Dáil abortion debates indicative of highly polarised campaign
Although many TDs called for respect in Dáil debate, they still had a go at their opponents
Danny Healy-Rae asked: “What about the lovely, big families that were reared around my neck of the woods?” Photograph: Alan Betson
A number of elements become clear as one watches, or reads the Dáil debates on the abortion referendum Bill. Firstly, everybody says that they want a civilised and respectful debate.
But from the contributions of many TDs, it appears they want a civilised and respectful debate on their own terms. Many TDs called for respect, while having a go at their opponents.
Lisa Chambers, the pro-choice Fianna Fáil TD for Mayo, delivered a reasoned and measured speech, but also attacked her opponents for bringing up the subject of disabilities, and for using the term “abortion on demand”.
The Independent anti-abortion TD Michael Collins bemoaned the “disrespect” shown to such views in the House and in the media.
Then he nailed his colours to the mast: “Let us not sully the memory of those who fought for our nation’s freedom by taking away the right to life from society’s most vulnerable.”
It is clear from the debate just how polarised the debate will become. Any binary question – yes or no? – does not of its nature lend itself to compromise.
Imelda Munster said the regime anticipated by her opponents was “barbaric”. Peadar Tóibín said that “this referendum will determine for 50 years hence who lives and who dies”. And they’re in the same party.
Raped children forced to continue with pregnancies and give birth; sex-selective abortion; women dying because of Ireland’s laws; disabled babies/foetuses and those with Down syndrome aborted – they all made an appearance. You can imagine what the accompanying online commentary was like.
Despite the mutual antagonism often evident, each side will appropriate the arguments and labels of their opponents.
Many TDs arguing for repeal insisted that they were “pro-life”. Similarly, the Fianna Fáil TD Charlie McConalogue declared, “It is important that we allow people to live their lives as they so choose, whether that be according to their own religion or to no religion.” He opposes the referendum, though.
Anti-abortion TDs insist that what is being proposed by the Government is a significant leap, a dramatic liberalisation of the law on abortion; pro-choice TDs say it is a modest proposal that would bring Ireland into line with the European mainstream. Neither acknowledges that both are probably right.
To say that on the evidence of the Dáil debate, extraneous arguments will be aired over the coming weeks doesn’t quite cover it.
‘Women as vessels’
Paul Murphy accused his opponents of wanting to “literally use women as vessels, as in the Handmaid’s Tale.”
On the other side, Danny Healy-Rae was more than a match.
“What about the lovely, big families that were reared around my neck of the woods?” he asked. “There were 22 Cahills, 17 Lovetts and 15 O’Connors who are still around. They were fine boys and girls. There were also 16 O’Sullivans. I know of a girl who has arrived in our neck of the woods from another county. She is very welcome. There were 22 in her family. She told me of how their father took them to school in a cattle box tied onto a Ford 3000 tractor. At one point, 14 of them were going to the local primary school at the same time.”
Finally, I think it is clear from the tone of many of the remarks that most TDs, even those who are opposed to it, believe that the referendum will pass. Many of the anti-referendum TDs sounded like the battle was already lost. But the battle is moving away to the Dáil, out to the country.
The Dáil majority yesterday was massive, 110 votes to 32. The polls suggest it is tighter in the country.