A version of this was previous published in The Times Ireland Edition:
If early campaign awards were to be given out at this stage of the abortion referendum, you’d have to give them to the anti-repeal campaign. Their posters have been textbook examples of communicating simple effective messages: one in five pregnancies end in abortion in the UK, licence to kill? (with that non-judgmental ask-yourself question mark) , after 11 weeks, etc. There’s also that very subtle message aimed at people who just don’t want this sort of thing in the constitution: can you really trust politicians, if the amendment is repealed, to not start passing liberal abortion-on-demand laws in the future?
Even the phrase abortion-on-demand is nicely provocative, conjuring up an image of a foetus-hating angry feminist demanding a termination with fist hammering on counter. You never hear the phrase dentistry-on-demand.
The funny thing about the politicians message is that it does have a ring of truth to it, because we have seen one group of people move in Ireland after a referendum from outright opposition to becoming more flexible on abortion because it was politically convenient.
The pro-life campaign.
In the three 1992 abortion referendums, on information, travel and what we then called the “substantive issue”, large elements of the pro-life coalition campaigned against the right to travel, using, in their advocacy, all the messages the pro-life campaign now use. That a woman utilizing the right to travel was travelling to carry out all the acts which are now described in the anti-repeal posters.
Interestingly, Youth Defence opposed the right to travel but were curiously honest in admitting that the problem being committed during the X case was not seeking an abortion but actually informing the government that one was seeking an abortion, thus embarrassing the state into acting, and that the right to travel was not needed for those women who would quietly leave the country. Of course, if the right to travel had been rejected it would not be unreasonable to have expected many pro-lifers to have seized such a result as a mandate to crackdown on women travelling to seek abortions.
The right to travel passed anyway, the only time until now that the Irish people have not been asked to vote to restrict abortion but to grant access to it, albeit anywhere else but in Ireland. It passed by a not unimpressive 62% which told us a lot about the Irish psyche. The whole country chose to look the other way as we sent women onto planes or car ferries, clutching the information we had the decency to allow them to get before setting out on their journeys.
Jesus, we were all heart, so we were.
I’ll be honest. Since then, it’s always bugged me. How can one be against abortion, in favour of the protection of the unborn, but only in a geographical sense? How can one believe that something is a legal entity with rights here, but move it a few feet over a legal border, and one no longer believes in those rights?
When I ask friends of mine who are pro-life how they justify that, the defence is always the same: Ireland can’t be responsible for what abortion laws apply in the UK. But that’s a cop-out, because it isn’t answering my question. My question is why has the pro-life movement abandoned opposition to the right to travel? Why aren’t they trying to repeal that?
The answer they give is that it is not practical to enforce a travel ban on women seeking abortions, but again, that’s not true. If they truly believed in defending every unborn life they’d advocate repeal of the 13th amendment, then set up an Office for the Protection of the Unborn. They’d require every doctor to register every pregnancy they encounter, and track every pregnancy to its conclusion, and prosecute those women who could not account for their full pregnancies. We could have a national confidential line where people could inform the OPU of women they suspect were going to seek an abortion. In short, the state would be carrying out what it is required to do as per the 8th amendment, “guarantees in its laws to respect, and as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.” We have the technology to do all this, and we can afford it. What’s lacking is the political will.
When I say this to pro-life friends they come back with the “as far as practicable” argument, that it just is not realistic to expect the Irish state to do that. But apply that argument to child sex trafficking or female genital mutilation, and tell me that it is none of the Irish state’s business to interdict an Irish child being sent abroad for FGM or to be trafficked into slavery.
Will those same people shrug their shoulders and say that if someone wishes to escort an Irish child from Ireland to another jurisdiction to be sexually abused, that’s just not our problem? Really?
We have the resources and the technology to enforce a ban on travelling to seek an abortion, or to at least punish those who do and use that punishment as a deterrent to protect the unborn.
Is it all a bit Handmaid’s Tale? Of course it is. It would be loopy, and God forbid a foreign national was impregnated by an Irish citizen and then detained in Ireland against her will to prevent her seeking an abortion. We’d go from the Ireland of Panti to the Ireland of the Ayatollah in days. If she was French President Macron would have the Charles De Gaulle aircraft carrier in Dublin Bay within hours and French paratroopers grabbing her faster than you could say “Raid on Entebbe”.
The reality is that most of the pro-life movement don’t want to touch the right to travel because they know, rightly, that it would be a political lost cause. The Irish people would not tolerate it, as they didn’t tolerate it in 1992. Indeed if there is one vote in the history of the Irish as a sovereign people that underlines our ducky-divey approach to morality, it’s our willingness to decide it by geography.
But the decision by the pro-life movement to turn a blind eye to travel is politically astute. In short, given a choice between even making the argument to try to save those unborn who will be sent to the UK, they don’t even want to try. It would cost votes.
But given we can live in a country where every party is “committed” to the restoration of the Irish language, why don’t we have even a few pro-life TDs symbolically trying to restrict the right to travel, to protect those unborn? Because votes wins every time.
Does that make them hypocrites? No more than the rest of us, in fairness.
But a little less of the high moral horse, if you don’t mind.
The reality is that when I look at those posters telling me about what they perceive to be the evils of abortion, I’m reminded that the people who put them up are not as much pro-life as just slightly less pro-choice than me.