Calm down, dears, and have a rational debate on abortion


Hysteria is historically seen as a peculiarly female failing: mad talk caused by our wandering wombs. Like many ancient beliefs, it still lurks in the back of people’s brains: women are much more likely than men to be labelled shrill, or strident, or sexually frustrated, or emotionally unstable.

“Calm down, dear”: the classic put-down to a little lady who’s got herself in a tizzy. But men – especially those with an avid interest in shoring up their dwindling political or religious authority – are just as prone to indulging themselves with wild, emotive, irresponsible language. The only difference is that we don’t tend to call it hysteria. We should.

The importunate intervention of the Catholic archbishops, following the Government’s announcement of its intention to introduce legislation for abortion – in extremely limited circumstances – is a case in point.

The words were barely out of Minister for Health James Reilly’s mouth when the robed quartet popped up, invoking the prospect of “the direct and intentional killing of the innocent baby in the womb”. Later, Leo O’Reilly, the Bishop of Kilmore, weighed in. He described the proposals as “the first step on the road to a culture of death”, adding that “once you say one human life can be directly destroyed, no human life is safe”.

Nobody was surprised by the sentiments, of course. Bears behave in the usual way when they go into the woods. But the urgency and the extremity of the rhetoric, even by customary standards, was striking.

Anti-abortion campaigners, in general, are known for their gruesome, accusatory language, yet this was positively operatic: state-sponsored killing of the innocents, widespread forcible euthanasia, the grim advent of the ill-defined but all-consuming “culture of death”.

Let us remind ourselves, we are speaking about protecting a woman’s right to continued existence when a crisis pregnancy puts her life in danger. Only that. It is the absolute minimum she deserves, and is entitled to expect; hardly the gateway to inexorable evil.

No need for histrionics. Calm down, dears.

Meanwhile, Rónán Mullen was ramping up the emotional pressure in the Seanad. He warned his colleagues not to fall into “double-think” by condemning the school shootings in Connecticut while supporting the introduction of a new legal framework for abortion here. He urged Senators not to “forget a whole category of children in our own country”.

Drawing a moral equivalence between the murder of a class of six-year-olds and the termination of a pregnancy which is threatening the mother’s life is repugnant on so many levels: the absolutist logic; the casual rhetorical opportunism; the blatant disrespect for grieving families.

Curiously, there is a coldness, a heartlessness, that often accompanies such emotive arguments. We also saw it when John Larkin – in remarks made before he became the North’s Attorney General — said that destroying a highly disabled foetus in the womb was akin to “putting a bullet in the back of the head of the child two days after it’s born”.

When it comes to arguing the anti-abortion case, the frequent assumption is that the end justifies the means, no matter how aggressive, inflammatory and distasteful those means appear to be.

Whatever their beliefs, there is an onus on political and religious leaders to use temperate, considered language, in accordance with the dignity of their public role. They have a greater responsibility than the rest of us to rise above the heat of the immediate situation.

That does not mean that passion and force should be absent. Last Sunday night, in Newtown, Connecticut, Barack Obama gave one of the most impassioned speeches of his presidency, making a strong, moving and deeply articulate call for a change in gun policy. Each word was carefully chosen. In such a heightened situation, it would be easy to give in to the temptation to storm and emote and fulminate. Obama resisted that, and his message was all the more powerful because it was calm and measured. Regardless of Obama’s other failings, this is what real leadership looks like. Our own public figures should take note.

The bishops and their like are not simply giving vent to heartfelt emotion. In that sense, this is not wild talk at all. Their statements are intentionally, and strategically, freighted with fear and hostility, aimed at evoking an emotional, rather than an intellectual, political reaction.

They also serve to perpetuate still further the deep sense of guilt around this issue, so that many people feel they are invoking something evil simply by uttering the word “abortion”. In short, they are continuing their attempt to frighten and shame us, in a visceral manner, rather than rationally persuade us.

But the intensification of their rhetoric in recent days may be telling. The use of excessively emotive language is often the hallmark of a group that knows it is losing the battle, resorting instead to increasingly hysterical claims. The position they cling to is archaic, abstruse and culpably inhumane. No amount of disingenuous emotional incontinence can disguise that.

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