Wednesday 27 March 2019

I'm liberal, so why does abortion make me uneasy?

While the pro-life side often uses vile imagery, it is also a portrayal of the biological reality, writes Donal Lynch

Writing's on the wall: The controversial mural in Temple Bar for pro-choicers that was painted over last week
Writing's on the wall: The controversial mural in Temple Bar for pro-choicers that was painted over last week
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

The slow rumble of debate about abortion feels, already, very much like the build-up to the gay marriage referendum, doesn't it?

Just like last summer, the pop art has sprung up in Dublin -  a mural in Temple Bar calling for repeal of the eighth was swiftly painted over last week, creating a familiar impression of censorship. The harrowing first-person testimony has been ratcheted up - almost daily we hear from women who have made the emotional journey to England.

Any public figure not onside is being rounded on -  Cian Healy felt the Twitter wrath last week after quipping about the blue wall (the colour that was painted over the mural), even though he quite literally did not appear to know what he'd been on about. The advocates and opponents of gay marriage and the advocates and opponents of abortion feel somewhat interchangeable. The sense is that pro choice is going to be the winning team and that the next remnant of the old Catholic patriarchy - the eighth amendment to the Constitution - will sooner or later be torn down.

Instinctively I feel like I should belong on that team. I'm as socially liberal as they come. I cheered gay marriage past the post. I believe Amnesty International when they say that our laws, as they stand, are inhumane. On a personal level, not supporting the widening of abortion laws would feel hypocritical: If men could get pregnant I am quite sure I would have already had an abortion.

And then there's the company you keep in the debate. I look around at the pro-life supporters and I realise instinctively that I do not belong with them and their sugary Christian condescension. To be pro-choice feels like being on the right side of history.

So why, even for me, do changes to the abortion laws still seem so difficult for which to cheerlead? Like a lot of people, I have struggled with the biological reality of it. The bald slogan that is seen on placards at abortion rallies - abortion stops a heartbeat - is undeniably true. The gruesome images, and hideous methods ("suction") definitely give pause, and you never hear anyone from the pro-choice side seriously talk about these. The hard cases, highlighted to show the ridiculousness of the laws as they stand, feel manipulative and exploitative of the families involved, and there doesn't seem to be much focus on the ordinary, non-suicidal woman who just decided pregnancy wasn't for her. The pro-choice lobby instead focuses on victim narratives - the women who suffered on their journeys - a strategy which had success in the gay marriage campaign, but which creates the impression that only martyrs should be entitled to abortion.

If polls are to be believed, I'm not alone in feeling a conflict between my progressive credentials and a slight squeamishness about the whole thing. A majority want the eighth repealed and abortion allowed in cases like fatal foetal abnormality, but a much smaller group - a clear minority of the public - want abortion on demand.

You could speculate as to why this is so, but even those who might instinctively favour widening of our laws would recognise we are simultaneously in the midst of a baby boom: Ireland topped the European birth rate table last year. Advances in medical care mean that premature infants can be kept alive even at around 20 weeks; we all know of a baby who was saved in such dire straits. We spend billions on IVF every year. Our timelines are clogged with images of sonograms. We know in our guts that they can't be "foetal tissue" or "uterine material" one minute and an unborn child the next. We listen to the stories of mentally or physically challenged people, who are often presented to us in the media as the embodiments of all of the emotional arguments against abortion. And we look at the statistics in the UK and realise that if repealing the eighth is the thin end of the wedge and abortion is eventually made on demand, it will most likely be used here, as there, as a contraceptive.

So how, given all that, do we hold our noses and change the Constitution anyway? The first step might be to clearly acknowledge the loss of life inherent in abortion. This would give the movement for repeal of the eighth a moral core, which it currently lacks. Trying to depersonalise the foetus or arguing that there is no life and no death, we risk becoming exactly what the pro-life lobby says we are: heartless liberals who share a cheapened view of human life.

The imagery of the pro-life lobby might seem like revolting propaganda, but it depicts a biological reality. We need to be able to look the horror of it in the eye.

Why would we countenance this horror? Perhaps because this generation of Irish people are pragmatic, even in the way we think of death. Most of us recognise, for instance, that the real brutality in the end-of-life cases that come before the courts, comes from overly stringent limitations on the right to euthanasia. We know that if we lowered the speed limit by 20kmh, there would be a cut in road deaths. But we don't do this because expediency does come into it. We don't believe in life at all costs.

We have emerged from a recent history in which we had parenthood at all costs. Our grandmothers were always pregnant. Our mothers had far fewer children. We have children when we want - often leaving it until way past when our own biology will cooperate. The responsibilities of parenthood seem greater than ever; we now know that, psychologically speaking, childhood lasts a lifetime. It feels increasingly more vicious to force any woman - or any man - into bearing the responsibility of unwanted child-rearing.

The chosen guilt of abortion is for each woman who undergoes one to deal with herself. And, as the rest of us prepare to eventually hold our noses and change the law, we may gain some small insight into the terrible pragmatism she must summon.

Sunday Independent

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