Has the intolerance of the 1980s pro-life brigade been transplanted to the Repeal debate?

The real debate is not about repealing the Pro-Life Amendment; it’s about what comes after

Today, in an Ireland where the liberal outlook now prevails, pro-choice voices are in the ascendant

Today, in an Ireland where the liberal outlook now prevails, pro-choice voices are in the ascendant

 

Most of us who came of age in the 1980s would happily go through life without a repeat of the rancorous debates about abortion of the time.

Up and down the country, the issue was argued at vitriol-filled meetings where slanging matches and veiled threats were the order of the day.

Now we are facing into another debate on the issue, even if a vote on repealing the Pro-Life Amendment passed in 1983 seems a few years off.

For the first time, it seems likely a proposal to change the Constitution and regulate abortion will be driven by popular demand rather than a dire need to address issues raised by the courts.

The arguments have been stated , but it isn’t too late to hope we can have a productive national conversation on the issue without plumbing the depths as happened 30 years ago.

The signs aren’t good. Once again, discussion is being dominated by the strident voices on the two ends of the spectrum, each group deeply attached to absolutist views on the subject. “Abortion is murder,” screams one side; “Get your rosaries off our ovaries,” shouts the other.

It really could be the 1980s all over again, though it is unlikely those giving out about rosary beads today have seen any in a long while.

Abortion is, understandably, an issue that arouses deep passions but that shouldn’t preclude an effort by all sides to listen to opposing views and try to understand the reasoning involved.

There is one big change between then and now in that the tables have been turned. Thirty years ago, pro-life views were the norm and the notion that women had a right to choose in relation to their fertility was a concept largely confined to university campuses.

Today, in an Ireland where the liberal outlook now prevails, pro-choice voices are in the ascendant. Pro-life groups, in contrast, are greatly diminished in number, strength and influence.

Has one tyranny been replaced with another? Has the intolerance of the pro-life brigade all those years ago been transplanted into the current campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment? Is the debate being covered fairly in the media?

Certainly, the treatment meted out to young Fianna Fáil TD Jack Chambers earlier this year for daring to say he was pro-life was deplorable. Most of the mockery of his views took place online but those engaging in it included media outlets and individual journalists.

Not since Packie Bonner saved a penalty in Italia ’90 have so many Irish journalists worn their hearts on their sleeves on a story. Conviction journalism has its merits, but it remains the responsibility of the media to strive for objectivity. Allegations of media bias are harder to brush aside when so many journalists are so trigger-happy on Twitter and one online site claims to be a “media partner” of a Repeal group.

At the same time, there is an increasingly tokenistic approach to coverage of the pro-life side. The overall balance would be acceptable if the anti-abortion world-view was confined to a tiny minority. But it doesn’t seem to be; pro-life marches regularly attract large crowds and opinion polls show a significant minority are opposed to changing the Constitution.

The push for liberalising abortion law sometimes feels more like a marketing campaign than a political debate. Like the cleverest modern campaigns, it operates on many levels; “Repeal” murals and jumpers are presented as artistic or fashion statements, and an intense focus on personal stories is a strategy borrowed from last year’s marriage equality referendum.

Those jumpers are a design classic and years from now we’ll be looking at them in a museum alongside the 1916 outfits. But for now, even though winter is coming, it might be time to put them away.

For the real debate is not about repealing the Pro-Life Amendment; it’s about what comes after it. That is not something that will fit on the front of a sweater.

I thought about this recently when interviewing Kathleen Sebelius, who was Barack Obama’s health secretary for four years. Sebelius is Irish-American, anti-abortion – and resolutely pro-choice. She believes life begins at the moment of conception but she doesn’t believe it is her business to impose her religious views on others.

Her views have angered the US Catholic bishops, who have refused to give her communion. One of her donors, a doctor who carried out late-term abortions, was assassinated by a pro-life activist.

I have never heard an Irish politician cogently articulate the view espoused by Sebelius, and yet I suspect her stance is shared by many of them. Perhaps it is time we started hearing more of those voices.

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