon Harris, who's been enjoying a honeymoon period on the back of steering the Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy Bill through the Dail on a tight schedule, should not expect the acclaim to continue if there are any hiccups. And there will be. The media will be on the lookout for women who, despite the legislation, are denied abortions for whatever reason and who still have to travel to England to end their pregnancies.

Right now, pro-choice anger has an outlet in Northern Ireland, where abortion is still illegal. The struggle to get the law changed north of the border will absorb their energies for a while.

At some point, though, all those battles will have been won. Abortions will be freely and legally available to any woman in Ireland who wants one, and passing the buck for every inadequacy in how women are treated will be less feasible. Abortion law in Ireland has passed into the all-powerful hands of progressives rather than conservatives, so whatever happens now, good or bad, will be on those same progressives who campaigned to remove the Eighth Amendment. Not just now, or next week, or in the first few months of the new system, but in perpetuity.

What they've lost is the psychological consolation, familiar to whiny teenagers blaming their parents for everything while still living under their roof and at their expense, that comes from being free of personal responsibility.

For the first time, conservatives in Ireland are about to discover this comforting pleasure for themselves as the roles are reversed.

Now that really will be historic.

Sunday Independent

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