There are many things that changed in Ireland after the vote on the 25th May 2018 and the historic legalisation of abortion in Ireland. Many will argue those changes are for the better and many will argue that they are for the worse. But we can all agree that there is certainly a change in attitudes and values.
One change that is particularly noticeable in the coverage of the issue is the language used to describe it. The Minister of Health and much of the media now refer to ‘abortion services’ that are available in Ireland. Furthermore, the provision of abortion is now under the rubric of ‘health care’. Without doubt, this language around the issue of abortion is new.
In the past we may have debated the availability or non-availability of abortion in Ireland but rarely did we hear abortion described as a service. Even before the referendum, many of the better debates acknowledged the moral ambiguities and human tragedy of abortion in relation to whether the eighth amendment should be retained or not. It seems a new departure to now include the provision of abortion under the rubric of healthcare. But is this change of language justified?
If we first take the word ‘service’. Service assumes the provision of something good for someone else that contributes to another’s wellbeing. So we speak of laundry services, legal services, dental services, financial services, etc. Can we legitimately put the procedure of abortion on the same level of service as a tooth extraction or an appendix removal? Can we describe the reality of abortion as the provision of a good to another? In the case of abortion ‘the other’ is both the mother and the unborn child who are affected directly. For the unborn child, the word ‘service’ to him/her cannot be applied since a deliberate action results in the destruction of his/her life. In the case of the mother, the application of ‘service’ is dubious at best. Since the lives of the mother and her unborn child are so interwoven, how can a harm that is done to the child translate into the provision of a good to the mother?
Similarly, the description of abortion under ‘health care’ is highly questionable. We speak of health care of the sick, of the elderly, the infirm and expectant mothers. We care for people on their way back to health or the care required to sustain people in a healthy body and mind. So in the case of abortion, to whom is care given? Not the unborn child for sure. What kind of care is given to the mother? Is the care she receives just a matter of granting her request for an abortion? Is this the only way to care for a woman in a crisis pregnancy? For most of the thousands of people who voted to retain the eight amendment, they did so because they cared for the health and protection of the child. They also cared for the physical, spiritual and mental health of the mother. They voted ‘no’ because of care and not a lack of it.
The words ‘service’ and ‘health care’ are universally used to describe positive and helpful goods that benefit human individuals and society. Who then in their right minds could be against ‘services’ and ‘health care’? Therefore, coupling these terms to abortion makes the reality seem more acceptable and normal. It makes abortion seem more palatable and less disturbing of our collective conscience. Yet the change in language masks the reality that abortion can neither be a service or be included in the same manner as mainstream health care. The change in language has been a deliberate attempt to sanitise the moral ambiguities around the issue and distract from the question that simply will not go away, despite the referendum result and the resultant change of our laws – are the unborn human? The tragedy of our abortion laws is that they proceeded without us having ever honestly grappled with that question. If the unborn are not human, then abortion is no big deal. If they are human, then the 25th May 2018 will be remembered as one of the darkest days in our history. And no change of language will change that.