Pro-choicers should see abortion as a necessary social evil
If the pro-choice lobby is ever to win the legislative argument, writes Donal Lynch, they first need to be more honest about the horror abortion entails
Ann McElhinney and Phelim MacAleer are a married couple from Ulster (Donegal and Omagh respectively) who've lived in America for quite a few years. They've made provocative films, most notably around climate change and the effects of fracking, which have made them minor darlings of the conservative Right there. It probably isn't surprising, therefore, that when they came to write this month in the Irish Times about abortion and their new film - which deals with notorious abortionist Kermit Gosnell - they focussed on the traditional American scapegoat for abortion: the doctor.
Gosnell, of course, is their biggest villain in this regard; the film describes him as 'America's most prolific serial killer', and he is serving consecutive life sentences for the first degree murder of three babies born alive at his clinic. But the couple also imply, without stating outright, that all abortionists are serial killers.
In several US states you can have, and people do have, abortions up to the day of delivery, they point out. The procedures generally used include dissecting the foetus live inside the womb, injecting potassium chloride directly into its heart and, the ultimate horror, which follows the cases in which the injection misses its mark: the baby will be born alive and given "comfort care" - a blanket lain over it until it "passes".
It was an explosive piece in an Irish context because unlike in McElhinney and MacAleer's adopted homeland, the gruesomeness of the procedure and the dirty work of the people who carry it out is rarely the focus when abortion is debated here. Our battle ground has always been the welfare of the woman who is forced into this difficult decision. To our pro-choice lobby, she is a martyr to whom the patriarchy wilfully and hypocritically turns a blind eye. To the pro-lifers, she is something close to a martyr - a victim - but a victim who needs to be saved from herself. Our entire public debate revolves around this martyr-victim figure and both sides fight for ownership of the individuals who most clearly embody these traits - most notably the X girl and Savita. We debate their relative levels of martyrhood or victimhood while more or less ignoring the ordinary, silent women who travel to England for an abortion.
But while both sides clamour for ownership of the woman, it's quite clear that ownership of the facts and imagery around what exactly abortion entails, belong solely to those who would maintain the status quo. These images are deployed at will, as a game-changing argument, and the pro-choice lobby can only retreat to fuzzy rhetoric about the rights of embattled women, or mentions of "foetal tissue". The bald slogan, held aloft on placards at any pro-life rally - "Abortion stops a heartbeat" - can never seriously be contradicted. It's a biological fact after all, not a polemical point.
The problem for the pro-choice movement, one of the reasons it fails to gain real traction (still less than 25pc in favour of abortion-on-demand in the most recent poll) even while other liberal issues are handily taken care of, is partly that these slogans are hurled into a society already swept along in a love affair with the unborn child.
And it's new love for a new generation: the sonogram images on Facebook, the multiple IVF births, the fathers in the delivery room, the ongoing baby boom itself, the sheer advances in medical care which mean that premature infants can be kept alive even at 20 weeks. We see pictures of them smiling in the womb. We know in our hearts that they can't be "foetal tissue" one minute and an unborn child the next.
I have a friend whom I once tried to comfort through the distant aftermath of an abortion, which, in her case, took years. However much I tried to talk about the "ball of cells", however much I attempted to minimise her grief by dehumanising the being she had carried, she would respond: "But what I can't get over is, I took a life."
I never changed my view that she did the right thing, but these conversations made me realise that she and the rest of us deserve better than the euphemisms of the people who are fighting for her abortion rights. She knew she was neither a martyr nor a victim, but the rhetoric used by those who allegedly fight for her rights never addressed itself to the tough situation she found herself in, and its aftermath.
Breda O'Brien recently wrote that pro-choice advocates treat abortion as a "morally neutral" mechanism, and on that point she was right. In failing to acknowledge the brutal medical reality of run-of-the-mill abortion and in failing to properly acknowledge the real distress a woman might find herself in at the thought of having ended a life, the pro-choice lobby has failed to address itself to middle Ireland on this subject. They are not giving us enough credit.
Most Irish people have a sense of wished-for good, mixed with necessary evil that permeates our attitude even to life and death, but in order to get our heads around this compromise, we need first for the evil to be acknowledged.
An older woman I know, who is generally in favour of abortion, would frequently say to me: "But there are 200,000 of them a year in England." The number, the idea of the procedure being used as a de facto contraception, appalled her. But not enough for her to be as against abortion as the majority of the electorate here are. To pro-life advocates hers might sound like a double standard, cake-and-eat-it moralism, but so is sending pregnant women abroad.
It's often said that men should stay out of the abortion debate. As Ruth Coppinger pointed out, we're not exactly going to need one. But if someone had forced me to cede my teens and 20s to the care of another human being, whom I did not love, I can well imagine I would have killed them (or fervently wanted to) and accepted the punishment. The punishment for the women who opt for abortion is between themselves and their consciences, or their God.
Those of us whose politics lean Left might be a little queasy with the concept of sin when it comes to making law, but if the pro-choice movement took a leaf out of the Church's book, and allowed that termination of a pregnancy is evil, is a sin, but a sin for which there is redemption, then it would speak to a much greater middle ground in Ireland.
There is no secular contradiction here: you can be for abortion rights while convinced that abortion is a social evil. McElhinney and MacAleer are right about one thing: if there is to be abortion in Ireland those who want it need to be able to look the reality of it straight in the eye.