Certainties are out of place in abortion debate

Fri, Jan 25, 2013, 00:00

Opinion:We stood to honour Savita. Outside the Dáil, blocking the buses, sitting on the pavement, making our point that yet again politics had failed and women had suffered. But we weren’t entirely at ease. The raucous rhetoric subdued our clapping. We sidled away from the strident pro-abortion placards. We recoiled at TDs being called hypocrites when all they were was inept or lily-livered.

Yet we knew we should be there and aeons away from the pious certainties of the anti-abortion lobby. We were pro-choice, but with reservations, a lonelier stance perhaps but one that seeks to embrace complexity, the true arena for all ethical choices.

Garret FitzGerald put it well. The intriguing challenge in politics, he said, was to behave ethically while still effecting compromise. There were no simple answers. Politics was primarily about acting on ideas that had been moulded and reshaped. It should not be fuelled to appease certain classes of people or place. Its essence was the embracing of uncertainty.

The mystic Osho invites us to do just that. Two of his comments could indeed assist in any ethics debate. Commandments, he says, “create difficulties for people because by the time they are given they are already out of date. Life moves so fast, it is a dynamism, it is not static”. He urges us also to be responsible, using the word responsible in “the literal sense: respond to reality”. We must not cling to seeming certainties.

The Pyrrhonians said that we knew nothing and were not even sure of that. They suggested we “suspend judgment”, or, as Montaigne expressed it, “hold back” from certainty, of which we can add there are so many victims.

I can’t forget two, perhaps a half century ago. The weeping young mother, weighed down with kids, who was told by her confessor that contraception was sinful. You see, her husband was a sailor, he was rarely home and when he was he “wanted his wife”.

Or consider the Kerry ganger with whom I shared a grotty room in London’s Camden. “If I had the education,” he said, “I’d write a letter to the Examiner. They [priests] would prefer me over here with 12 fatherless children, rather than at home on the farm with six.” Bitter, he was, yet each night he knelt to pray, to whatever god was left.

Austin Clarke acidly depicts such plights. “Her tiredness obeyed/That Saturday night: her husband’s weight/Digging her grave. So, in nine months, she/Sank in great agony on a Monday.” Such demeaning was not only within the Catholic stockade.

Martina Evans charts a similar, although Protestant, milieu in her fine novel No Drinking, No Dancing, No Doctors. And as we now know, Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges are Not the Only Fruit was more than fiction. Its setting was British but it resonated here for many gay people caught between flesh and pulpit.

Cruelties of the past perhaps, but you get similar nasty snatches from the arrogant liberal as well as from the religious zealot. The latter forget, as Leslie D Weatherhead said: “A statement is not true because it is in the Bible, let alone in the Prayer Book. It is not true because Paul says so, or the Pope says so, or because John Wesley says so.”

The former might benefit from the words of Ralph N Helverson: “The trouble with our world is that there are too many people who are too sure of too many things. Their world is too neat for the reality we face. And in this universe of possibilities it is easy to become too rigid. One needs to believe and doubt, to affirm and deny, to agree and to dissent.”

Both sides might mull over how they use language. There’s fun in the stereotype that the pro-abOrtion lobby puts the stress on the letter O while its opponents refer to abArtion. But when the sneering starts, when the placards move beyond the pithy and become ugly, it’s time for reflection.

Such was evident during the Seanad abortion debate, except of course that it wasn’t a real Seanad session. The articulate and the bright were predominantly outsiders, lobbyists or experts, whose performances highlighted the poverty of the usually embarrassing Upper House mishmash. They enticed us to listen and read, to perhaps deviate, to understand that, as Osho writes, “all beliefs are borrowed, others have given them to you, they are not your flowerings”.

This is why the free travel pass is such a boon. It allows space for rumination, to remind us, as the philosopher said, that we can never step into the same river twice. It affords time for us to tackle the perceived verities.

As the young ones tense for work, twiddle with smartphones, and apply their make-up, it facilitates us to consider our beliefs and word choices as we head to the next Leinster House protest. Should we really care about being called old, rather than older?

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