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Opinion: 'The debate on abortion isn't over and don't expect that it ever will be'

The experience in the US shows that the divisive abortion debate will continue, writes Larry Donnelly.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

SOME READERS MIGHT be hoping for a break from this divisive debate, now that the legislation has been introduced and abortion services are being rolled out across Ireland for the first time. 

Of course, that follows last May’s referendum in which the Irish people overwhelmingly opted to repeal the Eighth Amendment and, tacitly in so doing, to approve mooted legislation permitting abortion for the first 12 weeks of a person’s pregnancy.

Naturally, the narrative on this seismic result that made world headlines was dictated by successful backers of a Yes vote and their allies. They won an extraordinary victory, and almost no one predicted how comprehensive it proved to be.

These women and men deserve credit for being well ahead of those we elect – and of most pundits, this one included – in assessing where their fellow citizens were on the topic. They ran an outstanding operation, fuelled by a passionate commitment and utilising compelling personal stories, similar to marriage equality campaigners three years previously, which clearly swayed undecided voters.

The following phrases featured prominently and repeatedly in the year-end retrospectives: “a wonderful day for Irish women”; “the culmination of a decades’ long journey for bodily autonomy”; “a blow for equality”; “a new Ireland”; “a final repudiation of the Catholic Church and the patriarchal society it helped enshrine”; and more along the same lines.

These pronouncements were often accompanied by aspirations to achieve similar change in Northern Ireland, on the one hand, and by concerns about the potential for the seminal Roe v Wade precedent to be overturned by an increasingly conservative United States Supreme Court, on the other.

It struck me, however, that almost no dissenting voices were heard. Without re-litigating the case – which some on the pro-life/anti-abortion side regrettably seem resolved to do – at least two of the dominant sentiments expressed are open to objective questioning or, indeed, direct rebuttal.

The first is the description of the people’s verdict as a wonderful one for Irish women when not all Irish women feel the same. Hundreds of thousands have a very different opinion.

I know one woman who was in the minority in supporting the retention of the Eighth Amendment and is still estranged from friends who could not accept her conviction on this morally fraught issue. I doubt she is alone. In a renewed republic where tolerance is rightly held in high esteem, this is deeply worrying for the future. It would be tragic if one undeniably hurtful and wrong “tyranny of the majority” was replaced by another.

Second, as a matter of law, it is intellectually incoherent for those who sought the removal of the Eighth Amendment from the Irish constitution (largely because they believed, as I do, that abortion does not belong there and is best left to the people and their elected representatives, not the judiciary) to then rail against the overturning of Roe.

Contrary to what some here and there might think, if that 1973 decision were consigned to the history books, it would not end legalised abortion in the US. Individual states would devise their own legislative schemes for abortion.

Massachusetts would immediately enact a very liberal regime; Alabama would swiftly adopt an extremely restrictive one. But this effective recasting of a constitutional and judicial question as a political issue has been the goal of pro-choice advocates here since 1983.

Implicit in recent media coverage and commentary has been the notion that, politically speaking, a line can, at last, be drawn under a battle that has typically lurked just beneath the surface for too long in Ireland.

It is a fact that only a tiny segment of the electorate has ever named abortion as a key concern in a general election. It is true that there is a good deal of fatigue with the perpetually rehashed arguments and some will desperately want to move on. And the historic vote to legalise same-sex marriage was the end of that story.

But Ireland would be quite unique if this really is the denouement of the abortion debate. I think observers may be surprised by the vocal minority that has it near the top of their list come the next general election.

As abortion is now squarely in the political arena, activists will rally around candidates who share their views. Social media every day reflects this call to arms. And much of that small, yet wholly reliable, segment of the population whose politics are guided by their faith will cast ballots accordingly. I see and hear it at Mass weekly.

Reports of packed attendances at the meetings hosted by former Sinn Féin TD Peadar Tóibin, who left the party over the issue and is endeavouring to build a new political movement, is one interesting sign of the depth of feeling. While they may not be very large numerically or have nationwide strength, pro-life/anti-abortion voters could be a crucial bloc in determining who wins final seats, especially in rural constituencies.

Moreover, beyond politics, controversial and ugly protests have already taken place outside medical centres. I am aware neither of any political mobilisation nor of any demonstration in the wake of the legalisation of same-sex marriage in this country.

Why is this issue different from marriage equality and likely to trundle on? The remarks of Dr Peter Boylan on RTÉ’s Marian Finucane Show actually illustrate precisely why. Dr Boylan posited that abortion is a “very private matter…between a patient and a doctor…that doesn’t impact on people who don’t want to have an abortion…those who don’t want to get involved don’t need to get involved”. Abortion opponents, who see two lives, not one, at risk in this scenario, cannot ever accept his characterisation of the procedure.

As such, the fights over abortion will never end – in Ireland, or elsewhere.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.

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Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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