Campaign against abortion is a phoney war
IT IS now 30 years since anti-abortion groups succeeded in pushing their issue to the top of the Irish political agenda. We have had five referendums, numerous High and Supreme Court cases, interdepartmental working groups, all-party committees, green papers and European Court challenges. And what difference has it all made? None whatsoever.
The only thing that has changed is that better access to contraception and sexual health information has gradually reduced the number of Irish women going abroad for abortions. (For the main destination, the UK, the numbers dropped from 6,673 in 2001 to 4,149 in 2011.)
But it would be naive to expect that anti-abortion groups would follow this logic and conclude that giving women more knowledge and control is the best way to reduce abortions. For, of course, this is not a question of rationality. It is all about symbolism. The twist is that even the symbolism scarcely matters any more.
My main problem with Irish anti-abortion campaigners is not that they are too extreme. It is that they are not extreme enough. If they really believe what they purport to believe – that a fertilised ovum is a human being in exactly the same sense as Nelson Mandela or Lady Gaga or the pope – they are disgracefully moderate. Their basic proposition is this: about 5,000 Irish people every year are being taken out of the country and massacred in cold blood.
Over the last decade, the equivalent of the entire population of Limerick city has been murdered. If you believe this, it dwarfs every other question in modern Ireland – the Northern Ireland conflict (in its latter stages, one-fiftieth of the number of annual “murders”); the economic crisis; any and every abuse of human rights by the State. You have an absolute moral duty to do everything you can to stop it, including, at a minimum, demanding restrictions on the right of pregnant women to travel.
But most anti-abortion activists – sane, decent, well-motivated people, by and large – don’t really believe that the equivalent of the population of Limerick has been murdered over the last 10 years. They’ve adopted a position, overwhelmingly for religious reasons, that “life” is a single, indivisible, unqualified entity. And that position then forces them into an absolutism that most of them do not instinctively feel.
How do we know they don’t really feel this way? Because, almost without exception, they believe that abortion is sometimes both necessary and morally justified. There is a lunatic fringe that would deny life-saving medical treatment to a pregnant woman if it results in the termination of the pregnancy. But most anti-abortion activists have the decency and compassion to know that this is grotesque. They believe that a mother’s life should be saved, even if, as a consequence, her baby must die.