July 14th 2018


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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY By-elections a trial run for next federal election

SOCIAL MEDIA Facebook bans reflect a lack of impartiality

CANBERRA OBSERVED The gloves are on for by-election proxy bouts

FEDERAL POLITICS Federal ALP platform reads like a radical on a soapbox

ENVIRONMENT 'Climate change' news is fake news

BRITISH HISTORY Abolition of the Corn Laws paved the way for cheap food

LIFE ISSUES A world of competing sorrows: Ireland's abortion referendum

CULTURE The wee folk and their cousins, up and down the scale

WESTERN CIVILISATION Three great anniversaries of the West

FICTION Autumn Alexei's Story

MUSIC ABBA; Unstoppable, ubiquitous

CINEMA Jurassic World: Fallen kingdom

BOOK REVIEW Vision for the future, if we want to claim it

BOOK REVIEW Taking to task failed privilege

BOOK REVIEW Where Tolkien and St Thomas agree

LETTERS

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Beijing goes 'boo', Qantas gets in a flap

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LIFE ISSUES
A world of competing sorrows: Ireland's abortion referendum


by Margaret Somerville

News Weekly, July 14, 2018

Margaret Somerville is Professor of Bioethics in the School of Medicine at the University of Notre Dame Australia in Sydney and was the founding director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University in Toronto, Canada. Professor Somerville reviews the Irish referendum and wonders whether some compromise can be achieved  to save at least some babies from the coming holocaust.

Yet another progressive values “Say yes!” campaign is celebrating victory – the “say yes” side has won again. This time it’s the campaign to “say yes to abortion” in Ireland. Sub-messages were “say yes to women’s equality” and “say yes to choice”.

Taoiseach (prime minister) Leo Varadkar, a campaigner for the “yes” vote, told crowds that the result showed the Irish public “trust[s] and respect[s] women to make their own decision and choices”.

He added: “It’s also a day when we say ‘no more’. ‘No more’ to doctors telling their patients there’s nothing can be done for them in their own country, no more lonely journeys across the Irish Sea, no more stigma as the veil of secrecy is lifted and no more isolation as the burden of shame is gone.”

He continued that some had voted “yes” with “pride”, but many had voted “yes” with “sorrowful acceptance and heavy hearts”. Let’s hope that is true of those “many” and that they indeed compose many of the “yes” voters.

Mr Varadkar said he understood that those who had voted against repeal would be unhappy. “I want to reassure you that Ireland today is the same as it was last week, but more tolerant, open and respectful.” But can that be validly said with respect to the protection of unborn children whose human rights, in particular their right to life, did not seem to feature in the debate?

Legislation to repeal the current law and introduce the new one is likely to be passed within six months, Mr Varadkar told crowds. It will probably allow for abortions up to 12 weeks of pregnancy. However, if there were a risk to the life of the mother or a serious risk to her health, an abortion could be carried out up to 24 weeks, and foetuses with a lethal foetal abnormality could be aborted at any time.

The most recent post-referendum development is that the Taoiseach has announced that all hospitals, including Catholic hospitals if they receive any public funding, must provide abortions and that health professionals with a conscientious objection will be obliged to refer.

‘Yes’ campaign worked on people’s empathy

So, what do Mr Varadkar’s words tell us and where did the “say no” advocates’ campaign go wrong?

None of us want to say “no” to women’s equality, to women’s claims to control their own bodies and to choose what should happen to them, or to be told that they don’t “trust and respect women”. So, pitching a “no” vote as doing just that was very effective in garnering “yes” votes.

The “yes” arguments were presented in a way that elicited empathy for individual women with a crisis pregnancy: “lonely journeys”, “stigma”, “secrecy” and “shame” needed to be abolished and, the “yes” side argued, that could only be achieved with a “yes vote”.

The wider and future impact of this vote was barely considered, except to assume this would be positive and progressive: that is, a “more tolerant, open and respectful” society would result.

Abortion was strongly medicalised: no one wants to argue against access to necessary medical treatment. The case of Savita Halappanavar, a young woman who died allegedly from lack of access to abortion, was prominent in the “yes” campaign, although, in fact, an official investigation found that she was the victim of medical malpractice.

The law as it stood did not expressly allow abortion for rape or incest and it was unclear whether it was allowed for lethal foetal abnormalities. Yet, many people who have the considered view that abortion is morally wrong and would never consent to abortion for themselves on the grounds of rape or incest, accept the argument that women should have that as a choice when the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest.

The politically possible

At a pragmatic political level, I believe, it was a mistake for the “no” side not to concede this. The best pro-life protection, that of all unborn children, was the enemy of the politically possible.

I will not deal with abortion for very serious foetal abnormalities here, except to say there should be a very difficult-to-displace presumption against it for many important reasons. It is the focus of an enormously controversial and incendiary ethical debate, which requires separate consideration.

This victory of the “say yes” strategy in Ireland is not by any means an isolated one for this strategy. It also prevailed in the same-sex marriage plebiscite in Australia and in the euthanasia debate in Canada. So, let’s try to see why this strategy has been so successful in the societal debates involving conflicts between progressive and conservative values.

In the same-sex marriage debate in Australia, the pro side slogans included “Say Yes to love” and “Say Yes to Equality”. None of us wants to say “No to love” or “No to equality”. But that doesn’t mean that we necessarily agree that legalising same-sex marriage is a good idea.

The problem is that we all say “yes” to these goals described generally, but when we apply them to specific situations and ethically analyse those situations, we can’t always say yes from an ethical perspective.

The companion campaigns to “Say Yes to Love”, namely, “Say Yes to Family Equality” and “Say Yes to Safe Schools” are now under way in Australia.

These slogans translate to, for example, “say yes to reproductive technologies” to enable lesbian couples to “found a family”; “yes to commercial surrogate motherhood” to enable two men to do the same; “yes to the fatherless or motherless families” which result; “yes to the irrelevance of parent-child biological bonds”; and in the case of “Safe Schools”, “yes to abolishing biological sex as a differential, yes to ‘gender fluidity’” – which gender one wants to be is simply a matter of personal choice, not biology.

The “say yes” same-sex marriage campaign was also medicalised. For instance, the Australian Medical Association took the position that a vote for same-sex marriage was needed to protect the mental health and wellbeing of LGBTQI+ Australians, especially those who were young.

As well, it was politicised. Companies and chief executives who did not support the “yes” side were boycotted.

The “yes” campaign was strongly visual, emotional, personally-focused and relational. The message was “join in the same-sex marriage party”, be joyful, have hope.

A negative content companion strategy was the characterisation of people who opposed same-sex marriage as discriminatory, bigoted, homophobic, stuck in the past, and probably religious.

“Slogan strategies” were also employed in the euthanasia debate in Canada. People were urged to “Say no to suffering, no to cruelty; say yes to respecting the dying person’s dignity, say yes to a ‘good death’, yes to kindness”.

Right sentiment; wrong solution

The same problem arises: we can all agree with those goals, but that doesn’t mean we can agree with euthanasia.

Again, like the same-sex marriage campaign, the “pro-euthanasia campaign” was strongly visual, emotional, personally focused and relational, and those opposing it were characterised as stuck in the past and probably religious. The campaign was also highly medicalised and politicised, with repeated efforts to have legislation authorising the practice presented in federal parliament in Canada before it was finally passed.

This “never give up tabling pro-euthanasia legislation” strategy of euthanasia advocates is also seen in state parliaments in Australia. Each time such bills are defeated another is introduced.

A negative content companion strategy in the Canadian euthanasia debate was the characterisation of people who opposed euthanasia as wanting people to suffer and lacking kindness and compassion.

The countervailing anti-same-sex marriage and anti-euthanasia cases, as is also true in the abortion debate, are much more complex. They require, among other considerations, three interrelated approaches.

First, recognising the need to take into account the roles and influence of complexity, potentiality and uncertaintyin these values debates. Second, looking beyond just what an individual wants to wider impacts, especially on the common good and on vulnerable people: in the same-sex marriage debate they are children; in the euthanasia debate, people with disabilities and fragile elderly people; in the abortion debate, unborn children and pregnant women. And third, looking beyond the present to what we can learn from the past and predict for the future.

So, keeping the above in mind, where should Ireland go from here? How should the Irish people who are pro-life deal with the situation they now face?

Can anything be salvaged?

First, whether or not abortion is legal in certain circumstances, it is always a very serious ethical issue and this must be strongly emphasised. In Western democracies, such as Ireland, we live in ethically fragmented societies in which there is no consensus about abortion. Therefore, the law has to be invoked to set limits.

The lives of unborn children merit legal protection. The extent of that protection will be determined by the legislature on the basis, first, of upholding important values, especially respect for every individual human life, in particular the most vulnerable among us, who include unborn children, and respect for human life in society in general; and, second, the feasibility of applying the law in practice.

In practice, it is now very difficult and sometimes might even be impossible to prevent abortion early in pregnancy. Chemical abortifacients such as RU486 make early abortion easily accessible.

Having a law that is ineffective to prevent early abortion could do more harm than good, as it could bring the law into disrepute and send a message that all law on abortion can be ignored.

It could also do more harm than good with respect to reducing the number of abortions overall. Indeed, some countries in which abortion is illegal have a higher abortion rate than those where, under certain conditions, it is legal.

Let me explain.

If early abortion is not illegal, a woman with a crisis pregnancy is more likely to seek counselling and learn of its risks and harms, and its alternatives, and perhaps change her mind. Some women might choose to keep their child if they know that fully adequate support is available.

The relevant analogy is the decriminalisation of suicide to try to prevent suicide, because suicidal people and their families are more likely to seek help if they are not threatened with criminal prosecution.

Now that abortion will be legalised, Ireland now needs abortion prevention programs, with counselling and other support systems, just as societies have suicide prevention programs.

Pro-choice advocates should accept this approach as it would give women the widest possible range of choices, which, quite apart from other considerations, is a necessary prerequisite for obtaining informed consent to abortion, if that is legal and the woman’s decision.

Pro-life advocates should accept it too, because helping a woman to feel that she will not lose control of her life by going through with an unplanned pregnancy can help her to decide against abortion. Eliciting that feeling and informed choice require readily available facilities for crisis pregnancy counselling that are not abortion clinics, which, among other reasons for their exclusion, have a conflict of interest as they profit financially from carrying out abortions.

Dealing in this way with abortion is not to approve of it early in pregnancy, as some pro-life advocates argue it is. It is not an acceptance of the pro-choice dogma that the embryo or foetus is “just a bunch of cells” with no intrinsic value, or that respect for human life is not involved in abortion, or that early abortion is not a major ethical issue. Rather, it is to face the reality that abortions will occur and try to limit their number and the harm that they entail.

When, as sadly will become the case in Ireland, it is not possible in reality to save all unborn babies from abortion, we must save as many as we are able and I believe the approach I’ve described above is the one most likely to do that.

Moreover, the damage flows beyond the unborn child and the pregnant woman when, as from the Taoiseach’s statement seems will happen in Ireland, the fundamental human rights of freedom of religion and belief, and freedom of conscience will be intentionally breached.

Finally, it is heart-breaking to witness joyous celebrations, such as those the Irish “yes side” has engaged in, of a victory that will take the lives of unborn children. To see legalising early abortion as a tragic necessity that they will allow with deep regret in strictly limited circumstances, is very different from popping champagne corks and toasting a triumph.




























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