Abortion: by vilifying ‘the other side’ we harm ourselves
Laura Kennedy: By vilifying ‘the other side’ and deciding that they are less human in some way, less well intended, or more monstrous, we harm ourselves
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Minister for Children Catherine Zappone and Health Minister Simon Harris during the press conference following the cabinet debate on the referendum on the Eight Amendment. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
In late May or early June, the Irish people will vote in a referendum on the eighth amendment which has taken more than one generation of advocacy by hard working women and men to force into reality.
Few can have failed to notice the palpable cultural shift in the last few years. Conversations about abortion – and the experiences of women who have had to travel to procure one – have perforated the mainstream, and are now commonplace. An increasing number of people find the pragmatic consequences of the Eighth Amendment to our Constitution unacceptable. There is a collective sense that we can do better.
However, in a conversation which essentially boils down to fundamental questions – “what are the necessary and sufficient conditions to personhood?”, or “what is the definition of a human being?”, there will be disagreement. When, depending on how you answer that question, the consequences are either denying women’s bodily autonomy, or killing a baby, there will be aggression, division, and disagreement.
Coping with the atmosphere of the debate around abortion is challenging. Some of it is legitimate debate, in which people share their perspectives on what constitutes the greater good. It might get a bit fractious, or it might not, but that is the nature of debate, when human beings, for whatever reason, can become offended or irritated that others don’t see things the way we do.
Pushing our own irritation aside is the only means to legitimate progress when exploring a difficult topic. Much of the debate, however, is actually “debate”. This disingenuous facsimile of the exchange of opinion and ideas is rife, and neither side carefully evaluates its own tendency to engage in bad faith for fear an inch of ground might be lost.
There are, of course, people of every view who engage in bad faith, and with these people, progress is impossible. Their aim is not to come to a better understanding, or to exchange ideas. It is to vent aggression, to batter down the other side, to decide the intentions behind what the other person thinks in the most uncharitable way, and disdain them accordingly.
We can identify this easily – through “justing” – “you are just saying that because x” (the only way we can know why someone says or thinks something is by asking them). Also common are ad hominem attacks, in which the goal posts are moved from discussing the merits of a point being made, to insulting the character of the person making the point. This is a lazy distraction tactic.
A recent Irish Times/MRBI opinion poll found that 56 per cent of people polled were in favour of legislating for abortion on request up to twelve weeks’ gestation. Some 29 per cent were against, and 15 per cent responded with “Don’t Know”. In reality, the undecided people are the ones both sides should and will target to push their result over the line.
We are all tired, and there is a way yet to go. After the referendum is over we will have to live with one another as we do now, and Irish society will still be made up of people whose ideologies differ in every respect. This is a good thing. By vilifying “the other side”, whatever side that may be, and deciding that they are less human in some way, less well intended, or more monstrous, we harm ourselves.
The result of this referendum will be decided in conversations with other people, in living rooms, at bus stops, on lunch breaks. If we can get through the coming months without dismissing someone simply because they disagree with us, without insulting anyone or engaging with others’ insults of us, and accepting that different views will necessitate the payment of different prices for what we see as the greater good, we can look one another in the eye and know that we have comported ourselves honourably. Ends do not justify means; there is something bigger than our egos here. We all should carry the words “my emotions are irrelevant” with us as talismans, even if we have to crush them into a balled fist. A closed fist does not necessitate a closed mind.