Campaign against abortion is a phoney war


IT IS now 30 years since anti-abortion groups succeeded in pushing their issue to the top of the Irish political agenda. We have had five referendums, numerous High and Supreme Court cases, interdepartmental working groups, all-party committees, green papers and European Court challenges. And what difference has it all made? None whatsoever.

The only thing that has changed is that better access to contraception and sexual health information has gradually reduced the number of Irish women going abroad for abortions. (For the main destination, the UK, the numbers dropped from 6,673 in 2001 to 4,149 in 2011.)

But it would be naive to expect that anti-abortion groups would follow this logic and conclude that giving women more knowledge and control is the best way to reduce abortions. For, of course, this is not a question of rationality. It is all about symbolism. The twist is that even the symbolism scarcely matters any more.

My main problem with Irish anti-abortion campaigners is not that they are too extreme. It is that they are not extreme enough. If they really believe what they purport to believe – that a fertilised ovum is a human being in exactly the same sense as Nelson Mandela or Lady Gaga or the pope – they are disgracefully moderate. Their basic proposition is this: about 5,000 Irish people every year are being taken out of the country and massacred in cold blood.

Over the last decade, the equivalent of the entire population of Limerick city has been murdered. If you believe this, it dwarfs every other question in modern Ireland – the Northern Ireland conflict (in its latter stages, one-fiftieth of the number of annual “murders”); the economic crisis; any and every abuse of human rights by the State. You have an absolute moral duty to do everything you can to stop it, including, at a minimum, demanding restrictions on the right of pregnant women to travel.

But most anti-abortion activists – sane, decent, well-motivated people, by and large – don’t really believe that the equivalent of the population of Limerick has been murdered over the last 10 years. They’ve adopted a position, overwhelmingly for religious reasons, that “life” is a single, indivisible, unqualified entity. And that position then forces them into an absolutism that most of them do not instinctively feel.

How do we know they don’t really feel this way? Because, almost without exception, they believe that abortion is sometimes both necessary and morally justified. There is a lunatic fringe that would deny life-saving medical treatment to a pregnant woman if it results in the termination of the pregnancy. But most anti-abortion activists have the decency and compassion to know that this is grotesque. They believe that a mother’s life should be saved, even if, as a consequence, her baby must die.

But they can’t reconcile this moral instinct with the intellectual absolutism of the position they have adopted. So they engage in a sleight-of-mind. They adopt two (actually rather inconsistent) positions: (a) abortion is never in fact necessary to save a woman’s life; and (b) even if it is, it’s not abortion.

The second of these is merely a silly linguistic game – the termination of a pregnancy is, by definition, abortion. But the first is exactly what is at stake right now. The European court ruled last year that Ireland is in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights because it has failed to implement the Supreme Court ruling in the X case that a woman can have an abortion when her life is at risk.

All the major anti-abortion groups deal with this by complete denial, claiming that it is simply never the case that an abortion is necessary to save the life of the mother. But this is demonstrably untrue. There is actually a jurisdiction whose abortion laws are similar to what those in the Republic would be if we legislated for the X case. It’s called Northern Ireland. The regime north of the Border is that a woman can have an abortion where her life is endangered.

Last week, for the first time, we got figures on precisely how often it is necessary to carry out an abortion to save a woman’s life: 44 times in 2008-2009; 36 in 2009-2010; 43 in 2010-2011. If we were to scale those figures up – very crudely – for the Republic, we would have about 120 women a year who need abortions to save their lives.

So why would otherwise rational people go on denying this? Because, for them, this is not actually about human realities. It is about symbolism. A blanket ban on abortion – which, in practice, they don’t actually believe in – is a statement about the nature of Ireland.

But here is the news: that symbolism is now empty. They started fighting this war 30 years ago, when the idea of Ireland as a theocratic state was still up for grabs. But that idea is gone and it’s not coming back. Sacrificing women in a war to save a genuine ideal is dodgy. Sacrificing them in a phoney war of dead symbolism is inexcusable.

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