Una Mullally: Borders of the middle ground being redrawn in abortion debate

Micheál Martin’s support for repeal of the Eighth Amendment is already being described as a key moment in the campaign

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has said he will support the repeal of the Eighth Amendment and most of the recommendations of the Oireachtas committee which considered the State’s abortion regime. Video: Oireachtas TV

A referendum campaign begins when a date is called and ends when the votes are counted. Officially. But on social issues in Ireland, we know that’s not the case. “Matters of public debate” drag on for years, perhaps none more so than the issue of abortion. If a campaign is to happen in May or June, we’ll know the date soon. Then the slog will begin. Referendum campaigns have a seemingly endless capacity for drama, for personalities, for emotion.

Like all referendum campaigns, unexpected voices will carry weight. We know what feminist activists and clergy are going to argue. The same faces saying the same things breeds a sort of listlessness. It’s the unexpected voice that causes you to sit up and pay attention. This is why, in a campaign context, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin’s support for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment and unrestricted access to abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy is already being described as a key moment in the campaign.

Martin’s unexpected voice is important, but how he came to his decision tells a bigger story. Martin says he had a long period of reflection, and assessed the evidence before the Oireachtas Committee, particularly that of doctors and clinicians.

Brexit was a dishonest campaign, and we should be deeply concerned that any political campaign here would seek to ape such tactics

Ireland has existed in a vacuum of misinformation, taboo, and hostility towards abortion for so long, underpinned by Catholic dogma. It will take a long time to disentangle the Catholic church’s negative impact on women’s rights, sex, obstetrics, and so on, from Irish society. The distinction between having faith and supporting the Catholic church is a muddled one that many Irish people continue to grapple with, but the answer, like many complex topics, resides in nuance.


Facts and realities

As we emerge from this vacuum, it has become increasingly clear that when presented with facts and realities and the opportunity to reflect, people who even once held anti-choice positions begin to change their minds. We saw this in the Oireachtas Committee, and we saw it with Martin, we see it with other politicians. Facts and realities.

Unfortunately, those who oppose abortion in all circumstances are on the same team that have given us fake “crisis pregnancy clinics”, campaigners spouting fake “science”, fake figures made up about the number the Eighth Amendment has “saved”, fake posters purporting to be from pro-choice people. They even have fake jumpers, with the slogan “Reveal”, mimicking the now iconic Repeal jumper design. Unfortunately for the “Revealers”, the design is so similar, that it simply looks as though they are sporting a sweater supportive of the repeal of the Eighth Amendment. A report that the anti-choice side has recruited Kanto, the political consultancy specialising in digital which was linked to Brexit, is noteworthy. Brexit was a dishonest campaign, and we should be deeply concerned that any political campaign here would seek to ape such tactics.

Nobody can dispute the fact that thousands of Irish women have an abortion every year,' Martin said. This fact is a massive issue for the anti-choice side

Martin’s statement also shows how the borders of the “middle ground” are being redrawn. Martin’s position has actually been the “middle ground” for some time, but the media has been slow to realise that the abortion “debate”, as they frame it, is no longer two distant, opposing poles fighting each other. There is one extreme – the belief that abortion should never happen in any circumstance – and then there is everything else, which comes broadly under the pro-choice umbrella.

Compassion or control?

While some commentators repeat the obvious insight that referenda are about the “middle ground”, they are more accurately about the “million in the middle”. We may perceive the positions taken in debates as representative of general opinion, but in some ways, these absolute positions can tend to reside on the outer fringes of that million in the middle, although it is important to note the broad support for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment. Within the borders of positions of conviction, there are changeable attitudes, apathy, a willingness to be informed, nuanced opinions, fence-sitting, open-mindedness, and however else you want to characterise those who will ultimately go with one side or the other, but won’t be moved to head out canvassing in the rain to fight for the issue.

A turnout percentage in the mid 60s, which is large, but likely to be close to the 2018 referendum turnout, gives you about two million valid votes. Securing the “million in the middle”, along with the highly motivated supporters already on board, wins the referendum. The three abortion referendums in 1992 saw a 68.13 per cent turnout.

“Nobody can dispute the fact that thousands of Irish women have an abortion every year,” Martin said. This fact is a massive issue for the anti-choice side. While professing a deeply and authentically held compassion for the “unborn”, it is an awkward reality that such compassion does not seem to extend to pregnant women who do not want to be pregnant for whatever reason. That begs the question: is this about compassion, or is it about control? The anti-choice slogan “Love Both” doesn’t seem to ring true when met with the pleas of women to provide for abortion in Ireland as part of their healthcare.

What anti-choice campaigners do have (along with resources) is a deeply held belief that abortion is wrong. The clincher is whether this belief, held by those against abortion no matter what, is strong enough an argument for the Irish voting public when met with the facts and realities of the necessity or choice of abortion in the vast array of circumstances of pregnancy. If Martin changed his mind, who else will?