Monday 24 October 2016

Terry Prone: Changing attitude to abortion shows it's time to vote on it

Pro-life campaigners condemned Amnesty's intervention in the abortion debate
Pro-life campaigners condemned Amnesty's intervention in the abortion debate

I've been here before. So many, many times.

This week's Amnesty International Ireland/Red C poll indicates a substantial change within the general public's attitude to abortion and its place within our Constitution and our legal system. It has started the argument all over again and revived a simple hope that has never been fulfilled on countless previous occasions.

This hope is that we will, once and for all, settle the abortion issue. That we will achieve what is constantly called "closure" on a controversy that has torn apart one generation after another.

Those of us born around the middle of the last century knew an Ireland wherein abortion was unthinkable - but at one and the same time, a recent reality, at least in Dublin.

During the years of the Second World War, the city was the refuge for women with what are now called crisis pregnancies. At least three covert abortion clinics operated in the city centre.

There was the one distinguished by having tinfoil wrapped around the pillars on either side of its doors. There was the one in Hume Street where Nurse Mamie Cadden aborted countless pregnancies and killed at least two women in the process. Cadden ended up serving a life sentence.

The point is that when it was not possible for women to travel to Britain during the War enough of them were desperate enough to create a thriving market here at home. It happened. Unless, as in the case of Cadden, the expectant mother died, it was glossed over.

It was known about. It was advertised, in code, in the evening papers of the time. Post-war, it stopped, and was perhaps deliberately forgotten. Abortion became legal in Britain and with travel becoming reasonably cheap and easy, Irish women in their thousands chose to go there to end their pregnancies.

It wasn't until the 1970s, when feminism crossed the Atlantic, that the idea that a woman might own her own body and have rights superior to those of the foetus, began to surface. When it did, it met with an appalled rejection by majority Ireland, when majority Ireland was made up of Mass-going Catholics.

Gay Byrne's Late, Late Show dealt with the issue and drew a clear line that is visible to this day between two sets of people, each of whom regarded the other set as - at best - horribly misled.

The women continued to travel, and the statistics indicated that, as in all countries throughout history, a small number of women are always panicked enough or sufficiently convinced of their own rights to terminate their pregnancies.

Roughly every ten years, as a new generation began to encounter the issue of unplanned pregnancies, the topic would be re-ignited.

It was and is a binary issue. Either you believe it is a woman's right to choose, or you believe that aborting a baby at any stage and for any reason is evil.

Every now and again, a compromise would be proposed, as in the most recent Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, which set out to cover off a small cohort of women whose life was endangered, including by suicidal intent. But that compromise outraged those who believe that one baby aborted is too many, while at one and the same time outraging those who view the matter as a women's rights issue.

The clear line between the two groups was always there. But, as the Amnesty poll demonstrates, it has moved. Slowly but perceptibly, it has moved towards the women's rights point of view.

That inexorably leads to the belief that the general public should be given the chance to vote on the issue, although that won't happen in the lifetime of the present government.

The vote would be on repealing the eight amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees equal right to life for the woman and the unborn.

The one thing that's safe to say is that, no matter when that vote comes, and no matter how it turns out, it will not deliver closure.

It may change rights but it will leave one side of the argument bitterly unvindicated, and where that takes us, in the coming years, is the big question.

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