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Dublin: 10 °C Thursday 18 December, 2014

Column: The language of the abortion debate has been cruel and unfair – on both sides

Tonight’s vote on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill probably won’t end the public debate about abortion – and the women we all claim to care about deserve better than the unfair language that has been used recently, writes Aisling Twomey.

Aisling Twomey

TODAY, OR RATHER early tomorrow morning, the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013 will go to a vote in Dáil Éireann following some debate on the 165 proposed amendments to the Bill. This Bill allows for the lawful termination of a pregnancy if there is a risk to the life of the mother. This risk must be real and substantial. A medical practitioner is to carry out the procedure, with the support of two other doctors unless there is an emergency and immediacy is required.

The suicide clause allows for a termination where life is risked by suicidal intent. Three doctors must sign off on such a termination, with an appeal for the pregnant woman to a further three doctors, should she feel the need to appeal the original assessment.

This Bill is as restrictive as possible

At its heart, this Bill is restrictive. It doesn’t afford a woman a choice as to her medical care in the event of her not wanting to carry a child to term. It doesn’t afford a woman any right to choose; to say otherwise is to be misinformed. The facts are before us and Enda Kenny has said it himself: this Bill is as restrictive as it can be.

Abortion has, for the entirety of its existence, been a contentious issue. This is the case all over the world and not just in Ireland. When Savita Halappanavar died in Galway Regional Hospital last year, the entire country rose to discuss the issue once more. For the first time since the now infamous case of Attorney General v X in 1992, as a nation we debated abortion for Ireland.

I am pro-choice

I always called myself pro choice. It is my absolute belief that a woman should be able to make a choice as to her own medical care. It is her body, her life: her decision. Throughout history, we have lambasted regimes that take ownership of autonomy; we have undercut and undermined efforts to liquefy personal rights.

Not only have I considered myself pro choice, I am in the extreme of that bracket. I believe that a termination is a medical procedure and that a person should be able to seek one out should she wish to, regardless of circumstance. I believe that that is absolutely none of my business what another person elects to do with their body.

I am pro-life

I have also always identified as pro life. I firmly believe that life is an absolute miracle. I think that we have fought to protect it, to save it and to celebrate it for thousands of years. I admit openly that were I to become pregnant at this point, it would be an unwelcome development – but I also admit that I would be reluctant to seek a termination. I don’t believe that I am the only person who feels this way.

The fact is that the language we use in discussions about abortion is a crude bastardisation of realities. The reality is that everyone is pro life, because nobody is pro death. Nobody in this debate preaches or celebrates death.

In the same vein, nobody is pro abortion. Abortion is an actual tragedy. Nobody grows up wanting to have an abortion and nobody grows up wanting to give one. I can’t think of a medical professional whom might express delight at such human tragedy. I cannot name a person who has ever claimed to like the notion. If abortion is to exist, it should be safe and legal and very rare.

The language used has been crude, cruel and unfair

The language used by both sides of this debate is crude, cruel and unfair. These brash words are used to define what can’t be defined, to separate people and to put them into camps. The reality is that you can believe and invest in both sides of the argument according to your own belief.

To support abortion laws for Ireland does not make you an ‘abortionist’. It does not make you pro abortion or anti life. It does not make you a murderer.

To reject abortion in all its forms for all reasons does not make you a religious zealot. It does not make you a fascist.

The words we use to define sides of this debate are appalling. Savita Halappanavar and her husband were not abortionists or murderers. They sought to protect what life could be saved, and doubtless would have mourned the loss of their unborn child. Instead, Praveen Halappanavar must mourn both.

Every now and then, I think of the girl involved in the X case. No more than a child when she was brought before the court, defined solely as a suicidal mother to be. We neglect constantly to remember that she was a child, a crime victim and a rape survivor; we talk of her only in terms of her suicidal intention, her court case and her unborn child. She wasn’t a murderer and she wasn’t an abortionist. She was a child.

We owe more to the women we all claim to care for

As activists, our horrible definitions are backed up only by our deviant tactics. Posters with pictures of foetuses on them are incendiary. Defacing a building with excrement is literally filthy and demonstrates a severe lack of respect. Calling regular people on the street murderers is callous and untrue. Showing people photographs of allegedly aborted foetuses is a sick scare tactic and it’s upsetting. Hacking a website is a crime; publishing a full newsletter list is an invasion of privacy. Taking down posters and replacing them with others is laughable. The inflammatory mailouts to constitutents and the attacks on politicians’ homes are all intolerable. Bloody letters sent to the Prime Minister of the State? Absolutely disgraceful.

We have used this debate to incite, to revile, to hate. We have used it to undermine women, to undercut activists and to abuse politicians. In yet another example of language gone awry, the word ‘conscience’ is tossed around a lot on both sides of the debate, but many of the actions of campaigners- on both sides- have been far from conscionable.

Ireland has been a significantly single issue country for the past few months. Not a day goes by without abortion commentary coming from here or there, experts talking in the Dáil, hundreds of articles published, countless letters to the editor overtaking national newspapers. That rush may now be coming to an end but you can be sure that it will crop up again in the future. If it does, our method of campaigning has to change. We surely owe that to ourselves, to each other and to the women we all claim to care for.

Aisling Twomey works in political communications and has a Masters in Criminal Justice from University College Cork. Her journalism work is available at aislingtwomey.me.

Explainer: What exactly are Ireland’s politicians voting on tonight?
Read: Rosary chants and ‘Savita’ banners greet TDs ahead of contentious vote
Read: D-day for Creighton as Dáil to vote on abortion legislation

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