One of the amazing things about the human race is our resilience and adaptability: (okay – that’s two things, but you know what I mean).
We can survive in very extreme conditions: people manage to coax a living out of the earth in the coldest and hottest places in the world. Even in the face of unimaginable tragedy, we somehow continue on: the parents of small children, shot dead in their kindergarten classroom, can hardly believe that grief has not stopped their hearts from beating, and yet they keep waking up each morning, keep breathing and eating.
In the most horrific conditions we humans have been subjected to by our fellow humans, in death camps and slavery and the savagery of war, we manage to find a way to make it possible to live, to survive. We know that whole peoples can, in their different roles, find ways to normalise the most bizarre, the most brutal systems. For those directly affected that can mean forgetting all the normal values of society, as simple survival becomes the only thing that makes sense. For perpetrators, perhaps they repeat to themselves the values of the ideology that gives them excuse for what they’re doing. Onlookers, somewhat distanced but knowing, comfort themselves by looking at the clipboards, the suits, the official buildings and documents, the language and laws, the whole system that says it is all okay, even worthy, even good. And so a universal moral blindness appears in relation to the particular wrong being done: educated, pleasant, amiable people tolerated and even defended slavery, unequal treatment of women, the death penalty, brutal or racist political systems.
But it doesn’t leave us unmarked. It brutalises all of us – makes each of us less human, to be the victim of a system that tries to ignore justice and the basic values of what is good and what is not, to be a person who operates that system, to be the people belonging to that society, blind to its greatest wrong-doing. For me, the fact that ordinary people regularly opt to attend and watch the administration of the death penalty in the US is an illustration of how the brutality of individuals (the perpetrators) and the brutal official response of the state is in turn brutalising the citizens of that society.
The men and women we elected to lead us at the moment seem set on legalising abortion here in Ireland. Most of them grew up in a world where more and more developed countries were changing their laws to allow the life of a child before birth to be ended for a variety of reasons, a world where normal, educated people were carrying out abortions in buildings that look like hospitals. Despite the reality that science has now put beyond debate the humanity of a developing child, the dominant culture of our time is increasingly blind and deaf to that reality. Words like foetus and embryo sound alien, medical, dehumanising. They aren’t used when a pregnancy is wanted: then we talk about expecting a baby, about feeling the baby kicking, about whether it’s a boy or a girl: about a human being.
The reality of abortion is a brutal and horrific one. I am viscerally opposed to the use in public of heart-stopping images of aborted children; because this doesn’t respect their human dignity, because if it causes nothing but a flash of anger in me, how would it persuade anyone who feels differently, but mainly because this horror should not be happening, and pictures of it in public places only extend that horror, lets it touch more lives. But I understand what those who carry these posters are trying to do: they believe that if people understood what abortion is, they could never support it, they would see that there has to be a better way. And while I think that there should be a law against using those images in public, I believe that everyone who ever speaks on abortion, or is asked to vote on it should once (that is more than enough) go and find out what it is, should look at and read what the horrible brutal reality of abortion really is.
No pain killers, no incubator, no warmed towels.
Something very different.
And then ask themselves, surely there has to be a better way than this?
I say this not to cause pain to women who may have had an abortion: I am a woman and a mother myself, and I know that people under extreme pressure and stress can make all sorts of decisions. When professional caring medical staff open the option of abortion as a solution to challenges that can seem overwhelming, it’s not surprising that some women make that choice. And women are human beings too and there is simply no doubt that many abortions are carried out for reasons nothing to do with life or health or pressure, and the often repeated-line, that no-one takes a decision to have an abortion lightly, is not always borne out in practice.
So criminalising women who have abortion is not at all a good idea. Those who carry out abortions are in a different category – and I don’t mean here a doctor trying her best to bring a pregnant woman safely through a life-threatening condition, knowing the child might die in treating the mother. A paediatrician illustrated this in a way that has really stuck with me. In these situations, she has been called down: to turn on the incubator and heat up towels, just in case, even when there is little or no hope.
In abortion, there is no incubator and no heated towels.
Even women who would like abortion available here, having had one in another country, talk about walking alone and crying in the streets after the clinic has carried out the ‘procedure’, trying alone to deal with what has happened.
We have grown up in a world that has normalised abortion. But the reality of abortion, no matter how we try to ignore it, no matter how much outrage we generate if anyone tries to point it out, is brutal and extremely unpleasant. There is always a better way for all concerned: for the children, for the mothers who need support to bring them through the months of pregnancy or even the death of their child, for a society that wants to do what is best to allow every person, man, woman and child, to reach their best potential.
It is time to look beyond labels that tend to ghettoise opinion: ‘pro-life’, ‘pro-choice’, ‘extremes’, ‘middle-ground’, and together, as a country, opt for that better way.