Una Mullally: Yet another election in which abortion is being deflected

No issue exposes the unwillingness to engage on important topics more than abortion: we are all part of the conspiracy of silence

During the leaders’ debate on TV3 last week, abortion was framed solely in the context of fatal foetal abnormalities. It is such a typically Irish approach: why risk actually talking about the issue when you can just discuss a little bit of it? Photograph: Aidan Crawley.

During the leaders’ debate on TV3 last week, abortion was framed solely in the context of fatal foetal abnormalities. It is such a typically Irish approach: why risk actually talking about the issue when you can just discuss a little bit of it? Photograph: Aidan Crawley.

 

It’s strange that what should be an exciting time in Irish politics has delivered a general election campaign so anticlimactic. The result is increasingly hard to call, and uncertainty has a paralysing effect. The electorate remains uninspired by both party politics and party leaders. The repetitive hoo-ha over more women running thanks to gender quotas has died down, and the story of potentially more women being elected than ever before will not be told until it happens. The popularity of Independents remains a difficult story for the media to tell, because it’s not a cohesive one. They do not operate as a single entity, so they’re hard to paint in broad brushstrokes. At this point in a mercifully condensed campaign, it’s very much about keeping the head down. But for the first time I can remember, most people I talk to are still deciding who to vote for. There’s a sense that everything is up in the air.

With everything so fractured, the most cohesive narrative will dominate. Fine Gael has managed to manufacture the most tangible narrative (which isn’t saying much), that is paradoxically characterised by its vagueness: “Keep The Recovery Going.” It is the most masterfully bland slogan since “A Lot Done. More To Do.” Both slogans are equal parts idle and threatening. Both are designed to appeal to engaged supporters, while staying beige enough to make sense on a superficial level to passive half-supporters. Both appeal to the Irish equivalent of laissez-faire, the dominant characteristic of our national attitude: “Ah sure it’s grand.” Keep The Recovery Going. Going where, exactly?

Election devoid of big ideas

For many politicians, the fewer issues discussed during a campaign, the better. It’s preferable to deal in ambiguous slogans, play up personalities, engage in tit-for-tat competition-bashing, or spout undeliverable promises. It’s not unique for an Irish general election to be largely devoid of big ideas and idealism, or to fail to tackle the big issues. But perhaps no single issue exposes the lack of willingness to engage on important topics more than abortion. The problem with deflecting answers on abortion is that it’s hard to do it. Avoidance is automatically exposed. As a society, we are all part of the conspiracy of silence that has shrouded abortion. But politicians are the top deflectors.

During the leaders’ debate on TV3 last week, the issue of abortion got less than 10 minutes’ airtime. It was framed solely in the context of fatal foetal abnormalities, which are a tragic element of pregnancy and terminations, but they are not the abortion issue – they are just part of it.

The vast majority of women in Ireland who travel to the UK and elsewhere for abortions are not doing so because of fatal foetal abnormalities. Yet the personal tragedy of fatal foetal abnormalities has become the only acceptable battleground so far on which the issue of abortion will be fought.

Already there is a sense of incrementalism, not clarity, to the abortion debate. It appears as though politicians are just about happy to talk about abortion only through the prism of fatal foetal abnormalities. Somewhere along the line, this has been decided upon as the acceptable platform on which they’ll teeter, segmenting the issue of abortion again and again just so they don’t have to talk about it as a whole. It is such a typically Irish approach.

Why risk actually talking about the issue when you can just discuss a little bit of it? And sadly, as it happens, cases of fatal foetal abnormalities are amongst the most heartbreaking in the topic of abortion. These are potential lives that parents actually asked for and wanted. And so politicians can feign compassion at the cost of people who’ve actually been through this pain having to listen to them. It is a truly cynical approach to the debate.

How much longer and more painfully must we “tease out” the issue? How many more party leaders’ debates will women have to sit through as they dilly-dally on the issue of fatal foetal abnormalities? And then the issue of incest? And then rape? And then underage pregnancies? And then maybe the rest? We need to talk about all of abortion, so we need to talk about choice.

Against women’s reproductive rights

“We’re not promoting the idea of a repeal of the Eighth,” said Micheál Martin during the leaders’ debate. Well, at least we know Fianna Fáil is against women’s reproductive rights. “We would like to see the people after due debate to be given an opportunity to repeal the Eighth Amendment,” Joan Burton said. Labour’s position is clear. Gerry Adams said women who do not want to go full term with a fatal foetal abnormality should have the right to a termination. But Enda Kenny refused to answer what Fine Gael’s position on abortion is with any clarity.

“Fine Gael’s position is that we have the Eighth Amendment,” he said, donning the bicorne of Captain Obvious. “We have legislated for what that means. If you are to change anything in the Constitution, you are going to have to get a consensus . . .” Kenny can’t even spin the issue anymore, he just ends up tangled in it. The people deserve to know where politicians stand on abortion. If Fine Gael’s leader can’t answer a simple question, how is he going to resolve a tough issue?

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