Saturday 19 October 2019

Why my fellow Repealers can't face the facts around abortion

As the abortion debate rages, Donal Lynch says appropriating the morality of the Right will be the key to Repeal

Difficult issue: Abortion rights will always be a controversial cause Photo: Steve Humphreys
Difficult issue: Abortion rights will always be a controversial cause Photo: Steve Humphreys
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

You might think Repeal the Eighth supporters would be quietly heartened by someone coming out and speaking publicly for their cause. My experience on Claire Byrne Live last week clearly showed me that this was not the case.

I told Claire I supported abortion rights for all women in this country, but that I felt the pro-choice movement consistently fails to deal with the central argument of the other side - that abortion ends a life. On Twitter, feminists and Repealers picked apart my phrasing - a true pro-choice person would never use the phrase abortion "on demand" they chided (I get the argument that "demand" makes it sound like a consumerist whim, but doesn't the phrase "on request" sound like a timid plea by comparison?).

Several people asked why I was speaking for women, something I never claimed I was doing. The comedian and writer, Tara Flynn, who has been open about her own abortion, told me outright that I might think I'm pro-choice, but I'm not. Even though I would be far more libertarian than the average Irish person on this subject. Even though I sincerely believe all women should be granted abortions when they ask for them. For the shrill Repeal sisterhood, it's not enough to want the same thing, we have to want it for the right reasons.

Personally, I can take the flack, but it doesn't fill me with much hope that the least successful abortion-rights movement in Europe is finally getting its act together. They think that it's gay marriage part two and that the critical mass of personal testimony - women's emotive stories - will finally turn the tide toward repeal of the Eighth. There's no doubt these narratives will be very important - nobody is silencing women - but testimony alone won't close the deal. It never has. Just look at the history of this debate in Ireland. Look at how dogged and successful the pro-life side have always been. We haven't really heard as much from them in the public debate so far, but they are surely coming, with their gruesome placards and crucifixes and their own emotive arguments. They have always won. The cantankerous godmother of Irish feminism - Nell McCafferty - put it best a few weeks ago on her Facebook page. Most Repeal campaigners, she wrote, cannot answer "basic questions" about human gestation. "Those who campaign against abortion will make mincemeat of the opposition on TV, radio and debates, with their outrageous claims about death by dismemberment, injections into the heart of the foetus, etc."

That is exactly what we're facing into. The most basic question of all is, of course, the actual death of the foetus. Just as the pro-life brigade never fully engage with the experience of the woman, so pro-choice activists ignore the idea of the unborn child. They do this at their peril. The patriarchy may have crumbled somewhat since we last debated this issue properly, but in the meantime, other things have also changed. We live in a world where medical science makes births viable earlier and earlier - we see the sonograms on Facebook. We push the expectant-mother books to the top of the bestseller charts. We have not remotely, as Joycelyn Elders (former Surgeon General in the US), once urged, "gotten over our love affair with the foetus". We are in the midst of a baby boom. In some senses, the foetus has never been a bigger part of society.

So how does the average person reconcile this vista and the knowledge that, hairsplitting aside, something with a heartbeat and a face must be a living thing, with support for abortions for those who want them? The answer might be in the last place the Repealers would think to look: in the idea of redemption and atonement.

After appearing on Claire Byrne Live, I received a message from Professor Chris Fitzpatrick, former Master of the Coombe. He agreed with me "about the failure by pro-choice advocates to discuss the issue of 'ending a life' - however small and remote from viability", and included a short story he had written. The story sympathetically deals with a woman who travels to England for an abortion. In its aftermath, she visits a church and thinks about what has just happened to her: "And as for God - whose presence and attitude she frequently considered during this time - she was convinced that if he really did exist, that he must have the compassion to understand. She remembered a quotation by someone she had once read about forgiveness being God's line of business: 'C'est son metier [It's his job]'."

When I read this, I immediately thought about the comments that the enlightened priest who was sitting beside me made after the abortion debate unfolded on Claire Byrne Live. Father Joe McDonald told me that he could "very much understand why a young woman would make that decision". He said that the real tragedy of abortion is that we have created a world in which women have to make choices like this. Most interestingly of all, he added: "My view would be that it is between themselves and their conscience."

These are men - I am a man - whom the Repeal movement considers the natural enemy of its cause: a doctor, a priest, a journalist with the clumsy phrasing of a pro-lifer. We three do not all have the same views on abortion, but we share one thing; we see the grey areas around this issue. And perhaps like a lot of Irish people, we simply yearn for a proper language for the moral struggle around abortion.

It's no surprise, really, that we don't have this language. There is a spiritual vacuum at the heart of Irish life. We have rejected the old Church - for good reasons - but in doing so, we have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. We have let go of ideas that are common to all world religions, ideas like atonement, redemption and divine compassion. Paradoxically, this has caused retrenchment to a rigid morality that has made us the odd man out in Europe for abortion rights. And so we are still fighting tooth-and-nail for abortion in hard-case circumstances like fatal foetal abnormality, while other countries have abortion for those who want it, when they want it. The Repealers must absorb this lesson. Germaine Greer's idea that a woman will never be free until she can have an abortion on her lunchtime never quite caught on, even among other feminists. Abortion is a complex issue that affects at least three living beings in every case - the mother, the father and the foetus. It is about pain and death - this needs to acknowledged - and there needs to be a language of grief and respect around it.

Pro-choice activists flinch from this kind of talk. It immediately reminds them of the Catholic hegemony - even though ideas like redemption and grace are common to all world religions - and it forces them to think about a moral framework for abortion outside of the woman as a victim of circumstance. But acknowledging these issues not only shows respect for the terrible responsibility of the woman (her 'choice'), it takes on the pro-life lobby on their own spiritual turf. It beats them with their own crucifix.

It's often presumed that if the Eighth Amendment were removed that we would eventually get what they have in England - where there are roughly 200,000 abortions a year and the procedure is basically used like a contraceptive (over one-third of UK abortions are for women who have previously had one).

But maybe we could instead have what they have in Japan. There, abortion is entirely legal in the first five months of pregnancy and hardly stirs a murmur within society. Proportionately, there are far fewer abortions than in the UK. There are no protests at abortion clinics, no debates about banning abortions and no politicians taking showboating positions on the issue.

The last legal restrictions on abortion in Japan were quietly removed in 1948. Still, the society discreetly acknowledges the sense of unease around abortion. On hillside Buddhist temples, there are seas of tiny statuettes that signify the foetuses that have been aborted. Women, and sometimes men, come to stand before these mystical monuments to express their grief, sadness, confusions and hopes of forgiveness.

Our own naive pro-choice campaigners would scoff at such practices. To the Irish Twitter mob, talk of atonement smacks of giving up too much ground. They will never acknowledge that, at the heart of abortion, is the fact that it is one life for another, an impossible decision - different for every woman - that must somehow be made. This is a terrible shame. Facing up to these issues might go some way toward bringing along the 'mushy middle' of Irish society, who have long accepted we must change our constitution (just look at all the polls), but still can't quite bring themselves to flag-wave for abortion.

Perhaps the real key to bringing some justice to our abortion laws will be to do more for these people than lecture them. We need, rather, to help them imagine an Ireland where we are prepared to look every difficult fact about abortion square in the eye, an Ireland where women have the rights and responsibilities that make up real, free choice. And maybe one day, in the not-too-distant future, we principled, determined Repealers can take our own spirituality, candles and rosary beads (I have a beautiful set from my grandmother), and join the likes of Youth Defence in grieving for the dead.

Sunday Independent

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

Don't Miss