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Column: Let's stop using the 'floodgates' argument when debating social change

Divorce, contraception and abortion – all debates that have been been subject to the ‘slippery slope’ argument. But that’s precisely what clear legislation rules out, writes Nathan Wheeler.

Nathan Wheeler

THE ARGUMENT OF “opening floodgates” in response to great change has long been a staple tool for many groups across Ireland and the world. Most interestingly it is used within the media almost exclusively in regards to Ireland’s long and dark history of battling against almost anything to do with human sexuality or marriage. Arguably such an argument has been used to distract decision-makers and the public from what really needs to be done within modern society.

Whether it was employed in relation to contraception, divorce or – now for the umpteenth time – abortion, the argument has always been raised as a means of defending a point of view routed in a fundamental fear of change.

Fear of making real progress

Yet these are not Irish problems we face, these relate to human lives and civil liberties. Time and again Irish people have resorted to being defensive out of fear of making real progress. Instead of actually instilling real change to our laws and our attitudes, we have instituted flawed compromises to pacify the debate that neither change the situation completely nor leave it totally the same, thus angering those on both sides of the issue.

With the approaching abortion legislation due to be debated in the Dáil, there is a feeling within the country that this could mean the opening of yet another set of “floodgates” and that thousands of women will take advantage of it, even with very restrictive conditions around it. Over the past 50 years the floodgate debate has never come true and in numerous cases has been used as a pretense to dismiss these civil rights issues in their entirety.

Divorce ‘floodgates’

In essence, the concept of the floodgates was well-demonstrated in the Irish approach to divorce. The first real proposal to challenge Ireland’s all-out ban on divorce only came about in a 1986 referendum where two thirds of the population rejected divorce in any form. The opposition to the constitutional change used aggressive fear tactics to underpin their claim that such a change would open the floodgates underpinning the “Irish marriage”. It was heralded as anti-church and anti-Irish, with anti-divorce activists highlighting risks to children and wives abandoned by errant husbands.

Research to this effect was greatly misrepresented by the opposition and fear tactics became paramount to soliciting a no vote to the referendum. It was a short step from here to proclaim that any sort of divorce would open the floodgates to family misery and an all-out breakdown of the family home; they argued that, once allowed, it would only get worse and worse.

The opposition was, as we can see, totally incorrect. Since divorce was introduced in Ireland in 1997, divorce rates have been noticeably low and as a general rule there has not been mass family breakdowns or hundreds of women and children abandoned by their husbands, nor has society completely collapsed.

When divorce was finally made accessible it was restrictive and constitutionally protected so as to prevent further change without a referendum. Such is the approach to major issues in Irish politics; instead of challenging the issue in an affirmative manner, and thus undertake a great leap in civil liberties, we take a minor step creating a situation where in the end its difficult to find out what you have really won. As other countries in Europe move towards simpler and effective means, Ireland has remained in a limbo of sorts unable to move forward for fear of the utter collapse of the family.

Contraception ‘floodgates’

The perpetual argument with Irish society is whether new laws will hinder the old ways. This was truly at its apex when applied to the ordeal of contraception. Ireland was one of the few countries in Europe to have laws directly banning the use of contraception to its citizens. Whether it was viewed as a moral evil or perhaps as a clear boundary of the defined difference between Ireland and the UK, it effectively left Ireland scrambling to conform to what can only be seen as the Roman Catholic Standard.

When Senator Mary Robinson led the first round of battles attempting to combat the ban in 1971, the old arguments came out of the wormwood in Irish society. Contraception was depicted as the end of family values: the implementation of contraceptive methods would lead to the degradation of Irish society and open the door to promiscuity.

When McGee took her landmark case she took it not simply for contraceptive rights but so she would not suffer great health problems if she were to give birth to another child. Somehow in the noise of all the political squabbling we lost track of women just wanting control over what they can and can’t do in regards to pregnancy and prevention.

It was predicted that legislating for contraception would lead to out-and-out full scale abortion and Irish society would be ruined. Contrary to the doom-sayers the country did not collapse nor did contraception readily lead to free abortion laws. When Charles Haughey produced the Family Planning Bill he presented Ireland with a highly restrictive piece of legislation allowing contraception only in strict circumstances. Furthermore he characterised the situation which brought it about: “There is very little support for a situation in which all forms of artificial contraceptives could be . . . freely available. This legislation opens no floodgates.”

Only in 1994 were Irish men and women allowed access to contraceptives without restriction, thus a 21 year gap between the Irish people declaring their need and the legislation responding in kind – quite similar to the current case with Irish abortion legislation.

Abortion ‘floodgates’

Twenty years later with the abortion debate, we once again face the doom-sayers claiming that the floodgates will burst open and hundreds of thousands of women will seek out abortions for any reason, not taking any time to give the matter thought.

As legal experts have reiterated to the Oireachtas committee examining abortion legislation, the fears of the floodgates being opened to widespread terminations are “completely unfounded”. Claims that many more women will have abortions are unfounded and the argument of floodgates in its entirety is simply absurd.

Are we so afraid of change that we had to enshrine conservative values in the form of article 40.3.3, a concept unknown in other western states?It’s clear that the current legislation does in fact displease both sides of the issue. At the end of the day, the new legislation leaves one side claiming it goes too far, and the other not far enough.

While there will always exist bodies quick to claim that the floodgates are opening and Ireland will be inundated with easily-accessible abortion in the near future, it is important to first examine the tangible evidence. Ireland as it stands is still by-and-by against the idea of freely available abortion, an opinion our political parties also seem to share, with minor exceptions.

However is there truly a future for slippery slope argument? Or is it simply a way to prevent us from opening the door to more liberal and progressive legislation? The genius of law is that it is decisive, it accounts for what can and what cannot be done in a modern democracy. While our law in this regard does reek of moral conformity with Roman Catholic Church teachings, perhaps it is time to take a step in the right direction and dismiss this idea of floodgates.

If we are to be drowned, as some would claim, at least our conscience will be clear in that we have made a step in the right direction.

Nathan Ignatius Wheeler is a DCU Law Student and co-founder of the DCU Secular Society. His active area of research is influence of religion on state affairs.

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