Wednesday 16 January 2019

Putting a human face on abortion makes all the difference

Graphic posters should be countered by equally powerful images of women who've had abortions but are rarely seen or heard

Disabilities Minister Finian McGrath. Photo: Tom Burke
Disabilities Minister Finian McGrath. Photo: Tom Burke

Eilis O'Hanlon

As the campaign to repeal or retain the Eighth Amendment finally gets going in earnest after a long-winded build up, Disabilities Minister Finian McGrath has declared that "it's more about facts and information now than spin".

That may be wishful thinking. There are zealots with a very warped definition of "facts and information" on both sides of the battle. It's no wonder that many voters have yet to be engaged by the debate. That's probably why so much attention has been focused of late on the pro-life posters, because it's one of the few talking points.

It was naive to expect pro-lifers to play by Marquis of Queensbury rules. This is their last chance to stop abortion in Ireland. If they lose this vote, that chance has gone, potentially for ever. The same goes for the shrill allegations that the campaign against repeal has an unfair advantage because it's being funded by dirty money. This is reminiscent of the fallout after Hillary Clinton failed to win the US presidential election.

If the country does vote to retain the Eighth Amendment giving equal right to life of both mother and child during pregnancy, how long before sore losers start to dredge up dubious evidence of foreign interference? Blaming the Russians would be far easier than blaming themselves for getting their tactics wrong. They're already complaining about "fake" Facebook ads turning the heads of the gullible. It's worrying that this line is already being deployed. It sounds as if repealers are getting their excuses for losing in early.

The real reason that this panic has set in is because the pro-life posters, showing pictures of babies in the womb at certain stages of development, are so effective.

"I am nine weeks old," says one hanging from a lamppost in central Dublin. "I can yawn and kick. Please don't repeal me."

Underneath hangs one from the repeal campaign. It has no picture, and simply contains the slogan: "Our bodies, our choice." It just doesn't deliver the same jolt.

Pro-lifers have the advantage that their message is astoundingly easy to convey, and can be grasped immediately with a single message. This is a baby, the most vulnerable thing on the planet; don't kill it. It's direct. It doesn't couch its words in euphemisms. It's the other side which has to find complicated, multi-layered arguments to nullify that appeal. It's the mirror image of the same-sex marriage referendum. Then it was the pro-SSM side which had the advantage of simplicity. Gay people want to get married, same as everybody else, so just let them. It was easy to personalise that issue around real people, whose rights were being denied, and it was opponents of SSM who had to conjure up obtuse theoretical reasoning against it. They struggled to get across that message with the necessary clarity.

Then they lost.

It would be a natural temptation for the pro-choice campaign, after decrying the campaigning tactics of pro-life groups, to copy them by putting up posters around the country showing 14-year-old rape victims, together with captions demanding to know whether Irish people are happy to force her to carry a rapist's baby to term?

Alternatively, they could show couples whose babies have died of fatal foetal abnormalities bringing back the bodies of their dead child in shoe boxes, to tug at the heart strings. Or show the faces of women who've died after being denied an abortion. From a purely propagandist point of view, pro-choice campaigners have plenty of tools to beat the emotional blackmail merchants at their own game. It all depends how down and dirty they're willing to get to win.

Such an approach would not be without risks, however. This was the approach taken by certain TDs during the Second Stage debate on the 36th Amendment of the Constitution Bill back in March, most notably Wexford's Mick Wallace, who elaborated on the mechanics of rape in unnecessarily distasteful purple prose.

The pro-life campaign works because it contains a kernel of truth. Abortion does take a life, and a foetus is not just the cluster of cells to which the unborn have been reduced by supporters of abortion. Most people, when asked, do accept that. Its easier availability has also led in other jurisdictions to a culture which trivialises the termination of pregnancies.

In order to counter these unpalatable truths, pro-choice campaigners have often responded by raising imaginary fears about Irishwomen being jailed for 14 years for accessing abortion services, which no one seriously believes will happen. The lurid emphasis on young girls falling pregnant because of rape or incest has also taken the debate too far from the duller trivialities of life.

Most women who have abortions are not doing so because they've been raped, or because the child they're carrying has a fatal foetal abnormality which makes survival outside the womb unlikely or impossible, or because they may die if they don't, for example by being denied treatment for cancer. Such tragic cases do exist, and abortion needs to be available when they do; but the overwhelming majority of the tens of thousands of women who've travelled across the Irish Sea for an abortion since the Eighth Amendment was inserted into the Constitution were just ordinary women who, for a variety of generally prosaic personal reasons, didn't want, at that time, to have a baby.

These are the women who should be the focus of the campaign to repeal the Eighth, because it's easy for fundamentalist opponents of abortion to dismiss rare and unrepresentative cases. It's much harder to disregard tens of thousands of women who've simply found themselves in a position where they couldn't face the prospect of having a baby, or having another baby in a huge number of cases, because plenty of these women were and are already mothers, looking after children day to day. Maybe they couldn't afford to have a baby at that particular time in their lives, or were floored by the potential stress and chaos.

By showing babies at particular stages of development in the womb, the pro-life campaign has managed to focus a complex moral argument into a simple human image. That's what the pro-choice side also needs to do, because slogans such as "our bodies, our choices" may be philosophically coherent, but they're still somewhat abstract.

The babies in the womb on those posters can only be countered by an equally powerful image of a real woman, to constantly reiterate the point that babies do not grow inside machines, or anonymous hosts, but inside ordinary women with lives and rights, and that it's unconscionable to force them to continue with pregnancies which they do not want and which may negatively impact on their family's lives and their own well-being.

The personal stories of people such as TV3's Ursula Halligan were crucial to the same-sex marriage referendum in humanising the legal issues.

A similar approach now would put a face to the thousands of Irishwomen who've had abortions, who are often mentioned and argued over, but rarely seen. What does a woman who's had an abortion look like, after all? She looks like your grandmother, because she is your grandmother. She looks like your mother or sister or next door neighbour, because that's who she is. Getting that message across could be all the more effective for being done in a gently intelligent way, free from sensationalism.

Finian McGrath still thinks the referendum will be carried by 60pc, which sounds a tad optimistic, considering that the latest polls have the Yes vote, while ahead, at under 50pc. There are still a high number of undecided voters, and the last weeks of a campaign are rarely without potentially game-changing incident.

Health Minister Simon Harris said during the Dail debate on March that "denying realities does not make them go away". He meant it as a rebuke to opponents of abortion, but the charge could just as easily be laid against its supporters, who seem to want to talk loftily about repealing the Eighth Amendment while skirting round the issue of abortion itself.

There is still a lingering sense in some quarters that admitting to having had an abortion is a shameful thing, and it's best not to talk about it. Tiptoeing round the issue even in the midst of the referendum reinforces that marginalisation. One of the regrettably less-discussed benefits of a Yes vote will be to provide some retrospective relief to those thousands of women who made the difficult journey to the UK in the past and have felt adversely judged ever since.

Sunday Independent

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