The Sunday Times (Irish Edition)
Sunday October 18th 2009
• How long can we continue to dodge the abortion issue?
A Colorado woman has been receiving death threats since publishing her memoir, Testimony of an Abortion Addict. Well, I don't imagine that Irene Vilar made the decision to reminisce about her 15 abortions in 17 years in the expectation of attracting a Pulitzer rather than a Howitzer.
The abortions, according to the 40-year-old mother of two girls, were motivated by spite against her "controlling" husband. It began when she was 16, and her husband was 50. He didn't want children. It became her routine to "forget" to take her contraceptive pills, become pregnant and get an abortion. How such a cycle of self-abusive behaviour was meant to exact revenge on her husband is a mystery but, then again, any woman who submits herself to 15 abortions needs not only her conscience examined, but her head too.
Irene Vilar is a gift to the anti-choice lobby. Such case histories of cold-blooded self-centredness are ripe for vilification; a favourite tactic of anti-choice campaigners.
I can still hear the hearts of the majority moderates in the pro-choice corner hitting their shoes in 1992 when Albert Reynolds, then the taoiseach, invited Sinéad O'Connor to his office for a chat before announcing a referendum on women's rights to travel for an abortion, and to access information about it. Those were the days when the Irish editions of Cosmopolitan came with blank pages where advertisements for abortion clinics appeared in the British editions, and the printers of the state's telephone directories feared criminal prosecution if they displayed phone numbers sought by desperate women.
By parachuting enfant terrible O'Connor into the debate, Reynolds became vulnerable to accusations of treating a life-and-death issue as a rock-star lifestyle choice. Then, he over-compensated by threatening that, if the electorate rejected his proposed amendments to the constitution, he would legislate to give effect to the landmark Supreme Court judgment in the X Case.
The X Case is the big, bad wolf. Even 17 years later, it can still make Mother Ireland quake in her boots. Under that judgment, abortion is legal in this country. It may be performed where there is a threat to the life of a pregnant female, including the danger of suicide. But just you try asking for an abortion in an Irish hospital.
Official Ireland is shamelessly lily-livered.
We have come through two Lisbon referendum campaigns in which Coir, one of the most vocal anti-treaty groups, propounded that the EU was itching to impose abortion on Holy Catholic Ireland. Most voters have the smarts to recognise scaremongering, but what was most demoralising was the spinelessness of politicians who dared not even challenge the deceit head-on. Don't mention the A-word, was the governing dictum.
It's understandable that politicians want to bury their heads in the sand after several of them had their homes and constituency clinics picketed by anti-choice activists (Fianna Fail withstood the invasion of an ard fheis), and Catholic TDs have been warned they risk excommunication for expressing support for abortion. The silence of the lambs in Dail Eireann would convince a visiting Martian that there's a consensus in Ireland that abortion under any circumstances would never be tolerated by the people.
Not true. Two years ago, after Miss D was sanctioned by the High Court to travel abroad for a termination on learning her baby would not survive outside her womb, a poll showed that two-thirds of people backed abortion when life was unviable after birth.
Yet, in the same year, when Enda Kenny said that, if elected taoiseach, he would not enact abortion law, no dissent was raised. It was a chilling measure of how effectively the moral majority has been gagged.
If Ireland is forced to legalise abortion, the order could come sooner rather than later from the European Court of Human Rights under the auspices of the Council of Europe. Three Irish women, backed by the Irish Family Planning Association, are arguing that their rights were infringed by the state ban. The women-named as A, B and C- wanted to have their pregnancies terminated after, respectively, suffering an ectopic pregnancy, receiving chemotherapy for cancer, and having children taken into foster care because of financial issues. They claim the criminalisation of abortion stigmatises women, increases feelings of guilt, impedes access to follow-up care, contravenes their right to life, and is discriminatory on the basis of gender and financial status.
Reports of the case on anti-abortion websites characterise the three women as having "travelled abroad to have their children killed". No wonder they insist on remaining anonymous.
The fault line in the abortion debate is the fear of being labelled pro-abortion. It strangles candid dialogue. It is a fear that has been exploited by the anti-abortion lobby, which pigeonholes as "pro-abortion" anyone brave enough to assert that it can be a necessary evil in certain circumstances. Even the supposedly radical Greens, when renegotiating the programme for government, did not address the issue, but found time to propose that the nation amend the constitution's enshrinement of a woman's place "in the home".
It is time we grew up. We cannot dodge this issue forever. Even by discussing it, society can benefit. There was a time when women who suffered miscarriages were treated with cruel insensitivity. They were told by well-meaning professionals to get over it. I know of one couple who were handed the remains of their dreamt-for child in a Calvita cheese box.
While the abortion debate polarised society, it also exposed the hypocrisy of a nation that, out of one side of its mouth, cherished the unborn and, out of the other side, treated children born dead as unworthy of normal human courtesies. Nowadays, prayerful respects are the norm in hospitals following miscarriages.
Every year, about 6,000 Irish women travel abroad for abortions. As recession bites, we can expect that number to rise because financial means, like it or not, is a strong motivating factor. More test cases will come before the courts.
We could avoid much of the inevitable hurt by taking our courage in our hands, along with our destiny. Is it so heinous to say that a 13-year-old girl made pregnant by rape is entitled to have abortion available as an option? Were we to try talking about this, our maturity might surprise us.