A protestor holds a picture of Savita Halapannavar
If we really want to honour Savita Halappanavar and finally have a proper debate on abortion in Ireland, we need to silence the extremists on both sides.
The reason seven successive governments haven’t managed to legislate in the wake of the X case is of course because of the explosive, corrosive nature of the abortion debate in Ireland, and how it immediately gets hijacked by extremists on both sides, rendering a just and intelligent debate – and thus a solution – impossible.
Vincent Browne’s attempt to hold a debate on the issue on TV3 descended into farce as anti-abortion (and seemingly everything else) activists William Binchy and Breda O’Brien tried to top one another’s outrageous claims.
Citing no source, O’Brien claimed that one in four pregnancies in the UK ended in abortion, and one in three in Europe. It was a claim that was allowed to go entirely unchallenged, and which deserves further scrutiny.
The reason it probably didn’t get it is because of Binchy’s evoking of “abortion mills,” which presumably are Dickensian concentration camps for fallen women where the contents of their wombs are attacked by murderous liberals.
This evening, people on Twitter tell me that Marc Coleman – a man with two degrees who still manages to get seemingly everything wrong – has a promo for his Newstalk radio show featuring the following unrestrained hype:
“Are we rushing headlong into sacrificing the rights of unborn children?”
For some reason, producers seem to think that these right-wingers – often fundamentalist Christians attached to the likes of the Iona Institute, yet seldom identified as such – with extremely dubious views on everything from obstetrics to mental health are the voice of reason for the anti-abortion side.
(I don’t use the term ‘pro-life’, simply because I’ve never met anyone who was anti-life).
They are not.
There are legitimate concerns on both the pro- and anti-abortion sides, and they must be dealt with sensitively and intelligently.
This cannot be done as long as this debate sends spin doctors into paroxysms of hyperbole as soon as it rears its divisive head.
The shock of Savita’s death was soon replaced by awe at how quickly both sides could mobilse their troops to speak of murdered babies and getting rosaries off ovaries.
What gets lost in all this claim and counter-claim are the simple facts of the situation, and in this maelstrom of ill-informed opinion the old Confucian proverb is more useful than ever: “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name.”
Abortion exists in Ireland already, and the Supreme Court has told the government it has to legislate for it. It isn’t going to go away.
Secondly, whatever side of the debate you’re on, abortion is one of hundreds of life-or-death decisions that are made in Irish hospitals every day of the week, by qualified, competent, caring professionals, solely on medical grounds.
That last bit is important, because essentially the government has as much business legislating for abortion as it does for dentistry.
Every family has been in a position where they have been told by doctors or hospice staff that “there’s nothing else we can do” for a loved one.
There is almost always something else that can be done – some invasive, dangerous, undignified, expensive procedure that might wring another few minutes or hours or days out of an existence slowly, inexorably slipping away.
But doctors who deal with these issues every day reach the point where they realise that further intervention would be futile, and families realise that too.
That we trust them and that they can make these decisions without being dragged before the courts is commendable. Little or no extra legislation is needed to ensure that the system works.
But given our boundless desire to find an Irish solution to this Irish problem, we have planted the issue of abortion as a moral time-bomb in our constitution, and thus we are forced to legislate instead of allowing professionals to do what we pay them for.
While we wait, four thousand Irish women a year – almost eleven every day, including Saturdays, Sundays and Christmas Day – are going to England to have their pregnancies terminated.
That fact in itself is neither good nor bad; it simply illustrates that there is a need and a demand to have abortion available in Ireland.
Another great myth of the extremist debate is the suicide solution; pro-choice activists jumped on the X case as it provided what looked like a win-win scenario.
If the mother was suicidal, then the state couldn’t possibly turn them down.
Or could it?
The discussion around suicide is probably the most tawdry and offensive in Irish public life in recent years, insulting to women and those who do feel like taking their own lives alike. It is also as pointless as it is offensive.
The truth is probably that of the four thousand women heading to England every year, the vast majority of them probably aren’t suicidal.
They are simply women who have found themselves, for whatever reason, unable to countenance a pregnancy at this stage in their lives, and they have chosen to end it.
They cannot be ignored any longer.
As regards their mental health, they do not return post-abortion with their lives in ruins, as the anti-choice side would have the Irish public believe.
Often they are sad, depressed or disappointed, but despite regrets most go on to live normal lives, and if they didn’t, we’d know about it.
Ireland has exported over 100,000 women to the UK for abortions, a sizable chunk of its population – if their abortions were the opening of the gates of hell, we’d probably have seen it by now.
Shockingly, it was minister for justice Alan Shatter who has provided the most reasonable voice in the debate so far, and one would hope that given his position in government that will prevail.
But for common sense to prevail, the extremists on both sides must be marginalised and ignored as much as possible.
Why? The children’s referendum debate was ruined by the No side evoking images of the state barging in to homes, snatching the children of fine upstanding citizens and placing them into care on a whim.
It was a pathetic, extremist argument that clouded the issue and caused many to switch off.
Like so many other things in life and death, medicine is not a perfect science (if it was we’d all live forever); there are seldom black or white answers, even to similar questions. Abortion is a medical procedure, and there are no easy answers
What there are is endless shades of grey, and it is this – not the murdered babies or the rosaries and the ovaries – that we are trying to legislate for.