Is the general public now just incapable of having an intelligent discussion about an emotive subject like abortion? I rarely enter the abortion debate these days, and not because I’m a man who has no right to an opinion – I do – but because the level of public debate is now so juvenile that rarely can any good come from being involved in it. What is a critically important issue – a matter of life and death – deserves to be approached carefully, and perhaps with a certain level of gravitas. Instead the public debate is a noxious mix of cheap sloganeering, crass commentary, and venomous vitriol against anyone with a contrary opinion.
Abortion was one of the big issues discussed during the recent Northern Ireland Assembly elections, largely due to a criminal case in which a woman received a suspended sentence for procuring abortion pills to administer her own abortion because she couldn’t afford to travel to mainland Britain where abortion – under certain circumstances – is freely and legally available on the NHS. However, rarely has public ignorance been so stark than when it came to discussing abortion. On a political debate programme one audience member claimed that a baby “shouldn’t be considered human” until it’s born. Another remarked that it’s irrelevant that a foetus has human DNA because, after all, “a banana has human DNA.” Sadly such mindless and uninformed comments were not isolated. They reflect the general level of the public debate recently.
Catchy slogans have replaced carefully nuanced argument. Prolife people are told to “get your rosaries off my ovaries,” as if everyone who opposes abortion is a practicing Roman Catholic. When two evangelicals appeared on TV as part of panel discussion the comments aimed at them were hideously ugly. There was next to no engagement with any of their points, as critics were over-focused on the fact that they held a religious faith. Consider also the well worn “my body my rights” slogan, used to silence those who disagree, when the fact of the matter is abortion is an ethical issue precisely because it isn’t just a woman’s body that is at stake. Perhaps the most ridiculous slogan touted was: “If abortion is murder then a blowjob is cannibalism,” because pro-life people argue for the full humanity of sperm cells, right? A classic case of trying to be smart and witty, but instead sounding silly and classlessly vulgar.
Nor can we let the so-called “prolife” movement off the hook here. Sadly many vulnerable young women are verbally abused by “prolife” activists simply for entering the premises of the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast. They are often called sluts or murderers. A friend of mine received abuse at the hands of these zealots, who mistakenly thought she too was entering the clinic when in fact she was going to the offices next door. Additionally, we have the rather disgusting spectacle of placards bearing the mangled bodies of foetuses, images which don’t belong in a public place, and from which I’ve had to shield a young child.
Even the terms “prolife” and “prochoice” create a false dichotomy and contribute to a general lack of nuance in the public arena. Bernadette Smyth, the leader of Precious Life – a rather extreme anti-abortion group who would outlaw abortion under any circumstances – makes much of the fact that Northern Ireland is “prolife,” claiming the majority agree with her. The truth is a tad more complicated. Whilst Northern Irish people are perhaps more reserved about abortion than the rest of the United Kingdom, to say they agree with the staunch “no abortion in any circumstances” position of Precious Life is wildly inaccurate. There’s an entire spectrum of views. A majority would agree with abortion when the mother’s life is at serious risk. A large portion of this group would also agree with abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, and perhaps slightly fewer would allow abortion in cases of rape or incest. And of course people will disagree about the time limit for abortions – 12 weeks, 20 weeks, 24 weeks. Very few people are either utterly against abortion or in favour of it under any circumstances right up to 9 months of pregnancy (despite the fact that many of the standard “pro-choice” slogans logically support abortion on demand for any reason at any stage of pregnancy).
Everyone has a right to an opinion, but too few want to do the difficult spade-work of serious moral reflection. What features of human life make it valuable? When does a human being become conscious? What is personhood and when does a being possess it? Does abortion cause pain to a sentient being? At what stage does a being deserve to be protected from being killed? Is there a moral difference between a being inside the womb and one outside, and if so why? What are human rights, where do they come from, and when can a human be said to possess them?
These are just a few of the difficult questions we must face with abortion. Unless you are willing to seriously reflect on them your opinion will be little more than a clanging cymbal.
Stephen J Graham