Thursday December 10th 2009
Fear dictates Ireland's abortion policy
Pro-life hatred so dominates the debate it's hard to imagine any real change following this bid to overturn the Irish abortion ban
It has always taken guts to stand up for abortion rights in Ireland, north and south of the border. Straight off, you're likely to be hit by a slew of strident invective from the pro-life lobby, trailing pictures of aborted foetuses in their wake, and nameless bloggers will fall over each other to brand you a baby-murderer. Sure enough, the three women trying to overturn the Irish abortion ban in the European court of human rights were immediately accused on anti-abortion sites of having "travelled abroad to have their children killed". Known as A,B and C, the women have decided to remain anonymous. Smart decision. Why expose yourself directly to such hatred?
Such nasty outbursts could be dismissed as so much ridiculous hysteria, were it not for the fact that the anti-abortion lobby, with its scare tactics, "prayer vigils" and wild accusations, has effectively been allowed to define the situation in Ireland, shifting the entire discourse on to moral grounds. Their own very specific either/or, black or white, baby-killer or baby-lover brand of morality, that is. Discussion of any other kind – such as the moral argument for women's agency over their own fertility – is all too often obliterated by the anti-choice campaign.
In some ways, by making women fearful to open their mouths, the anti-abortionists have won already. Yes, it's got so bad that we can't even talk about abortion. Of course, we do discuss it in private. We all know women who have made that silent, miserable, expensive journey across the Irish sea. But few of us feel comfortable speaking out openly, in public. So there is no debate, no honest exchange of opinions. The result is stasis.
And our political representatives haven't got the gumption to tackle the issue. Their approach is simply to pretend the exodus of women isn't happening, especially in the north. Regardless of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, politicians there are united in their insistence that there is no demand for abortion. And the illogical rejoinder is that if women do want it, well, they can go over the water to access services there. You export it, so we don't have to see it – that's the message.
That see-no-evil piety meets blatant self-interest when the anti-abortionists come to town. Several politicians in the republic had their homes and constituency clinics picketed by activists, and it's been reported that Catholic TDs have been warned they risk excommunication for expressing support for abortion. Dispiriting, but not surprising then, that they find so little to say on the matter.
No ruling is expected on A, B and C's case in Strasbourg until next year. And while pro-choice campaigners are heartened by a ruling handed down by the court that instructed Poland to guarantee access to legal abortions, it's hard to imagine real change in Ireland happening any time soon. Even if the women were successful, I can't see Irish politicians – wary, deeply conservative and haunted by painful memories of the messy Lisbon treaty referendums – tripping over themselves to remedy the law.
And so we wait. Meanwhile, hysteria, hypocrisy and spineless denial remain the watchwords of this (lack of) debate.