When examining a book such as Debating the 8th: Repeal or Retain? it is important to understand and appreciate the context in which it was published. Abortion, of course, remains one of the most divisive issues of our times, and for good reason. As the book’s editor Conor O’Riordan acknowledges, “the subject of abortion raises strong feelings; in many ways, it would be odd if it did not.” But the battle over Ireland’s Eighth Amendment has been particularly bitter. Inserted into Ireland’s Constitution more than 30 years ago, the amendment grants legal protection to the unborn child, thereby recognizing the intrinsic value and dignity of the unborn. It is this amendment the Irish people will vote on in a referendum later this month and the result will have profound effects both for Ireland and—potentially—for other countries around the world with laws protecting the most vulnerable.
Within this context, I am grateful to O’Riordan for this collection of essays, which attempts to bring together arguments from both sides of the debate. He is to be praised for wading into the middle of the most unpleasant and distressing battle of ideologies I have come across in my years of campaigning work, as is the publisher for appreciating the value of such a project. As the tone of the abortion debate becomes increasingly more spiteful and devoid of substance, there is a growing need for books such as this to allow the undecided to move beyond the shouted slogans and to examine the arguments while gaining a better understanding of abortion.
There are some excellent contributions from academics, such as Catholic philosopher Anthony McCarthy, and from women with powerful personal stories about abortion. Tracy Harkin’s account of giving birth to a baby with a supposedly “fatal foetal anomaly” stood out for me, not just because of the love and courage the family showed when faced with the relentless negativity of doctors, but because she exposes the way in which the acceptance of abortion for conditions such as Patau Syndrome feeds into the level of medical care such babies receive if they are permitted to be born. Harkin speaks of feeling that the doctors were simply waiting for her daughter to die, not deeming her worthy of basic medical care they would never have refused a non-disabled baby, even going so far as to claim (falsely) that the baby did not need specialist medical equipment—an omission that nearly cost baby Kathleen her life. Harkin’s brutally honest account of caring for a seriously disabled child gives the lie to any notion that attitudes to disability are not negatively impacted by eugenic abortion. If a baby is not deemed worthy of life before birth, it does not take long for the same attitude to creep into pediatric care.
Another essay I was relieved to see included was penned by Karen Gaffney, a woman with Down Syndrome who talks candidly about living with DS and why “our world is better with Down Syndrome in it.” I couldn’t help wondering how Gaffney could stand being published in the same volume as writers arguing the case for eliminating people like herself, but it is a huge step forward that adults living with DS are finally being given the space to speak for themselves, rather than being expected to sit and listen to medical professionals, politicians, and campaigners arguing in favor of killing them off for their own good.
The book’s inclusion of many different perspectives— lawyers, campaigners, academics, clergy, students—is a brave attempt to give space to the many different voices within Ireland’s abortion debate. But I found that it sometimes made for an exhausting reading experience. One minute I was reading a complex exploration of the philosophical background to the protection of human life; the next minute I was being shrieked at by a rabble-rousing Socialist convinced of her place on the right side of history (I probably don’t need to explain the illogicality of that claim); a lawyer took me through the minutiae of Irish constitutional law, alongside a heart-breaking description of an abortion decision made in fear and loneliness, and the long-term consequences for that woman and her work with grieving women all over the world. The constant changes of register were challenging and, at times, jarring.
Another difficulty with a collection of essays written by individuals in isolation is that contributors don’t necessarily know what others are covering (or not covering) in terms of argument and content. The pro-abortion essays therefore, refer with tedious predictability to the 2012 death of Savita Halappanavar and the X Case, each writer listing these cases as though they are introducing them to the reader for the first time. But any reader with an interest in Ireland (and that is likely to be the vast majority of those who will read this book) should be more than familiar with these cases anyway, so being “introduced” to the same two cases—used to make the same well-worn point, over and over again—is as compelling as the proverbial stuck record. On the flip side, when I contacted the writer of one of the pro-life essays, they said that they would have answered the arguments surrounding the Savita case but assumed that one of the other writers would have been asked. The end result is that there is no detailed pro-life response to the Savita case in the book, leaving unchallenged the narrative that this woman was a victim of the Eight Amendment rather than a victim of multiple separate failures to provide her with adequate care.
Unfortunately, like the debate itself, a bit too much of the book is given over to emotion and personal anecdote, with perhaps too little time spent arguing the legal, medical, and ethical case against repealing the Eight Amendment. At times, the emotive language and imagery cloud both sides with sometimes hilarious effect. I read of one deeply distressed and indignant young woman who discovered she was pregnant while alone in a toilet. The author of the article may have been unaware of this, but since pregnancy testing generally involves piddling on a stick, women all over the world tend to find out that they are pregnant alone in the toilet, unless they are in the habit of relieving themselves in the middle of their kitchens before an adoring audience.
Emotionally loaded and quite simply inaccurate language permeates some parts of the book. “Compulsory pregnancy,” one author claims, “continues to be the norm in Ireland for women who cannot travel.” Good heavens, really? In the long years I have lived just across the water from Ireland, I had somehow failed to notice that pregnancy is obligatory for all Irish women. In fact, not having an abortion does not constitute “compulsory pregnancy” with its weird connotations of Irish women being given some kind of Handmaid’s Tale-style pregnancy quota: it involves not killing an unborn baby. I didn’t even bother keeping a tally of the number of times the expression “Christian fundamentalist” appeared, but why have a reasoned debate when you can easily descend into name-calling?
The wackiest argument in favor of abortion (and it was up against some fairly stiff competition) had to be Valerie Tarico’s belief that the frequency of early pregnancy loss justifies abortion. Apparently, according to Tarico,
this systematic culling makes God or nature the world’s biggest abortion provider: nature’s way of producing healthy kids essentially requires every woman to have an abortion mill built into her own body. In humans an estimated 60-80 per cent of fertilised eggs self-destruct before becoming babies, which is why the people who kill the most embryos are those who try to maximize their number of pregnancies or who simply “let go and let God” manage their fertility.
That’s a bit like saying that God or nature is a mass murderer because every human being is mortal and therefore condemned to die, making every bloodthirsty tyrant who has ever ordered a massacre a mere helpmate to nature. Don’t bother with war-crime tribunals then, and let’s apologize for those judgmental Nuremberg Trials that convicted and hanged individuals who were only assisting nature in an inevitable process. But this is the same writer who seems to believe that abortion is a terribly good idea because killing off a baby allows couples to have other, better babies they would not otherwise have had: “All around us are people who exist only because their parents had the mercy of a fresh start.” My daughter Natalia was born after I had suffered two early pregnancy losses, the second one occurring just a few months before I conceived Natalia and carried her to term. I cannot imagine what life would be like without her and yes, if the baby I lost had lived, Natalia would not have been conceived—but I cannot see how this makes the agony of that earlier loss something to be celebrated.
For all the religion-bashing that goes on at different stages of the book, there is the odd attempt at appropriating religion for the purposes of promoting abortion. “Let we who are without sin cast the first stone!” ends one rambling essay by Fine Gael politician (and pharmacist) Kate O’Connell pushing the abortion agenda. As if Jesus said to the woman caught in adultery,“Go and commit adultery some more”! I don’t know many pro-life campaigners who have the urge to throw stones at anyone; on the contrary, they work to find ethical and humane solutions to crisis pregnancies.
But that is another major failing in the pro-abortion rhetoric in many of the essays. Heartbreaking stories are told to defend abortion with the assumption that those who oppose abortion need persuading that women’s lives matter. A girl dying giving birth in secret to hide her shame, a young mother dying an agonizing death of cancer because she was refused treatment during pregnancy: these are cases about which anyone with a shred of decency should be outraged. I felt outraged—but not because of a lack of abortion here. I was outraged that a young girl did not receive the help and support she needed to give birth safely and care for her child; I felt outraged that a woman died needlessly because of apparent ignorance about the principle of double effect. Like any reader who opposes abortion, I believe in the inherent dignity of all human life, but I am not going to be emotionally blackmailed into accepting the destruction of an unborn baby when there are humane solutions available to help women in crisis pregnancies.
Throughout the pro-abortion essays, classic assumptions are simply reasserted and often with little in the way of references. Apparently, access to contraception radically reduces the abortion rate, even though the majority of women who present for abortion were using contraception, and pro-abortion agencies themselves admit that contraception is not a solution for abortion. Some writers make contradictory assumptions without realizing that they are demolishing their own arguments. Irish women will always have abortions whether it is legal or not and prohibition does absolutely nothing to bring down the abortion rate—and abortion must be legalized because women aren’t getting abortions and are being left “compulsorily” pregnant. So, are women getting abortions or aren’t they?
The assumption that causes the red mist to descend every time I read it (and which predictably found its way into this book) was the mantra: “Every child should be a wanted child.” I can’t decide if people who spout this particular line really are as ignorant about the complex causes of child abuse as they appear to be or if they are deliberately using the suffering of the innocent to forward their own agendas. Space does not permit me to answer in as much detail as I would like but if abortion really were some sort of solution to abuse and neglect, Britain would have abolished the problem after 50 years of legal abortion, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children would have been rendered obsolete, and there would be no more than a handful of children on high-risk registers. But even if the “every unwanted child a dead child” claim held any water, most of us would rather society put its efforts into eliminating abuse—not eliminating children.
On the pro-life side, I’m not sure it was helpful to include a 13-page piece by a Baptist pastor whose central argument appeared to be that “if evolution is true then there is nothing wrong with abortion.” It made for almost as maddening reading as the pro-abortion essay by a “loyal Catholic” priest, replete with caricatures of Catholic teaching, sweeping generalizations, and sneering sideswipes: “He accepted infallible Catholic dogma but he has been thinking for himself of late.” Unlike Catholic automatons like you and me, who have supposedly never had an independent thought in our entire lives, Father Eoin did at least have the grace to acknowledge his lack of qualifications. “I would need to say that I am neither a legal or medical expert. The last thing people want today is a cleric with all the answers.” No, the last thing people want is a cleric with the wrong answers.
Despite finding the book such a disheartening read it is my hope that there will be future attempts at bringing together both sides of the debate in books such as this, with the further possibility of bringing writers together on discussion panels to exchange ideas face-to-face in a mostly calm and respectful manner. O’Riordan’s book is in many ways a courageous experiment in a new form of discourse, and this author is curious to see how it develops.
Debating the 8th: Repeal or Retain?
Edited by Conor O’Riordan
Orpen Press 2018
Paperback, 280 pages