This weekend marks a year since the majority of the people of Ireland voted to repeal the 8th amendment and remove the right to life of unborn children under 12 weeks old and unborn children up until birth who have an abnormality deemed to be fatal. This vote by the public has led to legalisation of abortion in Ireland with the first terminations being carried out in January of this year.
As we pass this milestone, it is imperative to pause and reflect. No doubt, many will mark the anniversary in a celebratory tone and repeat the distasteful exuberance that we saw in Dublin Castle once the vote was announced last year. But such celebrations must surely be toned down or even cancelled given the tragedy that emerged from the National Maternity Hospital last week when a false diagnosis led to the abortion of a healthy child. Understandably, the parents were reported as ‘utterly devastated’. The Taoiseach tried to confine what happened and limit it to what he described as ‘individual tragedy’. But whatever way we look at it, this case is a timely reminder that abortion is truly a human tragedy. There are no winners but only people hurt and lives that have ended. That is why sober reflection and not triumphalism is the only way to look back on what happened in our country 12 months ago.
The tragic case in Holles Street again raises many questions that have not gone away since the referendum was passed. The moral ambiguities remain and have not been resolved. For example, why should the death of a healthy unborn child be described as an ‘individual tragedy’ whereas if the child in question had in fact borne some abnormality, his/her death would have been acceptable by our society? Why do we discriminate over who we grieve for? This question needs to be asked with great sensitivity but certainly not avoided by any society who wishes to avoid selective perception and to maintain contact with the real.
Another issue is how the normalisation of abortion and its moral acceptance assisted by the manipulation of language is causing greater loss of life. Phrases such as ‘a woman’s right to choose’ or ‘reproduction rights’ or describing abortion as ‘health care’ do not tell the full story of what happens and mask the truth that abortion ends an innocent life.
Arguably, many people who voted ‘Yes’ last year did so, not because they approve of abortion but because of the 3,500 plus Irish women who travelled to Britain each year for abortions. The logic ran ‘better to have them cared for here and stop exporting the problem. These abortions are happening anyway’. However, as was predicted in the run up the referendum, the numbers of those seeking abortions in the country has risen after it became legalised and normalised.
In a recent column in ‘The Irish Times’ (18th May 2019), journalist Breda O’Brien pointed out the following:
‘The Southern Taskgroup on Abortion and Reproductive Topics (START), an organisation representing 250 abortion providers, recently estimated that they are providing between 800 and 900 abortions per month. If that figure is accurate, over the course of a year there will be between 9,600 and 10,800 abortions carried out by these GPs alone. There are 317 GPs providing abortion. If the additional 67 doctors not represented by START are providing abortions at the same rate, that is an additional 2,570 to 2,890 abortions a year. That adds up to between 12,170 and 13,690 abortions a year. This is not counting abortions in hospitals and those still travelling to Britain’.
At a conservative estimate, this then amounts to almost 10,000 more unborn children conceived in Ireland who will have lost their lives because of the referendum result this time last year. Whatever one’s response to this figure might be, it must surely be preceded by deep silence.
This is not about shaming anyone, not least the women involved. In fact, it urges us to take collective responsibility for what we see unfolding in our country. How and why are so many women in a position where they feel that abortion is their only option because of poverty or the lack of a supportive partner or husband? Is there something in our culture today that is contributing to this? What are the root causes? Are we doing enough for women who find themselves with no choice because they have not the resources to rear a child or find themselves alone?
These are the questions that still scream to be answered and will not go away any time soon. Look at America, a country that remains painfully uneasy with its own conscience over abortion and increasingly divided, 43 years after Roe vs Wade. While States like New York and Massachusetts have passed laws to allow abortion for whatever reason right up to birth, other states like Alabama and Mississippi have restricted abortion laws in attempts to reduce the staggering figures of unborn lives ended.
But perhaps the most important question of all is ironically the most obvious as we look back on what happened a year ago. In the run up to the referendum last year, this question did not receive the focus it deserved and yet remains critical to the most basic moral sensibility - 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 or passage of time will change that.