Saturday 19 January 2019

Striking the right tone is crucial in Eighth debate

Now the Irish people know what they're being asked, campaigners should ease up on the melodrama, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Decision: The Supreme Court ruling last week allowed the Cabinet to confirm the wording of the referendum on the Eighth Amendment
Decision: The Supreme Court ruling last week allowed the Cabinet to confirm the wording of the referendum on the Eighth Amendment

Eilis O'Hanlon

Last week, the Taoiseach ticked a few more items off his To Do list. Thursday's special Cabinet meeting was finally able to rubber-stamp the wording for the upcoming referendum on the Eighth Amendment, following the Supreme Court's ruling in a separate case that unborn children do not have rights in the Constitution beyond the right to life.

The main policy paper, outlining the key points that will be included in subsequent legislation, was also approved. As a result, Minister for Health Simon Harris was free to bring the 36th Amendment of the Constitution Bill 2018 to the Dail on Friday for a Second Stage reading and debate.

Independent TD Mattie McGrath, who was the first in the Dail on Friday to express his outright opposition to the Bill, opened his remarks by accusing the Government of a "mad rush" towards May 25 as the preferred referendum date when there was still no clear indication how proposed abortion services will be provided and by whom.

Be that as it may, the parameters of the argument are hardly going to change substantially no matter how much extra time there is between now and the referendum. Both sides know what must be done to sway undecided voters, and have sufficient time to do so. There's no need for "scrapping the proposal", as the Tipperary TD urged. The people will decide. That's the point.

McGrath, though, was definitely onto something when, in advance of Friday's sitting, he charged the Government with "pandering to certain elements and groups" in its approach to abortion.

Mr Harris repeated again that the Government's proposed legislation would be in line with the recommendations of the Oireachtas committee on the Eighth, namely that there be abortion up to 12 weeks on demand, and in later cases with medical approval where there is a risk to the mother's mental or physical health.

That in turn is almost a carbon copy of the findings of the Citizens' Assembly. That gathering was meant to be representative of the Irish people, but opinion polls since have consistently shown significant misgivings about allowing self-referral for abortion up to 12 weeks. It seems self-evident in retrospect, as it did to more observant critics at the time, that the Assembly over-represented the more radical end of the abortion debate. That imbalance has been replicated at each stage, first in the Oireachtas committee, and now in the proposed legislation. The damage it could cause may still prove fatal as pro-life opponents rally forces.

The only innovation is for a cooling-off period of a few days between seeking and accessing a termination.

Mick Wallace TD sharply criticised that proposal in the Dail last Friday as another "barrier" to accessing abortion, quoting the World Health Organisation which says such waiting times "demean women as decision-makers". He felt the Government was using them as a "sop to placate those who seem to think women have abortions as a contraceptive measure without giving a second thought to it".

He may be right, though "sop" is too pejorative. More likely is that the Government has realised it needs an answer to the charge that abortion on demand up to 12 weeks may be going too far, but is not quite sure how to allay fears. If this is indeed the best the Cabinet can come up with, then it suggests that they will struggle in the campaign to neutralise the issue.

They're simply not addressing those concerns. As Harris's contribution demonstrated, ministers want to emote rather than argue, with the Minister for Health even asking TDs to picture women at that precise moment in airports and ferry ports making the "lonely" journey to England for an abortion.

"She might be sitting quietly next to the hen party, the businessman or businesswoman or the honeymooners," Harris declaimed, getting into his stride, "seeming to be on a similar journey. But she is not." He even compared the current abortion regime in Ireland to that in Saudi Arabia, shamelessly playing the guilt by association card.

Nor was he alone in that. Fianna Fail's Billy Kelleher did express some concerns at how the 12-week proposal could unravel the good will around repealing the Eighth, but he too went down the same heart-rending road by raising the spectre of a woman "pregnant as a result of a vile rape" who faces 14 years in jail for inducing an abortion and causing a miscarriage under the present law, while her rapist faces a maximum sentence of only eight years.

Everyone knows this has never happened, and no one believes it ever would happen. Raising such a possibility is as much of a sensationalist trick as distributing pictures of extremely rare late abortions on leaflets, as sections of the pro-life campaign have been condemned for doing.

One moment Kelleher was warning campaigners to be "mindful of the language" they use when describing abortion, because it's "insulting and hurting (for) women who have already been through a traumatic experience". The next, he was painting word pictures of girls and women who that very night would "put a towel down, lie on a bathroom floor and induce a miscarriage". The call to take the heat out of the debate has to work both ways.

Mick Wallace was most graphic as he asked those who oppose abortion on the grounds of rape to put themselves in the position of a victim of sexual assault: "Imagine the waves of nausea and vomiting, the feeling of complete and utter contamination, the pain of vaginal penetration, the pain of vaginal ruptures and torn skin, bleeding and infection, the pain of the restraining, the hitting, punching and choking." There's far too much of this graphic embellishment on both sides, and much of it, to be blunt, insults the intelligence of voters.

Fianna Fail's Kevin O'Keeffe even told the Dail on Friday that the Government's claim to be thinking of young people when it drew up its abortion proposals was contradictory because, as a byproduct of abortion, there would ultimately be fewer of them.

"It will lead to a cull of the youth of the future," was how O'Keeffe put it melodramatically. "It is more or less telling an unborn he or she will not be here in the future." Such outlandish arguments are unlikely to sway anyone.

It was notable that left-wing female deputies who have long campaigned for abortion, such as Clare Daly, Ruth Coppinger, and Brid Smith, steered clear of the more lurid approach, using anecdote only where they had a personal connection to the woman whose experience was being cited, and sticking instead to substance. Coppinger pointed out that the countries with the lowest abortion rates, such as the Netherlands, were those with the most liberal abortion regimes, so anyone wishing to reduce the number of abortions ought logically to favour liberalisation.

They set forth a consistent message that certain rights, such as to one's own bodily integrity, are inviolable, even when they seemingly clash with other rights, while also stressing that there is already abortion on demand for those who can afford it. Together their contributions to the debate were strong, unsentimental, clear-headed and all the more effective as a result.

Too many contributors to the debate continue to sound as if they've only recently discovered the indignities that women face in crisis pregnancy. Striking the right tone matters because the referendum will ask voters to agree that "provision may be made by law for the regulation of termination of pregnancy". It's not women that voters need to trust so much as the TDs who'll be making that call at some future point, and trust in politicians is hardly at a premium anywhere right now.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss