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That ‘middle ground’ on abortion… redux January 15, 2013

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics.

There’s a most interesting paragraph in a piece by Pat Leahy in the Sunday Business Post on last weeks Oireachtas health committee deliberations on the abortion issue. The deliberations were probably not that enlightening all told, prepared positions were stuck to and although the language of some was emollient, too emollient by half, it’s unlikely that this changed hearts and minds either within the Seanad Chamber where it was held or much beyond it.

Some stray facts, as Leahy notes, it was revealed that there are at least 30 ‘terminations’ in Irish hospitals each year. I tend to have the view that there is a semantic distinction between that and abortion. Others disagree no doubt. But Leahy makes a very telling point when he notes that it is a ‘pillar of the stance of the pro-life campaigners that abortion is never necessary to safe the life of a woman. But as long as they define some terminations as abortions and others as something else, that remains unchallengeable’ [Doesn’t he mean ‘challengeable’?]. And that in a way is the problem here. The certainty of certain beliefs when applied to the world as it is and not as they would present it as tends to be undermined.

Leahy argues that ‘whether new legislation can be sufficiently restrictive is the key issue for the middle ground’ and it is educative how the debate has been repositioned in relation to this supposed ‘middle ground’, an area that – so its proponents would have one believe – eschews the ’extremism’ of those who argue for or against provision. Some of us might be excused for being a little sceptical about such reframing of matters in those terms. It sounds… well… expedient, and most expedient for a government party, a majority party within the coalition, that has woken up to the fact that quite unexpectedly it has a wing of TDs and Senators who hold vociferously pro-life views. For those of us who remember FG in in the 1980s this is something of a surprise, though perhaps it shouldn’t be. But to see the likes of Brian Hayes incorporated in lists of anti-abortion TDs (sometimes, not always and he himself cleaves to the ‘middle-ground’ view) is instructive.

But without question it has a political utility in providing cover when the broader dynamic is one that pushes towards some measure of legislated provision of abortion. I know I’m always saying this, but whether there is a measure of provision is dependent upon none other than Fine Gael TDs. No one else.

Which is also to say that in political terms Leahy is probably spot on that this is where the issue will be fought and won or lost, on terms that have suddenly been unveiled. It’s interesting this, there was a time when there would have been little question that the ‘middle-ground’ would have been tilted sharply against abortion, more or less full stop, so change there has been. But how much?

This is where the figures referenced by Leahy are of use.

Asking the question ‘what does the public think’, he notes that…

But there was another straightforward and independent poll last week, for the bookmakers Paddy Power and carried out by Red C. It found that 35 per cent favour legislation for the X case; 26 per cent favour legal abortion where the life of the mother is at risk but excluding by suicide; and 29 per cent favour abortion in any case where a woman requests it.

Polls, particularly on social issues, can often change in the course of a campaign or a national conversation on the issue. But, given previous polls, it’s probably accurate to say the majority of the public favours limited abortion.

These are fairly remarkable if one thinks about them. There was only 8 per cent opposed to any abortion provision whatsoever (By the way, only 2 per cent didn’t know. Which is a testament to something given the prominence of the issue across the decades). Opinion on the issue is no longer bifurcated – as it arguably was during the 1980s and onwards – but has pooled into three or four camps. And putting the figures themselves aside for a moment I think that’s a very good thing indeed because it suggests that the electorate is coming to some terms with the complexity of the issue and moving beyond the reductionist ‘abortion is bad’ approach that for far too long characterised what passed for debate.

It’s also of political import too. If there is indeed broadly speaking a majority in favour of some or full provision of abortion in this state that suggests that provision there will be. That 8 per cent is simply too small to prevent something being implemented. Though knowing the intrinsic caution of our public representatives one suspects that it will be the most minimal reading of X, and that already is, as we know, very minimal indeed.

But that caution isn’t just restricted to public reps. Take, by way of example, the SBP editorial which opines on the same issue:

The government’s position is a cautious, moderate one: it pleases neither of the extremes. Politically, it is a pitch for the middle ground, and that ground was strengthened last week. In this, the committee and its chairman Jerry Buttimer did the government a service.


There is a long way to go. Fine Gael TDs, and the cautious, softly pro-life middle – whose wishes and fears the TDs are acutely conscious of – will need a lot of reassurance that legislating for the suicide exception is not opening the door to a wider abortion regime. That is a reasonable fear for those who hold pro-life views, and it may turn out to be the most important question of the whole debate.

But the poll results would suggest that the ‘middle ground’ is actually by some margin less cautious and less ‘moderate’ than the editorial suggests.

Interesting that it doesn’t then reference that poll – no?


1. Wendy Lyon - January 15, 2013

Polls have been showing for years that only a tiny minority oppose abortion in all circumstances. There’s nothing new in this one; only the political context has changed.

As for “termination”, that’s nothing but a euphemism for induced abortion. The only semantic difference is between that and spontaneous abortion (i.e., miscarriage), but “abortion” itself is rarely used in the latter sense anymore either.


WorldbyStorm - January 15, 2013

Absolutely indeed that’s kind of my point in relation to the semantic difference, and in relation to the polls that’s very true but the question remains why is the SBP editorial so attached to a middle ground which by the terms it describes it in is more conservative than the polling data, and the changed political context – which is of course key, would suggest?


CMK - January 15, 2013

The ‘middle ground’ ruse that the SBP are trying to use here is inappropriate and evidence that they are trying to apply the tools of ‘normal’ political analysis to a subject where those tools are entirely besides the point. The fact is that one of the ‘extremes’ that the SBP are positing – abortion on demand based on a woman’s choice – is a fact of life for thousands of Irish woman every year. That this choice is exercised outside the jurisdiction is neither here nor there. That possibly hundreds of thousands of living Irish women have had a termination means that interpreting their choice as one of the ‘extremes’ is, well, cowardly and stupid. Women exercising their choice is not an ‘extreme’ to the debate. Indeed, from my perspective the ‘extremes’ at present in Ireland are those represented by the pro-‘life’ brigade who want to keep the status quo or revert back to an absolute ban on all abortions and those who are looking for a fudge based on the X case which will allow this issue to die for a couple of years and let everyone get on with their lives. The ‘middle ground’ is presented by those women and their families, partners etc who have exercised their choice and have gotten on with life but whose experiences are being written out deliberately from a discourse operating to a pre-ordained objective of doing the least possible and not offending a voiciferous minority against any change.


Wendy Lyon - January 15, 2013

That this choice is exercised outside the jurisdiction is neither here nor there.

It’s exercised inside the jurisdiction, too. Women are ordering abortion pills online, they’re using traditional remedies passed down through generations. And those are just the methods we know about.


CMK - January 15, 2013

No doubt, and taking risks while do so; risks they wouldn’t have to take if they could access termination here in a safe environment with the medical backup necessary.


2. It is interesting, it it not, to reflection… « The Cedar Lounge Revolution - February 11, 2013

[…] why all the very public wrestling with conscience. Why indeed one might ask is it that a disproportionate number of FG TDs seemingly are more anti-abortion provision (at least rhetorically) than those they purport to […]


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