08 December 2012

Pragmatism 2

There are a couple of areas of modern life where pragmatism meets entrenched attitudes, and the result is like trial by combat, a struggle to the end. Neither side wants to admit any of the other’s thinking as being in any way correct, and neither wants to yield an inch. I’m thinking of abortion and prostitution; both topics are current in Ireland*; and both sides seem to be wheeling out the “big guns”. And massaging the reality; and using hyperbole.

There’s a school of thought that says that abortion is a woman’s issue, and that men shouldn’t be involved. I’m not trying to favour one position over the other, though you might guess what I think; I’m trying to be the disinterested observer, a theoretical but non-existent creature.

Abortion is topical in the south because, firstly, of the death of Savita Halappanavar, when it was said that an “abortion” might have saved her life; and, secondly, because the European Court of Human Rights has told the government that the state’s legal position on abortion is untenable, and that the government must come up with something better.

So, we’re told, the south is one of the safest places for a woman to give birth and there is no abortion. Ireland is certainly a safe place, but not the safest; safest in the sense of the maternal death rate. The reported maternal death rate in Ireland is almost certainly wrong; the true rate is about twice the reported rate. (Inconveniently, the safest places do allow abortion.)

And no one has been able to explain why and how the absence of abortion makes childbirth safer. Well, it can’t be done, there is no causal connection between the two, even if this is inferred in the statement. Nothing better for reinforcing your agenda than to place a spurious connection in the minds of the credulous and those who wish it were true.

The second bit, about Ireland not having abortion, is only true in that it is illegal (bar very few exceptions) in the state; which is why several thousand women travel to England or further abroad to have an abortion. But this is a highly inconvenient fact, best brushed under the carpet: there is no abortion in Ireland.

And then there is a conclave of Irish (Catholic) Bishops (ag├ęd, supposedly celibate “men in frocks”, if you want to be disparaging) reminding us of morality and the need to preserve life at almost any cost; they and the constitution say, in as many words, that an ovum from the point of insemination has the same civil rights as the mother in whose Fallopian tube this occurred. And don’t forget, it takes a referendum and a majority in Ireland to change the constitution; which is to say, when it was passed, a majority agreed with whatever they thought the sentiment was. And, although the Catholic Church has had a major fall from grace, power and influence in the last two decades, they will still have been in a position to teach (indoctrinate) much of the population of a “certain age” — remember the Jesuits and their motto about getting the kid at an early age so that they are theirs for life. Early indoctrination, they realised, is very difficult to change, to eradicate.

At an extreme, there are those who denounce all abortion as “murder”; in a (strange) way there is some justification in this, though the foetuses aborted at an early age cannot survive outside the womb, they cannot exist independently. And later abortions are often done because of abnormalities incompatible with independent life. So if “murder” is the wilful destruction of a life outside the womb, is abortion really “murder”. Or is this just a bit more semantics? (There is the curious paradox in the US where abortionists have been murdered by prohibitionists; I really can’t follow the reasoning behind this, beyond the “life for a life” idea. And the commandment against murder meant members of your tribe, not foreigners, didn’t it?)

Meanwhile the “pro-choice” campaign are advocating just that: a “choice”, even if it’s really a very liberal stance on abortion, extending to “on demand”.

Abortion has been around for at least two and a half millennia, from the time of Hippocrates and the pharaohs. The Hippocratic Oath tells physicians that they may not procure an abortion — at least that is the common understanding. There are several versions of the Oath; and it seems more likely than not that the physician was expected to get a common midwife or surgeon to perform an abortion; or possibly, there were some methods he should not use, but leave to the others.

Be that as it may, it’s clear that abortion has a long history. There have been all sorts of potions used, all sorts of “home remedies”, and the resort to the woman in the back street with the knitting needle. This woman, well intentioned no doubt, was the cause of infection, infertility and death. If there is a demand, those seeking an abortion will always find a way to achieve it; to ignore the “problem” does not mean that it will simply go away; to criminalise it won’t make it disappear. Whether you approve of abortion or not, you cannot deny that women through the millennia have sought it. And isn’t criminalising it no more than a form of control? I hesitate only slightly to say that it’s the patriarchy, because I think it is; so I have difficulty understanding why some women would wish to accept this control.

And yet the government in the south has studiously ignored abortion for over twenty years, recognising just what a hot potato it is while hoping it will disappear. Not this time, by the look of things.

The idealist would recognise that back-street abortions are dangerous, that there is a persisting demand, and would permit it, perhaps with some minor exclusions — such as literal “on demand” — though leaving enough slack for this to be accommodated. And the idealist would recognise that just because abortion is legal doesn’t mean that you have to have one; that the choice is yours. And that there will be people who refuse one. Betting shops are legal in the UK, but there is no compulsion or requirement to bet; I’ve no interest in betting on the horses, and have only ever been in a bookies once — and that was to collect a mobile phone.

Whether the refusers ought to influence those who wish one is a perennial difficulty; it’s a power struggle, the imposition of a will; in this case, a morality versus pragmatic reality, or “choice”. If you think something is “immoral”, should you strive to keep it “illegal”? If there is a “choice” doesn’t it imply that you don’t have to choose?

The pragmatist recognises that Ireland is a much more secular society than it once was, particularly in the Dublin conurbation, but that the rural homesteads remain traditional. And also recognises all the election promises that have been made — generally a “no abortion” stance — and the difficulty of squaring them with today’s conditions.

The pragmatic Irish politician has to sell ideas to two very different groups; the rural traditionalists and the urban secularists, while still hoping to retain some credibility with both of them. And doing nothing is no longer an option. It will be interesting to see what they come up with, because I don’t know how they can square this particular circle; but then, I’m not a politician; yet politics is the “art of the possible”.

Things haven’t got this far in the north; a private advisory clinic opened recently, and was subject to a protest. The protesters held placards with gruesome photos of dismembered foetuses. Now, it’s true that the (dead) foetus must sometimes be dismembered to allow its extraction; the fact that these are a tiny fraction of the whole hasn’t presented them as being somehow typical of all abortions. You might call this “scare tactics”. While the “law”on abortion has been clarified, it’s still very constrained by comparison to the rest of the UK. (Actually, just how the “law” came to allow medical abortions before nine weeks is a mystery to me.) It’s perhaps not surprising to find the ultra-evangelical wings and traditional Catholics in agreement, for once.

* Well, perhaps. The current problems in N Ireland are more about emblems and “flegs”, more a problem of the insecurity of of the unionist population.

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