160,000 reasons to take action on abortion

Opinion: ‘Constitutional provisions on abortion are just the detritus of the ecstatic picnic of theocracy’s final fling’

If you’re reading this on a train or a bus, have a look around you. There is every chance that you will see a woman who has had an abortion. It might be that sharply dressed middle-aged lady. It might be the sweet granny taking her grandkids to the zoo. It might be the student going over her lecture notes.

At least 160,000 Irish women have had abortions abroad since 1980. That’s close to one in 10 of the female population aged between 14 and 64. These women are our mothers, sisters, daughters, friends, neighbours. Yet abortion is part of official discourse only when a new atrocity breaks the surface of a deep silence.

It takes some grotesque tormenting of a woman – such as the latest case in which a suicidal woman was forced by court order to continue a pregnancy that resulted from rape – for an everyday reality to be acknowledged.

That reality is plain: Irish women have abortions and Irish people are OK with it. They agree that women should be free to have abortions in England under a very wide set of criteria. In 1992, when there was a referendum on the right to travel outside the State to have an abortion, Youth Defence spelt out very clearly what this meant from an anti-abortion perspective: “The word ‘travel’ is being used by cowardly politicians and others as a cover-up for the violent and vicious killing of defenceless Irish babies by English doctors.” If you believe that abortion is murder, this was the truth. The Irish people voted for it nonetheless, by 62 per cent to 38 per cent. This made it abundantly clear that, for all the rhetoric and all the silences, most Irish people, even then, did not actually believe in banning abortion.


Regime does not reflect public opinion

Even in relation to abortions within Ireland, it is clear the current, punitively restrictive regime does not reflect public opinion. In an

Irish Times

poll in June 2013 81 per cent said abortion should be allowed in cases of rape or abuse, with just 10 per cent saying it should not. Asked whether abortion should be permitted if the foetus is not capable of surviving outside the womb, 83 per cent said it should, with 8 per cent saying it should not.

And yet, we somehow end up imposing in the most cruel way the views of a small rump of the population on abused and suicidal women. There’s a lot of talk about the tyranny of majorities but this is a clear case of the tyranny of a small minority. For all the lazy talk of abortion as a “divisive” issue, the truth is that the vast bulk of public opinion is on one side of the divide – the side that wants the law to allow women in awful circumstances to make their own choices.

The real division, in fact, is between most Irish people on the one side and the political and legal regime on the other. It exists because, when it comes to abortion, we are almost literally living in the past.

This whole mess goes back to a very specific moment in Irish history – the last stand of theocratic Catholicism. For a short period in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it seemed possible to the Catholic hierarchy and to militant lay Catholics that the old regime of church control of legislation on family, sexuality and reproduction could be preserved.

This was not primarily about abortion – contraception, divorce and homosexuality were much more pertinent questions at the time. But abortion was seen, correctly, as what the Christian right in the US would call a “wedge issue” – a cultural and emotional redoubt behind which conservatives could rally.

This attempted counter-revolution is the one and only reason why abortion is in the Constitution. And it wasn’t even a successful counter-revolution. It had some temporary success in galvanising conservative Ireland for a last stand. But it did absolutely nothing to stop abortions – there were 3,650 in 1982 before the anti-abortion amendment to the Constitution and 3,946 in 1984 after it.

And it failed in its larger goals of stopping reforms on contraception, homosexuality and (eventually) divorce. The constitutional provisions on abortion are just the tattered vestiges of an old disappointment, the beer cans and torn ponchos left on the sodden field the day after a festival of self-righteousness, the detritus of the ecstatic picnic of theocracy’s final fling.

Torturing women

It is one thing to torture women for a coherent principle, backed up by a deep moral consensus. (Not a good thing, of course, but at least a serious thing.) But it is outrageous to break the will of already vulnerable women on the rack of a long-discarded ideology.

There’s something sick in a system where the horrific reality of forced pregnancy matters less than the preservation of what amount to constitutional catchphrases with as much relevance to contemporary Ireland as Maoist slogans have in today’s China.

This tyranny of an old failure has to stop. There will be referendums next year, and one of them should be to remove abortion from the Constitution and put it where it should be – into the ordinary Irish reality where most of us live.