Five rules for a open and civil debate on the abortion referendum

All sides should understand that all the ethical issues that abortion raise are “up for debate”

In a few months, Ireland is going to have a referendum on whether to repeal its constitutional ban on abortion. Few topics raise more disagreement, controversy and heated reactions than abortion. Abortion strikes emotional chords and touches upon issues to which people are very sensitive, such as the value of human life, women's bodily rights, religious prescriptions and freedom of conscience (for doctors).

Typically, abortion debates are very polarised: people are either strongly in favour or strongly opposed to abortion, and they are unlikely to change their mind on the matter. Besides, contenders in abortion debates tend to talk past each other: while those who oppose abortion focus almost exclusively on the issue of the right to life of the foetus, those who are in favour often appeal to women’s rights over their body.

Both sides tend to think that their concerns so vastly outweigh, for moral importance, those of their opponents that it is not worth spending time listening, let alone giving proper consideration, to arguments from the other side. This self-righteous attitude leads many people to despising or even wanting to silence their opponents. It is therefore unsurprising that abortion debates often boil down to unfruitful and aggressive shouting of slogans.

The forthcoming Irish referendum offers a good opportunity to shift away from this model and to finally have an open, civilised and fruitful exchange of opinions among the different parties. Everybody should make an effort to abandon the bigotry that often characterises the different ethical stances on abortion.


Self-righteousness and bigotry

Unfortunately, the radicalisation of feminist and pro-abortion stances often leads to exactly that kind of self-righteousness and bigotry which too often, and stereotypically, is attributed to the pro-life and conservative camp. It is therefore important that everybody, not only the pro-lifers, makes an effort to become really “liberal” when it comes to freedom of speech in abortion debates.

A few months ago I was invited by Oxford Students for Life (OSFL), a pro-life student organisation at the University of Oxford, where I work, to defend in a public debate my views against doctors’ alleged right to conscientiously object to performing abortions, a right in which the pro-life firmly believe.

I have to say that I was a bit surprised by the invitation, considering the people at OSFL were presumably aware of my views about abortion and infanticide. However, I was curious to see to what extent they were committed to freedom of speech. Therefore, not only did I accept the invitation, but during my talk I tried to be as extreme and as provocative as possible in my arguments in favour of abortion and against doctors’ right to conscientious objection.

Although many in the audience who were anti-abortion were visibly shocked and outraged by my ideas, they allowed me to present my views, raised a few sensible objections during the Q&A time, and gave the time to address their concern.

At the end, they thanked me for presenting what they considered very challenging positions. A few days ago, they invited me to take part in another debate on abortion they have organised for mid-February. This is exactly what a serious commitment to freedom of speech and to a civilised and fruitful debate on abortion entails.

Polarised debate

A few weeks before that event, OSFL had organised another public event where some anti-abortion speakers were invited to discuss, from the anti-abortion perspective, the proposal to have a referendum on abortion in Ireland. Among the speakers was Irish Times columnist and well-known anti-abortionist Breda O'Brien. The event was disrupted by some members of Women's Campaign (WomCam), a feminist pro-abortion subgroup of the Oxford Students' Union. They prevented O'Brien from speaking for almost one hour and squeezed out of the room the people who wanted to attend the event. WomCam members defended themselves from the accusation of having violated the anti-abortion advocate's freedom of speech through the following statement: "Bodily autonomy is not up for debate; it is not a question of opinion. Access to healthcare is a basic human right." This is exactly the attitude that polarises abortion debates and reduces them to an unfruitful contraposition of aggressive slogans.

If we want the Irish abortion debate to be open, fruitful, and civilised, both sides – liberals and pro-abortion included – should understand that all the ethical issues that abortion raise are indeed “up for debate”.

Undoubtedly, many women, feminists or pro-abortion, feel offended by arguments and opinions against abortion, because they see them as threatening certain rights and capable of inducing negative feelings in those who have experienced or are considering abortion. In the same way, many anti-abortion supporters feel offended by pro-abortion arguments, because they see them as threatening the sacred value of life, a value that for them is at the core of morality.

Feminist students

However, it would be good if everybody followed the example of the Oxford anti-abortion students, rejected the self-righteous and bigoted attitude of the Oxford feminist students, and didn’t take feeling offended as a reason to silence their opponents. Thus, to have an open, civil and fruitful debate on the forthcoming abortion referendum, I suggest five basic rules people should follow in debating either in favour or against the abolition of the constitutional ban on abortion:

1. When something someone says causes offence, whether foreseeably or not, we should ask whether the offence is intentional.

2. There is no right not to be unintentionally offended.

3. There is no duty not to unintentionally offend others.

4. Free exchange of ideas should be equally enjoyed by everyone, even if some find the ideas offensive (unless offence is intentional).

5. The more committed one is to traditionally liberal or progressive ethical approaches, the more stringent the requirement to ensure a free exchange of ideas.

Alberto Giubilini is a researcher at the Oxford Martin School & Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanities University of Oxford