Ireland must resist following the herd on abortion issue

Sat, Aug 4, 2012, 01:00

It is wrong to argue that the only opposition to abortion comes from misogynistic, religious fundamentalists

‘TWO ROADS diverged in a yellow wood, /And sorry I could not travel both, /And be one traveller, long I stood. /And looked down one as far as I could. /To where it bent in the undergrowth.”

Choices ranging from the trivial to the life-changing are a central part of life, but that does not explain the haunting appeal of Robert Frost’s deceptively simple poem, The Road not Taken. Perhaps it is because it so clearly illustrates that any significant choice means abandoning other, even apparently good, paths. In any significant choice, “way leads on to way”, and consequences cascade for good or ill.

Ireland faces a defining choice, and most of the influential voices are calling for us to take the road well travelled, the road taken by most other countries.

There is comfort in travelling with the herd, with making the same decision as many others.

There is comfort, and there is danger. The road well travelled is also where you encounter groupthink, and collective delusion. The road well travelled is littered with recent, painful examples – the housing bubble, the financial crash and environmental destruction.

The road less travelled offers far less immediate comfort, but discounting it simply because it is a less popular route is deeply unwise.

Making a decision about legislating for abortion is never easy, because heart-breaking hard cases do exist. It is never easy, because every decision about abortion involves human beings at the earliest and most vulnerable stage of life. This reality is increasingly recognised even by pro-choice advocates.

To give just one recent example, in early July pro-choice feminist Katie Roiphe wrote an opinion piece in Slate prompted by US law professor Sharon Motero’s suggestion that “preglimony” should be introduced – that is, fathers in non-marital situations should be responsible for medical and other costs of pregnancy.

The “preglimony” suggestion, which Roiphe supports, led her to admit that “the interests of protecting expectant mothers do not necessarily coincide with the interest of protecting abortion rights”. It is a statement with resonance in Ireland.

With remarkable honesty, Roiphe does not think the answer to protecting the right to choose abortion lies in pretending that the foetus is not human life but just a clump of cells. She cites technological advances, such as early ultrasound scans.

“How can we possibly claim that the moving creature, with feet and toes that we can see, is not ‘life’?” Nonetheless, Roiphe still thinks that “the idea that a woman should control her reproductive choices is still a vivid and moral one even to a population that understands full well that a foetus is a baby-in-progress”.

The problem is that unlike Roiphe, most people do not see an ultrasound scan and say, “Well, there’s a great argument for reproductive choice.” It is disappointing that the abortion debate is not being conducted in a reasonable and mature way.

Ministers Reilly and Lynch have not helped by suggesting that there is no choice but to legislate for abortion. It is being strongly implied by many media commentators that the European Court of Human Rights demands legislation along the lines of the X case. That is inaccurate. The ECHR demanded clarity, which is entirely different.

There is also a distressing level of invective targeting people who oppose legislating on the basis of X. To give just two examples, Colette Browne recently said in the Irish Examiner that the only people who could not see the necessity to legislate for X were militant anti-choice campaigners “who would rather see women die, or commit suicide, than have an abortion”.

In The Sunday Times, Michael Clifford suggested that people who oppose abortion are religious fundamentalists who have been spectacularly successful in imposing their personal beliefs on the State, and this has been achieved through fear.

Browne, Clifford and others are out of touch if they think that the only opposition to abortion comes from misogynistic, religious fundamentalists. It is significant that the younger members of Fine Gael are among the most vociferous in their opposition. Younger people in general are less likely to believe that any decision taken 20 years ago represents the cutting edge of progress, even if it was a Supreme Court decision.

Funny, with all the discussion about X, no one talks any more about the C case, which involved a young woman of similar age. No one talks about how the young woman went on to attempt suicide after the State took her to Britain for an abortion.

Strange, too, that after years of growling about politicians with no principle, when politicians reveal deep respect for the principle of protecting all citizens, be they “babies in progress” or already born, they are excoriated.

In fact, the name-calling and invective just weakens the credibility of those pushing for abortion.

Generally, resorting to intemperate mud-slinging means that you wish to avoid engaging with the arguments and evidence presented. (Of course, intemperate people exist on both sides.) It is not as if our nearest neighbour does not provide us with a living lesson in what happens when you legislate for abortion in “limited circumstances”. Britain imports women seeking abortion from all over Europe because its regime is so lax. One in four British pregnancies ends in abortion.

Is that the road we wish to travel? Or do we have the courage to try to build a society where life at all its stages is respected and given care?

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