As noted above, I live in Ireland but I am not an Irish citizen, so I do not have a vote in the coming referendum. Nevertheless, I do of course follow events and have thoughts on the subject, so for what they might be worth, I thought I would share them with you.
One of the main reasons my wife and I decided to live in Ireland is that there is still a strong sense of the importance of an inner, spiritual life of the individual in Irish society, even in the cities, that the craic is more important than money, that conversation is everybody’s art (I have never heard such speed of wit all around me as I have in Ireland), music is everyone’s joy, and there is a greater good to be found and nurtured in all things. This is a welcome counterbalance to the relentless drive of modern humanity to expand upon their ability to mess with things, to change the way the world works, to challenge the power of Nature with human ingenuity, and work themselves into the ground in the pursuit of material rewards, the trinkets of status and possession.
Personally, I don’t regret any of the advances made since the Age of Enlightenment that brought on this new attitude to creation and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, all of it in the latter half of the 18th Century, including the rise of Capitalism (Adam Smith published “The Wealth of Nations” in 1776). the Age of Enlightenment was the revolution in thinking that preceded, inspired and developed all of the socio-political changes in European culture over the next centuries, from the Industrial Revolution to the French and American Revolutions, to the Sexual Revolution, and on to the Technological Revolution we have been absorbing over the past sixty years or so, revolutions of entirely different natures but all representing the fundamental concept, that everything is not down to “The will of God”, that nature can be challenged and overcome, that it can be analysed and understood and used, well or badly, or any way we damn well please.
Herein lies the crux of the dilemma facing Ireland. On the one hand, it stands proud to proclaim the right to life of the unborn child, and deny abortion as a method of birth control or medical care; on the other hand, it is a 21st century society, with a liberal moral code, especially regarding sex (a revolution I endorse without reservation. I say to priests and nuns and other so called chaste folk, more fool you to give up on one of God’s best gifts!), and the influences of a multicultural society with all the varied attitudes to sex that entails.
Enjoying sex with no intention of pregnancy must be as old as sex itself, older than pregnancy if you think about it, and presumably produced unwanted pregnancies along with those more obviously not only unwanted but unwarranted pregnancies arising out of rape or incest. They were dealt with according to the custom of the time, no doubt, and now we have new customs to consider, not to mention previously unheard of advances in technique. There has been a change in the social attitudes of Western society to sex and its consequences ever since it became possible to avoid the risk of unwanted pregnancies through various forms of safe, effective birth control. For a start, a more liberal sexual code based on sex being most importantly the conduit of love and affection, and if you wish, mere desire. By this code, if all goes well, only at the end of the emotional process of mating, when the couple is truly in love in other words, does it include its role in pregnancy. Alongside this new liberal moral code there is the developing recognition of women as equal partners in society, not the chattels of men, but their equals. And last but not least, we have the advances in medical knowledge and technologies of the past century or two.
As well as the improved techniques of contraception, it also became medically much safer to abort a pregnancy or deliver a baby prematurely. Abortion too, though sometimes postponed until after birth, has also proved common to humanity throughout known history. The Greeks and Romans, for instance, are known to have accepted the practice of exposing new-born babies for a few nights to make sure they had the strength to survive childhood. It also became possible with the development of medical technology to monitor the development of the embryo/ foetus/ baby from the first two cells to the born child, and increasingly it is possible to predict many future outcomes, in the vast majority of cases a healthy birth, of course, but also including many life hindering or fatal outcomes, fates which can be averted sometimes by the same technological advances, well beyond their “natural” expectation.
I have to say, I abhor the way in which those who reject all reasons for performing an abortion have usurped the title Pro-Life. Who do you know who isn’t pro-life, for heaven’s sake? They should take a more honest position, of being simply Anti-Abortion, or in this case, Anti-Repeal, versus Pro-Repeal to make it fair. We could all understand that. No woman with this dreadful experience in her past that I have ever come across felt anything but deeply sad about the decision to abort a pregnancy, never forgot the day, or the years that have passed since, even when it is done to spare the unborn baby further suffering in the process of birth without amniotic fluid, for instance, or to remove a child already dead (which current Irish law obliges a woman to carry to term if her health is not threatened), or to save a woman or girl from despair. The issue is simply one of physical health, the Constitution’s 8th Amendment makes no mention of the mother’s state of mind.
It is always a child lost, no one should dispute that, or hope to hide behind the less empathetic descriptions “embryo” and “foetus”; or to disguise this awful, unwanted, undeserved aftermath of rape or incest, traumatic enough without the added burden, physical and emotional, of an unwanted pregnancy. It is possible for such psychological symptoms to be agreed under a more liberal programme, to allow, in effect, a termination of a pregnancy that would otherwise traumatise the mother. I and, I am sure, many other people would suggest to a woman considering abortion to give careful thought to the possibility of letting the child live and have its innocent life, to understand her fears and perhaps allay them, but I cannot judge the trauma any more than I can judge the physical and emotional feelings of pregnancy and giving birth. Fundamentally, the resolution must always be the woman’s decision, in consultation with whoever she pleases, doctors, friends, media columnists or priests, but that also applies across the board of all medical interventions, and is a point at issue in the debate. How much can the law impose restrictions on medical intervention? Is it up to her and her doctors alone, or is it up to the Government and Constitution? Or is it up to God? It should never have been brought into the field of law, as law would do well to keep out of morality, and in particular, written constitutions should be about the rights and obligations of the government and the people and not try to mould the national psyche. That will develop over time, and it will change, not always, in fact usually not entirely to the taste of the older generations (I am 71, so this is only a generalisation). Governments should stick to the facts as we know them. But here it is and now it must be decided if we are to change this situation.
For those of you who are not Irish, one upshot of the 8th amendment, passed in 1983, has been a steady traffic of Irish women to the UK to avail themselves of the more forgiving (the No campaign would say too forgiving) attitude of the law there, which effectively reflects the Irish government’s current offer, with some differences of course, but with the one major difference of having been in place for so long, practice has effectively adapted the law to itself. Really, if a pregnancy is something a woman feels she cannot bear, for whatever reason, she will probably obtain an abortion. It is felt that it is entirely a matter for the woman alone, and really, not even the business of government and law. I agree. Repealing the 8th Amendment will not make abortion compulsory.
This is the fear of even some moderate folk here. Whatever is passed, it will be hoped it will be fixed as the current law is fixed in the Constitution, and therein lies the rub, because once out of the bastion of the Constitution, the law becomes subject to perceived political necessity. I say necessity as opposed to whim, though that is another way of putting it, because politicians don’t put it any other way. For example, euthanasia of the commercially useless, old or young or in-between, is just the kind of thing fervent capitalist autocracies go for. Hitler made a good start on it – you will have heard of the 6 million Jews, but those camps also killed another 11 or 12 million “misfits”, gays, the mentally and physically disabled, gypsies, non-Caucasians, as well as Russian and Polish prisoners. I don’t have any statistics, but I can’t imagine much joy came from pregnancy if you could even achieve it in those camps, or if all pregnancies were ended as policy. Do we lose all respect for life if we once lower our guard, even a little? I don’t think so, but there is an element of the No Campaign that at least worries about it.
For many, the problem with the No campaign is its air of righteousness, its zealotry. There is always an aspect of gleefulness in people who condemn others for what they perceive to be transgressions of this or that rule of theirs, a kind of schadenfreude-in-waiting. If they are religious, which they mostly are, one often detects a dash of triumphalism – “Yah-boo sucks! I’m going to Heaven and you’re not”. I can’t imagine any definition of an omnipotent and/or omniscient intervening god that wouldn’t find such behaviour embarrassing in its followers. I’m not religious, but I do have a feeling that we are, if you like, observed, though I have no idea why or what is causing these feelings, or the strange coincidences and fortuities that engender them, and I certainly do not have a clue as to what might be the end result, particularly after death. Then again, I was raised a Catholic, so this could simply be conditioning. I am just as willing to believe that it is all just basic physics working itself out over the expanse of an extremely big universe. A happy coincidence if that’s it, I hope you agree.
However, assuming for a moment death isn’t simply lights out & goodbye and that some sort of afterlife awaits us in which a God is in charge, what will that be like, and more to the point, will we be judged for our perceived failings? Would you pick and choose between mice in a laboratory, if one was vicious and the other mild, or ants in a nest for that matter, to decide if one should be rewarded and the other punished? One would imagine that if we are to believe in such a mighty god, it would have to have an extremely broad view of the mass of detail in its creation. The best thought on this I’ve heard is that hell is in ourselves, who, having lived a vicious, venal life, cannot bear to face God and therefore turn our backs, forever facing into darkness. It isn’t Him doing the turning, we do our own judging. Or to put it another way, we create our own fate, here and beyond in the mystery of the infinite Is/ Is Not.
For all I know we will find ourselves in the fields of Elysium perhaps, or among vast crowds of the dead, or the modest like-minded assembly favoured by Hollywood and Christianity. Or (one of the ideas I have dreamt up when I had nothing better to do) perhaps we will wake up to a circle of friends asking if we enjoyed the trip and would we like to try another one. Carlos Castaneda, who spent much of his time wondering about all this cited his favourite graffiti, on a wall in San Francisco, “Death is the best trip of them all. That’s why they save it up for the end”. None of this suggests a vindictive god or a cruel afterlife.
But the basic truth for me is that I’ve never understood how anyone can claim to know for a certainty what God or Whatever It Is thinks or wants of people, or if there is an afterlife or not, or its characteristics and terms of condition if there is, let alone that such certainty entitles them to condemn or kill those people whom they call unbelievers for not agreeing with their views. Any Muslim thinking angry thoughts here should take a look at Verse 62 of the 2nd Sutra. Any Christian should look at anything Jesus reportedly said himself. Buddhists and Hindus agree with me that we cannot know anything for certain in a universe based on change. The Tora is way out there with the Q’ran for its cruel certainties and vicious punishments for transgressors and unbelievers, but it has its more tolerant passages (these Holy Books were the written constitutions of the world until we started writing our own in the 18th century). But pace Mohammed, a warrior and political leader (unique in this among the founders of the world religions), who is ambiguous on these subjects to say the least, the founding tenets of every religion as spoken by their spiritual patrons sound much the same: be kind and protective to each other and think about life as short with a long after story (more lives or eternal existence in a spirit world, depending on your religion). It is people who twist the words into hate, usually for political purposes, though sometimes, it has to be said, or so it seems, merely out of a fervent desire to take all the fun out of life.
Besides, I see hypocrisy here. If indeed we are obliged to submit to God’s will and His decisions, then shouldn’t people believing these things also ban all medical intervention for the duration of the pregnancy and, say, the first 5 years of childhood, allowing God to use his traditional methods of birth control? Instead, the Roman Catholic Church, historically embedded in the Irish national psyche (the referendum being one of many signs of this yoke being thrown off), holds to the most stringent abhorrence of contraception and abortion and yet allows IVF pregnancies and any amount of medical intervention to keep babies alive for as long as possible, no matter how that is done, however “unnatural”, or what kind of life it prolongs for the child. You may think God is all about humans or even a small section of them i.e. your religion, but my suspicion is that, should any such being exist, it must be as concerned for the virus that kills me as it is for me. It is the mother who cares for the child, and no one can care as much as she. That is the truth on earth, and that is the only truth we can truly affirm.
If we set aside the simple decision to be made by believers in a higher power and an unswerving moral code of any shade, it must come down to what we think of ourselves within ourselves, in our hearts, the ways in which we form a responsible, protective, interdependent attitude to our fellow humans, guided, if at all, only by the ever more complex and often confusingly contradictory mix of philosophies and beliefs that we are able to access in our relentlessly communicating 21st century world, a pantheon of which humanism is just another member. The Irish, with the suddenness and force of revolution, have turned from their Pope and his bishops to become, for instance, the first nation to vote in a citizens’ referendum for the legalisation of marriage rights for all, regardless of sex or sexuality. The 8th Amendment referendum in similar fashion challenges the presumptions of the past. If they take this step, how far do the Irish voters want it to go? And what about the uncertainties and inconsistencies that new law always reveals? How much do we trust our politicians, in an era when we don’t tend to trust them much at all?
If the 8th Amendment is repealed and a new law is passed, I expect that law will still reflect the spiritual nature of the national character, assuming a proper debate in the Daíl follows repeal, something the media seems largely to ignore but which must surely take place. The referendum is only about repeal. The government have a proposal for a bill, but particularly in the interestingly mixed party houses of the Daíl and Senate, I doubt it will go through unopposed or unaltered.
I think Keith Field, a long time anti-abortion campaigner, quoted in the Times Weekend Saturday 5th May, hits it on the head when he says the government “shot themselves in the foot with the twelve week thing”. This entire debate has been clouded by the government announcing the proposed bill to follow repeal without making it sufficiently clear that the bill, as with all bills, must be debated before any new law is passed. They should have kept their mouths shut, not put out any hint, and let that discussion come after the amendment was repealed, but politicians are not good at long views, as we know. They were presumably responding to the fact that the so-called abortion pill works up to twelve weeks rendering any attempt to ban the use of the pill useless (you can and people do already buy them online). This is as suggested in the reports of the citizens’ forum and the Daíl committee, but even non-religious folk here, in vox populi radio and TV, and in my own experience, have a sense of life beginning earlier, when it comes to the matter of allowing abortion on demand. Life, instinct says to such people, begins with the beating of the heart and/or with the first signs of brain activity, or the first signs of independent movement. The heart starts to beat some time during the fourth or fifth weeks. The brain begins to grow at around that time, A 12 week foetus may only measure three-quarters of an inch, but it feels like, looks like, and has all the tools of human life, if it has them at all.
This above all is the question, of course. When is a foetus a baby? Is babyness, as it were, something that begins, as one Kerry TD suggests, from the very beginning of gestation, before even the embryonic stage, from the moment sperm meets egg, or does it only qualify when all of the final body is in place, on the verge of delivery? Or somewhere along that timeline? For example, the brain, which is, after all, what most significantly distinguishes us from other species and provides the seat of our identity, begins to develop around 4 weeks and completes its “ventral induction”, the phase that builds the basic structure of the Central Nervous System, at around the 10th week of gestation, which is the 8th week in terms of embryonic age, and by which time all of the organs have at least begun to develop, though it should be noted that the brain only achieves “default human function status” at around 30 weeks or so (daydreaming and suchlike semi-sleep states in breathing humans, which demonstrate the clear identification of an individual), the rest of the body taking a few weeks longer to prepare for birth.
In medical terms, the 8/10th week marks the end of the “embryonic stage” and the beginning of the “foetal stage”. If the vote is Yes and it comes to a bill before the Daíl, I would expect the most controversial part of the government’s proposed bill, allowing abortion on request for the first 12 weeks, to be limited to this stage of development, the end of the embryonic stage. I think that would suit better the temperament of the nation. If there is a No vote victory it will hinder Ireland’s efforts to put an end to its social and political hypocrisies for decades to come.
We will know by the end of this month.