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'The majority of us don't agree with either pro choice or pro life hardliners'

The middle ground are rarely heard in Ireland’s fraught debates over abortion, writes Larry Donnelly.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

THE OIREACHTAS COMMITTEE on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution meets frequently as it works toward its end of year deadline to ensure that the government can keep its promise to hold a referendum in mid-2018 in which the people will decide whether the controversial provision should be repealed.

The proceedings of the Committee have become increasingly tumultuous, with its members who want to maintain the Eighth Amendment charging that there is a distinct pro-choice bias to the witness list and the tenor of discussions. On Wednesday, one of them, Tipperary TD Mattie McGrath, claimed that it had turned into a “charade” and stormed out.

Doing their cause no favours

While the rhetoric is ratcheting up in the environs of Leinster House, advocates on both sides of the issue are digging their heels in now. In the process, some are doing their cause no favours.

Of Savita Halappanavar, who died of sepsis in 2012 after being denied an abortion in Galway University Hospital while miscarrying her unborn child, Senator Rónán Mullen made the appalling and wholly unfounded statement that “if there was abortion on demand she wouldn’t have been in the hospital because she wouldn’t have been pregnant and she wouldn’t have been having a miscarriage.”

In fairness, Senator Mullen has clarified his remark, which was made in the context of a rather heated debate on the Today with Seán O’Rourke radio programme. It is nonetheless unforgivable and one can’t imagine how devastating it could be to the late Ms Halappanavar’s still-grief struck husband.

Abortion as health care?

Meanwhile, a cursory perusal of the tweets sent by some of the country’s most high profile “Repeal the Eighth” campaigners reveals that they consider abortion to be “health care” and a “normal” procedure. Many will ask how, in the vast majority of instances, what no less a left wing luminary than former Vice President of the United States Al Gore once wrote was “arguably the taking of human life” could be described as “health care” in the ordinary use of language?

Furthermore, naming it as “normal” will intimate to some in this country that the most radical elements of the global anti-abortion movement, who assert that women use it as another method of birth control, could have a point.

They may be on diametrically opposite sides of this issue, but these hard liners are actually a collective in refusing to admit that a substantial majority of the electorate disagrees with them. As the recent Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll indicates, 70% of the electorate would support access to abortion in quite limited circumstances. A mere 35% back broad access up until the twenty-second week of pregnancy; 50% oppose such general access. There is a middle ground.

The two sides deny a middle ground

The two sides, however, deny it at every turn. Last weekend, Irish Times columnist and Iona Institute patron Breda O’Brien wrote that “there are times when the middle ground is reasonable and times when the middle ground is unequivocally wrong.  Abortion is one of the latter. Either all abortion is allowable, as Ann Furedi believes, or all abortion is wrong. Either innocent human life must be protected or it must not.”

Another Irish Times journalist and steadfast opponent of the Eighth Amendment, Roisin Ingle, tweeted: “I love being #prochoice and occupying the middle ground. #repealthe8th.”

She’s alleging that the pro-choice position is the moderate one but this line of reasoning is unconvincing, politically speaking at least.

A shared mypoia

The sides’ joint disavowal of the middle ground stems from a shared myopia. One sees only an innocent, vulnerable, unborn child. The other sees only a woman in a desperate situation, facing an unenviable dilemma. Those in the middle ground see both.

They see two lives – one in being, one potential. They believe the life in being is to be preferred, but also think that the potential life has the right to be born, barring exceptional circumstances. The polls tell us this.

It is likely apparent that the foregoing is more than detached political analysis. That’s true. My own view on abortion – that it should be restricted to where the life of the mother is at risk, or in instances of fatal foetal abnormality, or in cases of rape or incest – situates me in the middle ground in Ireland.

It is far to the right of the platform of the Democratic Party I have long been a member of, but to the left of the Republican Party’s absolutist platform that is reflective of its Christian conservative base.

Millions of fellow Democrats have similar reservations

There are millions of fellow Democrats with similarly sincerely held reservations about the liberal abortion regime in the US who have likewise been made to feel unwelcome by activists in our party who are animated above all by what they call reproductive rights, not the “bread and butter” issues that have always unified us.

They have even managed to strike the third adjective from Bill Clinton’s nuanced formulation on abortion – it should be “safe, legal and rare” – because it is insufficiently unyielding.

Although I respect them for their forthrightness and for having the courage of their convictions, I place the blame squarely on their shoulders for the facts that our party is a fringe entity in vast swathes of America in 2017 and that so many people of faith, particularly Catholics, have abandoned us. And in an overarching sense, they have made an unfortunate contribution to the polarisation and division so evident there.

Returning here, it is remarkable that Ireland has steered clear of the extremist politics that have found fertile ground in the US, UK and in continental Europe. The centre continues to hold. There are numerous factors as to why this is so, but it is still remarkable.

In this context, then, isn’t it also remarkable that those who are somewhere in the middle of this country’s fraught debate over abortion and the Eighth Amendment – a clear majority – are seldom heard? It is bad for our polity.

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

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About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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