Abortion debate mainly a ‘clean fight’ but not without some vindictive targeting
As the Dáil vote nears, the heat on politicians is bound to increase
People gather outside the Dáil on Kildare Street t the beginning of the debate on the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill. Photo: Clodagh Kilcoyne
The posters appeared on lamp-posts overnight in Tallaght earlier this month. They had been recycled from Fine Gael’s campaign during the children’s referendum. But the only part that had been preserved intact was Fine Gael’s logo from that campaign: “Every Child Matters”.
The rest was directed at local TD and Minister of State Brian Hayes. The sentence in full now read: “Every child matters except to Brian Hayes?” It featured an image of the face of a foetus in a rictus of agony. The other slogan was equally stark: “Stop Abortion”.
Hayes found the experience going beyond the usual slings and arrows of political life.
“They were put up where I live and at the school where my children go. This is the work of a lunatic fringe. Those [behind personalised targeting and abuse] are very small in numbers and they are mad. My only concern is if the Bill is passed one or two may flip. I am beginning to believe there may be some violence.”
Back in February, the anti-abortion group Youth Defence published a number of photographs recording a similarly unsavoury incident that occurred at its offices in Capel Street, which it shares with the related Life Institute. Its members arrived in one morning to find newspaper pages with Savita Hallapanavar’s name posted on the door which was also extensively daubed with excrement. The group is known for deploying confrontational campaigning tactics and some would argue that the rule about pots and kettles applied. But this went beyond that, like the posters about Hayes, and into the realm of intimidation and extremism and fear.
It was no great surprise, given past experiences, that the debate on proposed changes to the abortion laws would be intense, divisive and give rise to anger and polarities. Those claims and counter-claims have especially come to the fore in the past 10 days in the run-up to this week’s Dáil vote on the second stage of the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill, with Taoiseach Enda Kenny insisting on all his TDs and Senators obeying the party whip.
A number of Fine Gael TDs have said they have been intimidated by anti-abortion fanatics. Taoiseach Enda Kenny was continuously heckled during a 20-minute speech in Longford last week.
Twitter, Facebook, social media sites and online forums have become open sewers for name-calling and vile pillorying (the vast majority of the expletive-laden prose directed at identifiable anti-abortion activists).
At times the nature of the campaign itself has become the story. The most recent trigger for that were comments by the Taoiseach in the Dáil earlier this month in which he gave a flavour of the intensity of the lobbying he has been subjected to: “I am now being branded by personnel around the country as being a murderer – that I am going to have on my soul the death of 20 million babies . . . I am getting medals, scapulars, plastic foetuses, letters written in blood, telephone calls all over the systems and it’s not confined to me,” Kenny said.
Tone of debate
That gives rise to a number of questions. Has the tone of the debate been more frenzied and spiteful than in the past or has the intensity and heat of the 1980s and 1990s faded in memory? And are the trolls representative of broader movements, or a “lunatic fringe”? Finally, is there merit in the charge of anti-abortion campaigners that Kenny and other Fine Gael TDs have used misdirection techniques, using the threats as a means of demonising their opponents while avoiding debating the substantive issues?