Monday 21 January 2019

Leo must lead, instead of just dodging the question

The majority in favour of repealing the Eighth Amendment isn't solid enough to take risks, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Leo Varadkhar: ‘Every time he’s asked to expound on his own position, the Taoiseach either hides behind the committee’s findings, or raises alarmist bugbears. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Leo Varadkhar: ‘Every time he’s asked to expound on his own position, the Taoiseach either hides behind the committee’s findings, or raises alarmist bugbears. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

Eilis O'Hanlon

At the start of the year, it seemed impossible that the referendum on removing the Eighth Amendment from the Constitution might be lost.

Suddenly it doesn't seem so incredible that it might fall at the final hurdle. Nerves are starting to creep into the pro-choice campaign.

It's responded by becoming ever more strident against pro-life opinion. When it became known that last week's curator of the @ireland Twitter account was a young American woman with pro-life views, she became the target of collective harassment and character assassination by online squads of pro-choice trolls, who seemed stupidly unaware of how ugly this looked to people who did not share their contempt for those with differing views on the issue. So much for Ireland of the welcomes. The visitor in question was not even using the account to tweet about abortion, as previous pro-choice advocates have done.

How nervous must pro-choice advocates feel to imagine that one Twitter account could threaten their sway over traditional and social media?

It ought to be obvious to anyone with a functioning intelligence that the battle against the Eighth Amendment will not be advanced by these unseemly scraps, but by winning around well-meaning but still undecided people in the middle, of whom there are more than enough to swing the vote either way. It seems ludicrous to have to point that out again; but while the pro-choice movement has come up with some positive initiatives, including the #HomeToVote campaign to encourage young emigrants to come back for the day to support the referendum, in the same way that they did to back same sex marriage, it's exhibiting a growing tone of pique at being challenged.

The concentration on a proposed 12-week limit under which unrestricted abortion can be accessed hasn't helped either. Opinion polls taken at the end of January suggested that 56pc were backing the proposal, which would also allow later abortions on medical grounds, but that's not large enough for supporters of abortion on demand to feel comfortable. It could easily be eroded if doubts start to creep in, and muddles around that 12-week figure threaten to tangle up the campaign in ways that could still prove fatal.

The Taoiseach, who described himself as pro-life as recently as 2015, and who recently expressed some concerns that the 12-week proposal was going too far, now seems determined to bet the farm on it. Possibly he believed that backing the 12-week limit was a safe way because he could simply pass responsibility off to the Oireachtas committee on the Eighth, which had included that recommendation in its final report. Now, whenever he's asked about it, Leo Varadkar namechecks the committee.

When questioned about abortions on the grounds of disability last week, the Taoiseach even referred that question back to the committee, saying: "The committee was absolutely clear that this was not grounds for an abortion and the legislation will be in keeping with that".

This is becoming an increasingly feeble line of argument. Everybody knows what the committee recommended, but the Taoiseach cannot argue that he backs the 12-week limit because that's what the committee recommended without suggesting he has no mind of his own and has simply abdicated the responsibility to provide leadership. Leaders must still make decisions, rather than leasing out their thinking to committees.

Since when did the Eighth committee become the fount of all knowledge and wisdom on this subject? When was any Oireachtas committee given the last word on future legislation? There are committees in Leinster House overseeing the work of every government department. All listen to expert advice and make proposals.

Sometimes the Government listens to what the cross-party members say. Sometimes it doesn't. Why has the Eighth committee become the only one whose word must be taken as law, and from whose line it is heresy to deviate?

There was a previous referendum in October 2011 to give each house of the Oireachtas "the power to conduct an inquiry... into any matter stated by the House or Houses concerned to be of general public importance". It was rejected by 53pc of the electorate, largely because of fears it would give TDs and senators too many new powers, without sufficient safeguards for the rights of individuals under investigation. The circumstances were very different, but the general principle remains exactly the same - that the Irish people thought Oireachtas committees should know their place.

Now the Eighth committee is being elevated to inordinate prestige, as if it was made up of gods on Mount Olympus, rather than a small group of elected representatives with firm views on a certain topic.

The 12-week limit can still be rejected by the Dail once abortion legislation is drawn up, but that doesn't mean the issue can be disentangled from the argument around the Eighth in the coming weeks.

Moral qualms exist even within the ranks of those minded to vote for repeal, and whose support is needed to get it across the line. Polls in America show larger than expected numbers of young people adopting positions which would be condemned as "anti-choice" by women's groups. Research also shows there is little difference between men and women when it comes to their views on abortion, suggesting that the tendency of pro-choice campaigners to attack socially conservative men as a group for supposedly taking away women's rights is misguided.

December saw the publication in the US of a major study into attitudes towards abortion. One fascinating finding was that 78pc of people believed women should be free to make choices about their own pregnancies without government interference, but almost the same number (73pc) agreed abortion did take away a life. That's what most people in Ireland surely believe too, and the pro-choice dismissal of concerns about the moral aspects of abortion by referring to that life as a "zygote" is condescending and dishonest. Those who will make that decision in the polling booth know what's at stake.

They're not neurotic or moronic for struggling with the issue on more profound levels than are covered by slogans on placards on either side.

Irish GPs, while overwhelmingly behind abortion up to 12 weeks, are also concerned about how they will be expected to deliver the new service. Pro-choice campaigners may soon need to ask themselves how willing they are to stand or fall on that 12-week limit, when the government itself is divided, and time is short to iron out divisions.

If the referendum on removing the Eighth Amendment fails because voters don't feel ready to go from an effective Constitutional ban on abortion to terminations on demand up until 12 weeks, will that have been worth it?

Do they want to be right, or do they want to win?

Ireland will probably still vote for abortion, even with misgivings over the 12-week limit. The fundamentals remain in place; in a generally liberal country, the desire for change will surely still prevail.

Leo Varadkar appears to be blind to the potential pitfalls, however. Every time he's asked to expound on his own position, the Taoiseach either hides behind the committee's findings, or raises alarmist bugbears, such as the theoretical "15-year-old girl who is raped, and who is in pain" and can't get the help she needs, which he brought up with reporters a couple of weeks ago. Emotive campaigning may carry the day, but it always runs the risk of backfiring.

Sunday Independent

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