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Column Abortion is too important an issue for disrespectful debate

Fighting each other will get us nowhere – Ireland needs to have a genuinely respectful and mature debate about this serious issue, writes Laura Larkin.

CRASS VERBAL INSULTS, precision food missiles and mean-spirited Facebooking sound like the hallmarks of particularly belligerent school yard bullying. They are, however, the manifestation of a ubiquitous tension between campaigners on opposing sides of the abortion debate.

Deliberation over the issue of legalised abortion has reared its head many times in Irish society; most recently it was pushed into the limelight once again with the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar and the subsequent national consideration of this age old issue.

Passion creates a platform

It is the work of passionate activists that create a valid platform for the debate on abortion to take place. Activists who are effusive in their commitment to their chosen cause provide information, organise public events and create a space for insightful discussion – or so the tagline reads.

Being moved to activism is not a decision made in haste, so what is the catalyst that propels people to take their opinions from the safety of their living rooms and coffee breaks and demonstrate them with vigour on our streets?

I have strong personal views on abortion, in fact I don’t know anyone who doesn’t – abortion is not an area where many sit on the fence. Yet I have never taken part in a demonstration, I have never painted a banner and sometimes I am simply ‘too busy’ to stop to sign a petition. Is it laziness? Apathy? An unwillingness to have my personal beliefs challenged in a new setting? Am I too comfortable in the knowledge that there will always be people willing to argue my point of view on my behalf?

The only way I could explore these questions was to move away from the fringes and into the fray.

A sense of responsibility

I asked Rachel Nolan, a spokesperson for Galway Pro-Choice, what propelled her into pro-choice campaigning. She says “I wasn’t always active but the guilt just gets too much – I could never not be doing something now.” This sense of responsibility is echoed by many of those who have taken to the streets in recent months.

Sarah Malone a teacher and Pro-Choice Network member thinks that it is frustration that eventually proves unbearable; she concludes that “people are more inclined to get angry about the [abortion] issue now and are moved to take a stand.”

The most prominent, and obvious, reason behind people getting active is a genuine conviction that theirs is the right, and only, solution. I saw this materialise time and again in the form of lost voices at the end of every street event. Activists want their voices heard loud and clear.

Devoting time and effort to campaign for something that you believe in is laudable and publicly taking a stance on such a sensitive and divisive issue as abortion is brave. Those who do so recognise that it is not always easy.

Negative reactions

During the course of a campaign things can often take a turn for the worst. Michael O’Brien is a Dublin member of the Socialist Party has been campaigning for legalised abortion since the X-Case 20 years ago. Two decades later he stood for four bitterly cold hours outside Leinster House on 28 November while Clare Daly’s Bill relating to X-Case legislation was debated in the Dáil. He recalls being physically intimidated by overzealous pro-life advocates in UCD 15 years ago while campaigning. “I’ve been told I’m going to burn in hell several times… my friend has had a ham sandwich thrown at her,” he tells me.

Negative reactions are not always confined to rallies and vigils, these problems can leak into other areas of an active person’s life. Cathy Doherty remembers being thrown out of a hardware store on Dublin’s Capel Street while trying to purchase high-visibility vests for members of the Pro-Choice Network.

Aoife Godwin, a Pro-Life campaigner, has numerous tales to tell about her experiences with bias and unfavourable reception in her college. The NCAD student has had Youth Defence posters she had placed around campus taken down, demonstrating what she called “an obvious Student Union bias.”

Tim Jackson, a member of Youth Defence, whom she had invited to speak at the college, was subject to a barrage of expletives and abusive comments while showcasing the organisations material. Ultimately, the Youth Defence activist was asked to leave.

Things get very personal, very fast

Social media provides an important window to fully gauge the intense reactions that follow somebody’s decision on abortion rights. Facebook and Twitter is awash with messages that make it clear that your view on abortion, whatever it may be, is unwelcome and a valid target for harsh criticism from those who disagree with you. It can get very personal, very fast.

Those not directly invested in the campaigns are not the only ones who take such pains to illustrate their disapproval. Members of the public who are disruptive and insulting often have more against the idea of protest than the issue being protested. “Get a job,” shouted one woman to pro-choice activists at a recent march.

Campaigners were quick to assure me that it is not all torrents of abuse and heated arguments in the arena of political campaigning. Sarah Malone praises the sense of community she has encountered since she has begun campaigning “it is amazing what can be achieved when you pool a wide range of resources and diverse talents,” she says. Rachel Malone goes further “you draw empowerment from other people and it keeps you motivated on even your most disillusioned days.”

There is an equally strong sense of community among the Pro-Life campaigners and many feel emotionally overwhelmed when they consider the strong sense of commitment behind the movement.

I was perturbed by incidents of intolerance that were relayed to me with a wry smile or with rolling eyes but, moreover, I was impressed by the undercurrent of resilience.

Negative experiences, it seems, do not act as a deterrent. Aoife Godwin says that she will never be intimidated to the point of silence about her Pro- Life beliefs, nor will her colleagues. Rachel Nolan is not deterred but rather heartened, she says “my hope is that that the more the opposition shout and cause scenes the more likely they are to be laughed out of existence.”

Logical, informed debate is the only way forward

There are two important lessons that I have gleaned from conversations with activists and demonstrators. Firstly, there are few words that can capture the sheer energy and momentum that is tangible when people come together in this way. Activism is not merely a matter of proclaiming your discontent; it is an act that recognises that ordinary people have the capacity to harness real power. While not everyone may feel the urge to partake it is important to respect those who do.

Secondly, logical and informed debate is the only vehicle that will take us forward, and activism is necessary to promote it, but perpetuating a culture of ‘he said she said’ is not the avenue to travel.

As Evelyn Fennelly, a Pro-Life activist, points out “alienating people before the discussion has even begun means that you are losing by default. Human dignity, however it is interpreted, is too important an issue to be coloured by disrespectful tactics.”

It is very easy to dismiss offhand those views that strike discord with our own. It is far too easy to make snap judgements about others. Easiest of all is to allow ourselves to be blind-sided by our personal beliefs in a way that effectively locks us out of the very issue that means so much to all of us.

True progress on the matter of abortion is never going to be easy.

Laura Larkin is a freelance journalist and student at Dublin Institute of Technology.

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