Saturday 19 January 2019

Understanding the selective compassion of abortion vote

Dealing with pro-life arguments will be the key to the controversial referendum being passed, writes Donal Lynch

Leo Varadkar. Photo: INM
Leo Varadkar. Photo: INM
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

Already, with a couple of months still to go, the abortion referendum feels like our own Vietnam; a war that will never end.

The rote lines of both sides have beaten a country into submission. Maria Steen, Tara Flynn and Catherine Noone must be on the brink of nervous exhaustion, but they and others have, at least, moved us towards the bitter end.

Most people, it seems, have by now made up their mind. If polls can be believed, a majority now favours removal of the Eighth Amendment and more favour the proposal of 12-week unrestricted abortion than any other option.

On May 25, barring a Trump or Brexit-like upset, Irish women will no longer have to travel abroad for terminations and future generations will be spared another divisive referendum on the subject. What seems unlikely, however, is that the result will be greeted by anything like the outpouring of joy after the result of the marriage referendum.

As a nation we will have torn down another bastion of the theocracy but the debate, in which neither side will give an ideological inch, has mostly ignored the grey areas and contradictions of abortion.

The law will change but the controversy and concern around abortion will remain.

This is in large part because neither side of the debate has really ventured into the territory of the other.

Pro-life campaigners have never explained why they want to force women into later stage terminations by making them travel abroad.

In their idealism they do not grapple with the practicality and compromise that guides the rest of us: that abortion happens, and we must legislate for that reality.

They do not address the absurdity of asking a woman to bear a child she does not want.

They do not explain why we should trust them now, when they have been on the wrong side of every other social issue in living memory.

From pop culture to the Dail, repealers were the consensus this time around, but still behaved as though they were revolutionaries storming the ramparts.

They never adequately addressed the notion that abortion on request will result in it being used as a contraceptive - there are 185,000 a year in England - or a type of eugenics.

They can only dismiss the photographs of abortion as being "graphic" without addressing the grisly reality portrayed.

Online they behaved with all the measured decorum of a pitchfork mob. Repeal will come you feel, in spite of, rather than because of the campaign for it.

Both sides have commandeered the martyrs of the war - Savita, Miss X, Miss C - and both claim a monopoly on compassion.

Aside from Tara Flynn, Roisin Ingle and a few others, personal testimony has been in notably short supply.

The marriage referendum was won by stories, but the abortion referendum still feels largely like a decision on an abstraction.

We could do worse than look for guidance from the Supreme Court.

This past week it had a real, live situation in front of it and decided that, besides the right to life, the foetus only has a right to be taken into account somewhat in the making of an immigration decision.

This seems to me a nuanced way to approach the referendum vote; to take the unborn into account, but stop short of ascribing rights.

I will vote for repeal and would be in favour of a more lax regime than the 12 weeks that are being proposed, but my vote, like that of many others, is driven by selective compassion and acceptance of grey areas.

It is inarguable that nascent life, usually something with a face, ends with abortion. A heartbeat stops. And on a philosophical level, maybe this is a victory of the strong over the weak.

But the science, so often brandished by the pro-life side, is really quite pro-choice; a foetus of 12 weeks does not yet have consciousness and cannot feel pain. It is human, but not quite a person.

Women, who need abortions, can certainly feel pain, however, both emotional and physical. They are people in need, with their backs to the wall. This is why I reserve my empathy for them and trust them with the solution. And trust also works: the experience in other European countries has shown that the more liberal the abortion regime, the earlier the abortions tend to be.

The issue of Down's syndrome and abortion is more emotive and has required some intellectual gymnastics for repealers to absorb.

For me it comes down to accepting that it would be a strange society that forced people into life-changing responsibilities for which they were not able.

The pro-life side seems to think that women will just have babies and bond with them automatically but this discounts the large number of mothers who have abortions precisely because they are fully aware of the awesome responsibility of parenthood.

The journalist Caitlin Moran wrote that she had her abortion after her two children had been born. She was under no illusions by then as to what motherhood entailed.

Pro-life campaigners fear not just repeal but what is to come beyond that.

They suspect, it might become as fashionable here as it is in England, where one in five pregnancies is aborted every year. When I hear that statistic I feel grateful for abortion.

I imagine the alternative: a society with that amount of unwanted children and trapped women.

Think of the damage the best intentioned parenting inflicts, and then imagine what a parent who doesn't want a child could do. A tapestry of dysfunction extends from one generation to the next.

When we have recovered from referendum burnout, there will still be a way to go before abortion is like any other healthcare.

Perhaps part of that might be trying to find some middle ground with those who disagree with us. One of the central messages of pro-life campaigners is that society is not yet a welcoming enough place for pregnant women, who are in turn driven to a terrible decision.

Pro-choice advocates like Kitty Holland, who have been open about their abortion regret, seem to echo this sentiment, albeit with a different solution.

Perhaps the real question with abortion is not if it should be available, but why it is availed of quite so much.

If we can deliver abortion which is not just free and legal but, also, as Leo Varadkar (pictured left)promised, rare, then that will be real choice.

Sunday Independent

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