This year’s Rose of Tralee, a doctor specialising in general practice focusing on women’s health, in particular obstetrics and gynaecology, when asked to comment on the ’Repeal of the Eighth (Abortion) Amendment’ issue, declined to become involved. Unlike last year when the Sydney Rose called for a repeal of the Eighth on stage at the Dome in Tralee. Sometimes those abroad over-estimate the clarity they bring to solving Ireland’s problem, while those at home have a greater fix on cultural complexities.
A few weeks ago, the Canadian prime minister encouraged Leo Varadkar, on a recent visit to Canada, to see abortion as a fundamental human right for women. However, all An Taoiseach would say was that there would be a referendum next year to repeal the Eighth Amendment, ‘ideally in the first half of the year’.
This focus on the first half of the year may not be unconnected with the planned visit of Pope Francis in August, a possible reference to the obvious political truth that if the Eighth Amendment is to be repealed Catholics will have to support it in huge numbers. What Pope Francis may have to say in August might cause problems for those who argue for repeal.
Referendums, however, as we’ve learned, can’t be rushed in Ireland because if the electorate get a sense of being bounced into something, they can be inclined to give the government a bloody nose, regardless of what the subject is or the reasons for it.
Another factor is that, again as we know from experience, a formula of words has to be drafted, debated and accepted. If the past is anything to go by this is no small problem so it’s questionable whether a referendum is achievable within Varadkar’s preferred timetable.
Yet another factor is that those anxious to continue the campaign to bring the Republic of Ireland into the modern world sometimes seem to regard the abortion issue as just another in a line of social reforms – divorce, same-sex marriage, abortion, etc – that are expected to follow a tried and trusted course. A bit like gradually knocking down a line of green bottles on a wall.
However, the abortion issue is very different from, say, the same-sex marriage issue in important respects. The question – how compelling is the experience of the ‘victim’ in terms of the reason for the referendum and, if the referendum is carried, who would lose and what would they lose? – will dictate whether the majority is prepared to support whatever formula of words emerges.
In the same-sex marriage referendum, the experience of gay couples who wanted to be married won the day, not just because people were convinced by the need to undo their ‘victim’ experience (to allow them to marry) but because no one was perceived to lose out as a result. (Arguments about the malign effect gay marriage would have on marriage in Irish society were unconvincing).
But in addressing the same question to a Repeal the Eighth Amendment referendum – how compelling is the experience of the ‘victim’ in terms of the reason for the referendum and, if the referendum is carried, who would lose and what would they lose? – the answer is less clear.
There are, as everyone knows, anomalies like, for example, fatal foetal abnormalities, that make life distressing for couples who want abortions. So the question is this: are the anomalies of such seriousness and will the impact on ‘victims’ be so compelling that, in the opinion of voters, it will convince voters to accept an abortion regime of whatever shape is suggested?
A key issue here is how Catholics will vote. It’s clear, as Senator David Norris and others have accepted, that without the votes of Catholics the same-sex marriage referendum would have been soundly defeated. Catholics, even some very traditional and elderly Catholics, voted Yes for multiple reasons: a son or daughter was gay, or they knew gay neighbours or they were convinced that, in an adult society, there was no real fall-out from gay marriage.
Listening to people who voted in the same-sex referendum, it’s clear that abortion is a very different subject altogether. While ‘victims’ of the present abortion regime in Ireland may be spared their pain if the regime is changed, the price to be paid for sparing that pain may be the lives of other ‘victims’.
This touches something very elemental and, I suspect, very many Catholics who voted for same-sex marriage against the wishes of their church leaders may find it difficult to do the same in an abortion referendum. The feeling, in so far as I can judge it, is that giving gay people freedom to marry as adults will be regarded by many as in a different league to depriving the most vulnerable of their freedom to live.
In between the extreme positions of pro-choice and pro-life in their most exaggerated manifestations are a variety of positions garnished to some degree by human rights and/or religious convictions. The key question is whether they can be drawn to one or other position. In a strange way the vote may break down not in terms of how convincing the arguments are one way or the other but how the debate is conducted by the different protagonists.
I suspect, for example, that the Citizens’ Assembly, in concluding that in effect abortion on demand was an option, had the opposite effect to what was intended in that it allowed those who disagreed with its conclusions to dismiss it as unrepresentative and biased.
In the same way, I suspect the excesses of the extreme pro-lifers, flashing colour images of aborted foetuses in peoples’ faces, will lessen rather than garner support.
Indeed the expected robust approach of the Irish bishops may receive a similar response from Catholics many of whom, priests included, may be taken aback by Archbishop Eamon Martin’s intention to direct priests to address this subject from the pulpit.
Any side that presents as unbalanced or extreme will alienate even their own supporters.