Why my fellow Retainers can’t face the facts around abortion

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Category :Thoughts

As the abortion debate rages, David Hartery says appropriating the morality of the Left will be the key to retaining the 8th Amendment.

You might think Eighth Amendment supporters would be quietly heartened by someone coming out and speaking publicly for their cause. My experiences in the last week clearly showed me that this was not the case.

I have said numerous times that I support limiting abortion rights for all women in this country, but that I felt the pro-life movement consistently fails to deal with the central argument of the other side – that of bodily autonomy. On Twitter, old men and young men picked apart my phrasing – a true pro-life person would never use the phrase abortion “limiting” they chided (I get the argument that “limiting” makes it sound like a authoritarian whim, but doesn’t the phrase “ban” sound totalitarian plea by comparison?).

Several people asked why I was speaking for women, something I never claimed I was doing. Several priests told me outright that I might think I’m pro-life, but I’m not. Even though I would be far more authoritarian than the average Irish person on this subject. Even though I sincerely believe no women should be granted abortions when they ask for them. For all the smarmy Catholic fraternity, it’s not enough to want the same thing, we have to want it for the right reasons.

Personally, I can take the flack, but it doesn’t fill me with much hope that the last successful abortion-ban movement in Western Europe is finally on its last legs. Look at how dogged and successful the pro-life side have always been. We haven’t really heard as much from them in the public debate so far, but they are surely coming, with their gruesome placards and crucifixes and their own emotive arguments. They have always won.

That is exactly what we’re facing into. The most basic question of all is, of course, the actual death of the foetus. There is no greater sign of the dramatic immaturity of the current Irish abortion debate that we’re still on this issue. Judith Jarvis Thompson’s famous thought experiment was in 1971.  But the pro-life brigade never fully engage with the experience of the woman, and continue to argue that pro-choice activists ignore the idea of the unborn child. They do this at their peril.

These are men – I am a man – whom the Retain movement considers the natural enemy of its cause: a doctor, a comedian, a rigorously materialist Marxist-Leninist with the clumsy phrasing of a pro-choicer. We three do not all have the same views on abortion, but we share one thing; we see the awful, awful discourse around this issue. And perhaps like a lot of Irish people, we simply yearn for a proper language for the moral struggle around abortion.

It’s no surprise, really, that we don’t have this language. There is a intellectual vacuum at the heart of Irish life. We have rejected the old Church – for good reasons – but in doing so, we haven’t replaced the Catholic social mores with one rigorously grounded in any deep alternative philosophical understanding. Paradoxically, this has caused retrenchment to a rigid morality that has made us the odd man out in Europe for abortion rights. And so we are still fighting tooth-and-nail for abortion in hard-case circumstances like fatal foetal abnormality, while other countries have abortion for those who want it, when they want it. The Retainers must absorb this lesson.

Pro-life activists flinch from this kind of talk. It immediately reminds them of continental philosophy – even though ideas like these have always been part of dissenting voices through the ages – and it forces them to think about a moral framework for abortion outside of St Thomas Acquinas. But acknowledging these issues not only shows respect for the woman (her ‘choice’), it takes on the pro-choice lobby on their own spiritual turf. It beats them with their own Verso book sale.

Our own naive pro-life campaigners would scoff at such practices. To the Irish Twitter mob, talk of bodily autonomy smacks of giving up too much ground. They will never acknowledge that, at the heart of abortion, is the fact that women’s choices must be respected. This is a terrible shame. Facing up to these issues might go some way toward bringing along the ‘mushy middle’ of Irish society, who have long accepted we must not change our constitution (however this number seems to be declining), but still can’t quite bring themselves to flag-wave for banning abortion.

Perhaps the real key to bringing some justice to our abortion laws will be to do more for these people than lecture them. We need, rather, to help them imagine an Ireland where we are prepared to look every difficult fact about abortion square in the eye, an Ireland where women have the rights and responsibilities that make up real, free choice. And maybe one day, in the not-too-distant future, we principled, determined Retainers can take our own spirituality, candles and rosary beads (I have a beautiful set from my grandmother), and join the likes of Youth Defence harassing women on social media.