Neither side in heated abortion debate has monopoly on nastiness


‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”

Whoever wrote that nursery rhyme was singularly lacking in insight. Words are not inert. Names hurt and harm.

Journalists Justine McCarthy and Martina Devlin have written about hateful communications from allegedly pro-life people. Justine McCarthy was forced to complain to police about lies that included the claim that she had had an affair and aborted the baby in a private Dublin hospital. The abhorrent allegations were treated by gardaí with the seriousness they deserve.

However, no side has a monopoly on nastiness. After expressing pro-life views, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin was warned to be careful on the street. David Quinn of the Iona Institute (of which I am a patron) received a phone call from someone suggesting that he should be castrated and hung up in O’Connell Street. On Twitter, someone stated that Senator Rónán Mullen should be crucified with rusty nails.

You could dismiss the people who do these appalling things as cranks and nutters, but when such abuse becomes normalised on the internet, it then influences other commentary, which has become noticeably more contemptuous and dismissive. It spreads a net far wider than the current debate on abortion.

As someone with anti-abortion views, I am frequently described as a bigoted religious fundamentalist wishing to impose a theocracy. Those are the nicer comments.

People often talk about the need for greater tolerance. But it is important to realise that tolerance does not mean acceptance and affirmation of other people’s views. Tolerance is much grittier and messier than that. Tolerance means putting up with things of which you do not approve, in order to achieve a greater good, that of a society where human dignity and freedom are respected.

I would not expect people who believe that a woman’s right to bodily integrity and individual autonomy trumps all other rights and responsibilities to accept my views. I would hope they would tolerate them.

However, even in this sense of “putting up with”, there are limits to tolerance. We tolerate people’s right to express opinions, but not to carry out actions that breach human rights.

Limits to tolerance are obvious on matters on which we all agree. No one would suggest that anyone who opposed slavery could say, “Of course, I don’t support slavery in my own country, but I recognise other countries’ right to choose to enslave human beings.”

Suggesting to someone who is anti-abortion they should just not have abortions but still allow abortion legislation, is to miss the point completely.

It’s the same as suggesting to someone who doesn’t approve of female genital mutilation (FGM) that they just shouldn’t have it done to their daughter, but should not be so judgmental as to oppose laws permitting it for others. Such a suggestion would be seen as outrageous because it would mean tolerating an assault on a defenceless child.

Just to be clear, I am not equating FGM with abortion. There is no perfect analogy for abortion, because it involves a unique interplay between the rights of two human beings. However, I don’t see the life in the womb as the enemy of the mother, but as a son or daughter who, like the mother, has a right to all of our protection.

It would be wonderful if people who are pro-choice could see that for someone who believes that life begins at conception, there is no choice except to oppose the direct and intentional targeting of that life. It is not woman-hating, or fundamentalism, or any other malign motivation. It is upholding a basic human right.

To much acclaim, President Obama recently said: “This is our first task, caring for our children. It’s our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That’s how, as a society, we will be judged.”

I agree with him, except I believe becoming a parent starts from the moment of conception. Most of the time, the rest of the world seems to agree with me. For example, the chief medical officer states baldly: it is in the child’s best interests for a pregnant woman not to drink alcohol during pregnancy. The Health Promotion Unit’s advice on smoking in pregnancy is called “Give your baby a breather”.

It is only when extreme stress or a crisis descends on a woman, that it is suddenly no longer seen as a baby, but a choice. I don’t stand in judgment on women who have had abortions. I don’t know what I would have done myself as a younger woman. Therefore, my preferred option is to support women in crisis, so that abortion would never have to be perceived as the “least bad” option.

It has little to do with my religious beliefs. I know that, because during an agnostic period (which stemmed, ironically enough, from a miscarriage) I still abhorred abortion.

Tolerance is not the same as non-judgmentalism. A healthy democracy thrives on strongly held views. It is only when strongly held views degenerate into contempt for the people and groups who hold them that our society becomes a scarier place to be.

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