On 6 March in the Republic of Ireland there was a referendum in which voters could say “Yes” or “No” to not having abortion. Confused? Simple, if you voted “No” abortion would not be made legal and, if you voted “Yes” abortion would remain illegal.
Still confused? Don’t worry, so were most people in the Republic. Shortly before the referendum, RTE’s Late, Late Show tried to unravel the confusion with a public debate. Firstly, the large audience was asked how many people understood the issues involved in the referendum. Only one person raised her hand. After that they invited three speakers from the “No” camp and three speakers from the “Yes” camp to explain the question. Every single speaker heartily disagreed with the other five and, though three supported each side of the argument, it was obvious that all represented different agendas. After this “clarification” the show’s host again asked members of the audience if they were any clearer. They were not.
Abortion was illegal under British rule in Ireland and, when the British vacated what is now the Republic of Ireland it was not an issue except when some poor woman went to a back-street abortionist and bled to death.
As elsewhere in Europe, abortion became an issue when it was restrictively legalized in some countries during the 60s and 70s. Cheaper air travel and television had brought Ireland out of the clutch of the infamous Index under which the state censors decided, at the behest of the Catholic bishops, which books, films and plays might be read or viewed within the New Ireland which had recently been “freed” by armed force from the British.
Cable television and the development of Information Technology brought the global village into Irish sitting rooms. More than half the population was under twenty-five years of age. Holy Ireland, however, stood resolutely against abortion and those allegedly “pro-life” elements, who now campaign with great viciousness, were then campaigning against the legalizing of all artificial means of contraception.
Two previous referendums within the last twenty years showed the burgeoning pressure on Church and state to move ahead with those states with which they now shared an economic and political identity in Europe. On both occasions, abortion was rejected.
Then came the famous ‘X’ case. A fourteen year-old girl had been raped and was pregnant and suicidal. Earlier a pregnant teenager had haemorrhaged to death as she lay in a country churchyard in Co Longford seeking the intercession of a stone statue of the Virgin Mary. In the “X” case medical and legal help took the place of sculptured stone and the Supreme Court accepted that the danger of suicide was real enough and grounds for allowing an abortion. This was later performed—in England.
It should be said that abortion remains illegal in Northern Ireland, too. The local religious Taliban – ironically, consisting of the most avid Catholic opinion together with fundamentalist fanatics like Paisley – represented a bulwark against the UK’s 1967 Abortion Act. It is just one area of ignorance where the two sides make comfortable bedfellows.
That there is a demand for abortion, north and south, is evidenced by the fact that some 7,000 women go from Ireland each year for abortions in England. These are the overt statistics. Given the climate of shame and embarrassment conjured up by those whose conception of democracy means they have, by virtue of their numbers, the right to suppress minorities, there must obviously be many others who make the sad journey covertly.
But why yet another referendum? The Supreme Court decision to allow an abortion to take place where clinical evidence suggested the possibility of suicide was seen as a possible loophole for women seeking abortions. The last referendum had written the ban on abortion into the Constitution, lest vote-hungry politicians in the future should use compassion as a bribe to a more enlightened electorate. Now it was necessary to amend the Constitution again in order to block the possibility of the Courts showing mercy to a suicidal, pregnant woman.
But the government and its political draughtsmen made a fatal mistake; they tacked onto the proposed Amendment an addendum legalizing the use of the morning-after pill.
“Mother o’Jasus!” intoned the biddies of both sexes, “Sure that morning-after thing is only abortion by another name”. The argument moved onto dark ground where the question became at what point life occurred in the womb and when the divine quartermaster imparted a soul to a foetus. Heavy stuff that had been disputed by earlier Christian theologians like Jerome, Augustine and Anselm long before Pope Pius IX imposed a positive embargo on abortion.
So confusion reigned among the various factions that stood firmly against abortion. If they voted “Yes”, in support of the government’s amendment, they could, it was argued, let in abortion via the threat of suicide. If they opposed the amendment, they would be allowing the legalizing of the morning-after pill. It represented a terrible dilemma for those who believed in an all-merciful and compassionate God.
Neither side of the argument raised by the referendum offered much to the exponents of a woman’s right of choice. In the main, however, the choice lobby felt that the “X” case offered some hope for women in extreme cases and that the proposed amendment should, therefore be opposed. So an opposition of some of those “pro-life” elements who opposed the legalizing of the morning-after pill and those supporting women’s choice emerged and, on polling day, the Government Amendment was defeated in a low turnout poll by 1.1 percent.
Abortion is a very serious issue and should not be viewed as an extension of the means of contraception. Today, these latter means are generally readily available. This writer feels that, where a sexually-active couple wants to avoid what is a traumatic experience, especially for the female partner, then there is a responsibility to avail of suitable means of contraception. Ultimately, this is simply respect for the female participant in the sex act and this respect should be a fundamental aspect of sex education.
Unfortunately, many of those who support the so-called “pro-life” stance are bitterly opposed to sex education beyond the most vague biological facts. As we have already observed, they are the same people who have fought a bitter rearguard action against the easy availability of contraceptive devices. As far as their opposition to abortion is concerned, most of the religious “pro-lifers” are less concerned about human life and more concerned with religious strictures.
The abuse of people who sincerely hold a contrary view to that of the “pro-lifers” frequently shows a contempt for the dignity of other human beings. The claim they make to women contemplating abortion, that they will give practical help following the birth of a baby is certainly designed to thwart the act of abortion rather than help children. In Ireland – as in Britain – for example, a third of all children exist below the official poverty line and the problems of poverty make the lives of hundreds of thousands of children a misery. Those who show such reverend regard for the unstructured foetus within the womb are woefully silent about the brutal and ongoing miseries heaped on so many children outside the womb.
Worldwide, an average of some 40,000 children under the age of five die every single day of hunger or hunger-related illnesses because those responsible for their upbringing have not got money to buy available food. They are murdered by the market system, so beloved of the Popes of the various religions. Those vociferous in their vicious condemnation of women who avail of abortion never condemn the savagery of capitalism’s wars. The person who has an abortion, or who makes abortion available to often distraught women may be pilloried as “murderers” but their defamers never condemn the child killers who fly aircraft over cities and drop bombs on hapless children.
Socialists can respect the views of people motivated by the idea of protecting all forms of human life out of regard for the supremacy of humanity. That after all is what Socialism is about. Unfortunately, most of those within the so-called pro-life organisation are concerned more with the strictures of religious leaders and less with genuine concern for human beings.