Wednesday 18 September 2019

Facile to conflate abortion debate and cancer scandal

Claims of paternalistic and patriarchal culture just runs the risk of a Trump-style backlash by undecided men, writes Jody Corcoran

Two sides: Despite much passionate campaigning, perhaps the grouping that will decide the referendum result is... men. Photo: Fergal Phillips
Two sides: Despite much passionate campaigning, perhaps the grouping that will decide the referendum result is... men. Photo: Fergal Phillips
Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

The question is being asked at a high level behind the scenes in Government as to how the cervical cancer scandal will affect the outcome of the abortion referendum, if at all.

One view is it will help the Yes side in that it supports the argument that trust should be placed in the decisions of women; another is it will help the No side, in that it supports the argument that it makes it more difficult to trust the medical profession.

I am with the argument that it will, or should not necessarily affect the outcome at all, save for this: the cervical cancer scandal is being pitched into the referendum debate as another example of a paternalistic and patriarchal political and medical culture.

To the proponents of such an argument, I would suggest, this is not the way to go to win the hearts and minds of what seems to me to be the grouping that will bring considerable influence to bear on the referendum result. And that group, or cohort, is men.

This reality is not lost on the more measured proponents of Repeal, who have attempted to reach out to undecided men in recent days, for example, through an article in this newspaper last weekend by the Hollywood actor, Liam Neeson, who argued it was time for men to stand with women and make a once-in-a-generation opportunity count.

While Neeson's argument was reasonable and well put, I also suspect that the use of 'celebrity' viewpoints, be they male or female, will serve to alienate as many as it persuades in this debate.

At the beginning of the campaign I argued that the sometimes hostile approach of not all, but many on the Yes side, more precisely those associated with fourth-wave feminism, will do little to convince the many undecided in the middle, that is, those which the opinion polls tell us remain undecided, of which I am one.

I suggested that science and fact, rather than rhetoric on social media, would do more to convince the middle ground than the occasionally smug approach adopted by some on the Yes side.

In that context, I cited evidence in the US presidential election, which (generally speaking) saw blue collar men, isolated or even threatened by rapid developments in modern society, rally to the discordant flag of Donald Trump.

Unfortunately, this referendum campaign, so far, has been more notable for heat than light, and has been... well, light on science and fact over hostility, condescension and hard cases to exploit emotions, not to mention cloying 'celebrity' endorsement.

All of which is fine insofar as it goes, but nobody should be then surprised that the level of undecided remains high, at almost one-fifth of the electorate less than two weeks from polling day.

The available evidence also shows that a greater number of men, over 20pc, as opposed to 15pc of women, are still undecided; and I would argue that it is this group, particularly men, which will prove decisive to the outcome.

If is unfortunate then, and foolhardy, not to mention downright unfair and wrong to pitch the cervical cancer scandal into the abortion debate as another example of a paternalistic and patriarchal culture, when there is no evidence to see it in such terms.

After all, before the resignation of the HSE's Tony O'Brien last week, the other resignation was that of Dr Grainne Flannelly, the clinical director of CervicalCheck.

What is apparent, though, in the Dail and Oireachtas committees, and in some media, are expressed views on the cancer scandal which really are barely concealed interventions in the abortion debate.

These ham-fisted interventions have been made in the main if not exclusively by women, politicians and journalists, but in my view will serve no purpose other than to possibly act against the passage of the referendum, or prove counterproductive to that cause.

Yes, the cervical cancer scandal is primarily about the health of women in Ireland, but it is inherently wrong to argue that it ends there: grandfathers, fathers, husbands and sons have also been deeply affected by the scandal, and in my anecdotal evidence are as equally outraged by it, and equally moved to demand accountability following the powerful testimonies of Vicky Phelan and Emma Mhic Mhathuna, as well as by Stephen Teap, whose wife Irene died from cervical cancer after two incorrect smear test results.

All of this should go without saying. Yet the cervical cancer scandal has been presented, in one instance, as 'the latest sorry episode concerning this State's disordered relationship with women from the waist down', at least one other sorry episode, presumably being the State's abortion laws.

In the face of facile referendum coverage, I find myself turning to a recent paper by the moral theologian, Vincent Twomey, who makes an interesting, indeed convincing argument that science can indicate with incredible precision when human life begins and of how developments in genetics and embryology demonstrate that the embryo is not simply a 'clump of cells' or a 'tissue' of the mother's body.

And from there to a seminal paper by the moral philosopher, Judith Thompson - A Defence of Abortion - which almost 50 years ago accepted Twomey's premise "for the sake of argument" and to my lesser mind, makes an assured argument for abortion in cases of rape and, therefore, raises interesting questions as to whether abortion is not morally impermissible.

For those on the Yes side, who feel it necessary to conflate the cervical cancer scandal with the forthcoming referendum and to present both as another example of a paternalistic and patriarchal political and medical culture, I would suggest again that they look to the US election, caution that such a backlash could upend the tentative movement towards Repeal here, and advise that rather than seemingly going out of their way to find another reason to criticise all men, they should, instead, look to the position recently adopted by an earlier generation of feminists here, who have at least acknowledged that there are profound moral issues at the centre of this referendum debate.

Sunday Independent

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