Women in Ireland should be allowed to control their own fertility.
The campaign to Repeal the 8th Amendment to the constitution swung into action in earnest last week, with the annual March for Choice. An estimated 40,000 turned out in Dublin alone, showing a level of support for enabling women to control their own fertility that would have been unthinkable, even ten years ago.
The Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, has promised a Referendum on the issue before Summer 2017, so the clock is ticking. There is still no clarity as to what proposition might be put to the people, but that a vote is on the way is certain.
The build-up to it is likely to be deeply unpleasant. While there have been calls from the political establishment for mutual respect during the course of the debate, that is pie in the sky thinking. It will get dirty. It may even get very dirty.
The Anti-Happiness League will stop at nothing. A combination of lies, smears, bullying, intimidation and fake news will certainly be used by the anti-Choice side. Let them at it. The campaign to Repeal the 8th must avoid being dragged into the mire, because that way lies perdition. The best response is to be smart, not ugly.
They will target potentially marginal voters via social media with vile messages designed to spook the unwary. Just how aggressively nasty they will get remains to be seen. I do not think that they will stoop to murder, as their equivalents in the US have. But nothing can be taken for granted. All we can do is gird our loins and be ready for the worst.
The backdrop is a fascinating one. The powerful momentum in favour of Repealing the 8th, has been building since the shocking death of Savita Halappanavar, in University Hospital Galway, in 2012. As a stalling device, the issue was passed over to the Citizens’ Assembly by the Government. They were asked to devise a set of recommendations, which might guide legislators on the issue.
This was also a way of providing a fig leaf for whatever decision the Government might ultimately take, enabling politicians to say: ‘Look, we are simply following what the Citizens Assembly suggested. It’s not us – it’s you!’.
In the event, the Assembly report was far more radical than anyone in Government had anticipated. This group of ordinary citizens, under Chairwoman Judge Mary Laffoy, considered the issue carefully, and in great depth. In the heel of the hunt, the 99 chosen ones – minus a few defections along the way – came out strongly in favour of a liberal regime that in effect would enshrine in Irish law the concept of a woman’s right to choose.
At the heart of this outcome was the recognition that – irrespective of the local regime – numerous Irish women will in any event make the decision to choose a termination, if they feel that this is the right decision for them. They will travel outside the jurisdiction to secure an abortion if necessary. So what is the point in placing arbitrary obstacles in their way and adding to the human cost?
A crisis pregnancy is a crisis pregnancy. Different women – and different men, in cases where they have an ongoing involvement – will respond to it in diverse and unpredictable ways. Some women will elect to carry the pregnancy through, and to have the baby. Good for them. Others will decide that they cannot and won’t.
Neither decision is objectively right or wrong. It is all down to what the individual woman feels is best for her and for those close to her. And, the Citizens’ Assembly said in effect, within parameters, the decision of any individual woman must be respected.
Conservative politicians, in Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil in particular, were shocked by the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly. There was a small but unmistakable stampede to close the door after the horse had bolted. The message emerged from the Dáil that the recommendations were far too liberal for a poor little country like Ireland.
The Government’s next move was to defer to the Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment, to consider the conclusions of the Citizens’ Assembly and make its own recommendations. It doesn’t take a genius to know that these will be far more conservative in hue.
Opinion polls, meanwhile, currently suggest that a Referendum based on the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly would not be passed. The accuracy of these polls is questionable: a huge amount depends on what questions are asked, how they are phrased and what people’s understanding of the alternatives might be.
There is currently broad support for the availability of abortion in Ireland, in cases involving rape, sexual abuse, fatal foetal abnormalities and a threat to the life of the mother. The probability is that a Referendum designed to allow for abortion on these grounds would be passed comfortably.
A majority of the electorate might well go further. Many women and their families are happy to proceed with pregnancies, in spite of positive tests for conditions like Trisonomy 18, Down’s Syndrome or Spina Bifida. They are to be hugely admired. Others choose not to. Again, neither decision is objectively right or wrong. Women make these decisions all the time. Some travel to the UK to terminate pregnancies as a result. I suspect that a significant majority, in their hearts, would support their right to do that. It is every woman’s individual choice to make.
Yet no one has asked the public if they really believe that women who choose abortion for any of these reasons should have to travel abroad to secure a termination. No one has asked if limiting the grounds makes any sense, if all it does is make certain women feel suicidal – which would be grounds anyway for an abortion.
What we can say for sure is that the members of the Citizens’ Assembly put a huge amount of time, thought and effort into understanding the issues. Pro-choice campaigners believe that the group was indeed representative of the population as a whole; and that if the people generally could only be provided with the information, expert opinion and personal testimonies which were considered by the Citizens’ Assembly, they would likely come to precisely the same conclusions.
Meanwhile, the Anti-Happiness League are caught in a curious dilemma. They believe the opinion polls. And as a result, they would relish the thought that the government might put a more liberal abortion regime to the people, assuming that the entire proposition would then be defeated. But the stakes are high. If that calculation proved to be wrong, then it would be a complete disaster for the modern equivalent of the SPUC-ers, who were responsible for promoting the amendment in the first place.
Going back to 1983, Hot Press campaigned against inserting the Eighth Amendment into the Constitution. We knew then that the result was a foregone conclusion. The visit of the Pope in 1979 had been an exercise in triumphalism, and the Roman Catholic Church was at the apex of its modern-day power in Ireland in its wake.
Some of us sensed, however, that there was a ticking time-bomb within the Church that was certain to explode – and, in the long run, it did. The hypocrisy, about sex, of individuals like Bishop Eamon Casey and Michael Cleary was one thing. But there was an even greater hidden scandal – the monstrous stain of clerical child sexual abuse and the litany of viciousness, brutality, exploitation, injustice and mendaciousness in which that and its associated evils were mired. And on top of all of that was the horrendous history of abuse of women and the suppression of their sexuality – and ultimately of their freedom – best symbolized in the slave labour enforced by the Magdalen Laundries.
As one emerging scandal followed another, and it became clear that the Church’s desperate attempts at self-preservation trumped all other considerations, the self-appointed moral authority of the Roman Catholic Church was exposed as nothing more than a house of cards.
So too was the Eighth Amendment, as it wreaked havoc in different ways on the lives of women and girls of child-bearing age. Through all of that grim news, Hot Press has continued to campaign for the right of women to bodily integrity; for their right to control their own fertility; for their right to choose.
We believe that society must trust women to make the right decisions; that they will act with decency and integrity; and that allowing them the freedom to make the best possible choices for themselves in effect means making the best possible choices for society. People who oppose abortion are perfectly entitled to act accordingly. No one is going to be forced to have an abortion against their will.
The argument will be made that voting for womens’ right to choose will open the floodgates to so called ‘abortion on demand’. That is a lie. Women do not ‘demand’ abortions. With only the tiniest number of possible exceptions, it is a decision that is taken only after serious, detailed soul searching and consideration. And 99 times out of a hundred, in the long run women know that it was the right decision for them to have taken.
In our view it comes down to this: trust women.
We will be making this case, to the people of Ireland and to Hot Press readers, over the course of the coming months. And as part of that campaign, we have launched the Hot Press Repeal The 8th Podcast, which is available now on hotpress.com.
Stay tuned. It is going to be a long and difficult journey towards the ultimate goal: a country in which freedom, choice, mutual respect, generosity of spirit, tolerance, kindness and love prevail. That is what the campaign to Repeal the 8th is ultimately about.
Now, let’s go to work…
While you're here....
Have a listen to our new Hot Press Repeal the 8th Podcast here.
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