Powerful opening to one of today’s Guardian editorials
(though as I pointed out here, very limited abortion already occurs through the public health service in Northern Ireland and - at least theoretically, within extreme limits - in the Republic; the new Marie Stopes clinic offers abortion, within the bounds of the same Northern Irish legislation, either through the public NHS or privately outside of it)
Aside from the gross disrespect to women’s rights, I’m not quite sure what all the fuss is about the latest tone-deaf US Republican statement on abortion and rape. Your mileage may vary according to theology, but I would have thought under most conceptions of Abrahamic religion, all events - horrible or otherwise - were in some way intended by God. It’s up to us to deal with them, humanely, or to avoid committing them in the first place, but beyond that it’s all part of some great ineffable plan - surely that’s the point of religion, or the justification for having some omnipotent deity in control of a suffering world to whom we are still supposed to give worship? But then that’s one of the reasons, not just why I’m an atheist (simple logic forms the basis for that) but why I actively oppose the idea of theism as an intellectual explanation for human ethics. Beyond our conscious actions (and even within that category) events are random, they are intended by no-one and nothing; and the measure of our virtue is in a large part made up by our response to our fortunes and misfortunes.
So much of the abortion debate, here in particular, is focused on pressing conservatives to accept exceptions from a blanket ban on the termination of pregnancies. In the US, the chief issue seems to be pregnancies from rape, presumably because that sparks off a deep ambivalence about the extent to which sexual violence should be controlled. Abortion, being legal in principle, becomes the focus of political debate over how the moral case for restriction can be framed and applied, on behalf of a conservative extreme. In Ireland, although a rape victim was the centre of the landmark X Case in 1992, and the C Case, the clinching justification was always the risk of suicide, or the life of the mother. Thus the issue of abortion here - essentially illegal in principle - has been, in legal terms, less about abstract morality and more about medical ethics. The question becomes: how can the case for liberalisation be framed, and worded and implemented, against vigorous but minority social opposition?
In either circumstance, and despite a wider rhetoric about universal choice (or its counterargument, the sanctity of life) the debate becomes focused on gaining a narrow ground against the opposition, or defending it. Thus in Ireland the campaign is made to legislate for abortion in very specific and limited circumstances, in order so that women in very vulnerable circumstances can have access to it; and a key strategy of the pro-life side is to seek to discredit the medical need for such action, and the debate goes back and forth although what one side clearly wants, and the other clearly fears, is one thing: choice. Similarly in America, Republicans are lambasted for chauvinistic statements on the connection between rape and pregnancy, when that represents only a small (if distressing) part of the demand for access to abortion. I understand that this is politics: gradualism is the order of the day, and compromises have to be found across a diverse electorate or party system (diverse within parties, that is). I understand that it is essentially ‘bad politics’ to push for abortion on demand when attempting to win the most-needed concessions from a morally sceptical and socially conservative body politic. But it seems like a form of trench warfare, fighting over tiny amounts of ground which are nevertheless crucial to the overall effort (and hugely significant for those directly involved).
The larger argument over choice, which at least hasn’t disappeared from the rhetoric, is nevertheless lost in the moral stalemate between two seemingly irreconcilable positions: human life is sacred, and abortion is murder; or that there is a right to choose, and abortion is de facto not murder. Pragmatically it always seems to me that where there is a disagreement, between large sections of the population, choice should prevail. That happened in the US, under the rubric of privacy, with Roe v. Wade; it hasn’t happened in Ireland, anywhere on the island; on mainland Britain it de facto has, although access is still based on medical restrictions. But everywhere there is an attempt to chip away at the grand bargain, or the lack thereof in Ireland’s case, in which it seems like incremental justifications for various states of extreme vulnerability and need are pawns in the larger game. It seems more honest and kinder to state that what we are seeking to establish and maintain is the redefinition of the terms under which reproductive rights are decided, and within which then people can sort out their personal qualms and debate the actual social policy which would, say, reduce unplanned pregnancies or support vulnerable mothers through adoption or parenthood - instead of the pro-natalist view which aims solely to protect birth itself. But how to break down the wall of denial, other than by chipping away at it?