Beyond the 5 'errors' of the crusade against abortion


Fintan O'Toole has an article in the Irish Times answering what he describes as the 5 errors of the 'Crusade against Abortion.' I want to go one further and look at what these errors tell us about the methods of those who want to control women's bodies. And more importantly how it is an error for pro-choice activists to allow the debate to be framed through responses to those errors. 

Let us begin by recognising Fintan is not bringing any new facts to the table, simple assembling the refutations to these claim that everyone who has been following the discussions around abortion in any detail is aware of. This is important because the core point I want to make is that when the various aspects of the so called pro-life movement throw out these claims in interview after interview they already know them to be false. They also know they are relatively easy to contradict, as Fintan has done. So why do they consider asserting them over and over to be effective?

Modern politics

The answer to that is what I'm going to term 'modern politics.' That is the concept that the people are incapable of understanding complex ideas and instead must be presented with brief soundbites that preferably appeal on an emotional level that bypasses the intellect.

Whichever side gets
1. skilled enough at presenting such soundbites
2. obtains media access to present them
wins the argument.

Many us are are actually quite familiar with watching that play out in one area. Presidential elections in the USA. Everyone acknowledges that what is at stake in those elections is not so much the broadly similar policies of the two contenders but their success or failure in 'energising their base' and being perceived to win or lose debates in which very little of substance is actually said. The controversy after each debate being not what was said but 'who won'.

Lots of political activists of both left & right have studied these methods and the academic research behind them. With the perception of success that has gone with their implementation they have spread from the professional full time job PR wonk for mainstream parties out to the fringe of the radical left & right. In doing so they damaging the existing possibility for radical change by eliminating the space in which complex debate could swing people's opinions. Which is why the anti-choice movement in Ireland loves these methods. If you have a complete ban on abortion in place which is only supported by 15% of the population then every method you have to limit real debate is vital in keeping as much of that ban in place for as long as possible.

Lets look at the 5 claim's Fintan identifies in his article and the reasons why what I call the anti-choice brigade as so keen on each claim.

False claim 1. Ireland is the safest place in the world for a mother to have a baby.

The is pretty much the favourite talking point of the forced birth brigade. The grim reality is that it is a statistic generated by both false accounting and the export of life endangering pregnancies to countries where abortion is allowed. Savita ended up trapped unawares of that Irish reality in a situation where doctors would refuse to terminate her pregnancy to protect her health. It was a frequent enough side point in the media coverage that followed that tragedy that in many cases doctors quietly advised women in dangerous pregnancies to 'seek treatment abroad' or worse still to 'read between the lines.' Phraseologies that also reflect doctors fears of the Medical Council, see below.

So this false statistic actually unpicks to quite the opposite of what it appears. Once you dig a little it highlights the dangers of the hypocritical 'export health threatening pregnancies' system that quietly exists and is part of the reason for this false statistic. And once you think about or indeed directly hear of the cruel reality behind this export you wonder why on earth the anti-choice brigade trumpet it.

After all the women forced to leave the country for abortions in these circumstances are those who actually have an otherwise wanted pregnancy. Yet such is the cruelty of the anti-choice brigade that they were even willing to use their 'voice or respectable reason in the corridors of power' front man Ronan Mullen to have a go at TFMR as "having another agenda" when they dared to speak out. 

TFMR stands for Termination For Medical Reasons, a lobby group which sought the introduction of abortion access under the extremely restrictive circumstances their members lived through. Cases where the foetus would die on or soon after being born, the so called pro-life position here amounting to forcing the pregnant women through pregnancy and then subjecting the parents to watching their sought after baby dying upon or soon after delivery.

So what is the attractiveness of this rather nasty false claim to the anti-choice movement? It's simple enough, the Ireland where they could once openly speak about the purpose of their policies being to maintain social control and in particular control over women's bodies is gone. But many of us remember that awful past and react against it. We also still live with its consequences in terms of the ban on abortion but also religious control of hospitals and school boards - we in general and women in particular are still very much controlled by these institutions.

So the anti-choice brigade have found a way not only to disguise their agenda but indeed to turn it on its head. This particular false claim exists to suggest that they care about women when in fact an examination of the reality they use it to disguise shows they really don't give a damn - it all continues to be about control which is why the same anti-choice activists have opposed contraception, sex education and queer freedom.

False claim 2. There is a significantly increased risk of suicide among women who have had abortions.

It's not hard to see why they like this false claim. One of the problems the anti-choice movement has it that a huge number of women in Ireland have had abortions. If you are trying to claim that 'abortion is murder' the fact you are calling 150,000 women here murderers is a little tricky. It's something that can only work if you can prevent women revealing they have had abortions, if you can keep it a shameful secret that women who have abortions are called mother, sister, daughter, niece etc.

Fortunately for the catholic right shame about all aspects of sexuality has long being one of their central methods of keeping people in general and women in particular under control. We are no longer in 1950's Ireland when it was socially acceptable for the parish priest to patrol the hedgerows after a parish dance but shame about sex, particularly directed at women, continues to have significant sway in popular culture. The anti-choice brigade have been able to take advantage of this through campaigns aimed at shaming women who have had abortions, like the Youth Defence billboard campaign we saw over the summer. It's not quite acceptable for them to do this is an open, direct way but with at least a segment of the population they can get away with it if its dressed up as 'concern' about women. This fake suicide statistic is perfect for them with its coupling together of the implications of shame & concern for the women they would once had shipped off to the nearest Magdalene laundry for a life time of abuse at the hand of the nuns.

False claim 3. There is a clear distinction between abortion and the “indirect and unintentional” killing of a foetus as part of a procedure to save a mother’s life.

This talking point is pretty weak as its rather obviously mumbo jumbo designed to disguise the fact that abortion can be life saving in some circumstances. It's not really aimed at the general public but rather at providing something for anti-choice activists to say when the obvious is pointed out. But don't underestimate how important that is, one of the key strategies of the anti-choice movement has been to control powerful institutions that, like it or not, would be essential to abortion provision once the will of the majority to overturn the absolute ban is actually implemented.

Control of the Medical Council has been one key area of activity and they were so successful in this that until 2009 that particular piece of mumbo jumbo was to be found in the medical council guidelines for doctors. That is extremely serious as a doctor who didn't follow the anti-choice guidelines can find themselves struck off - i.e. unable to practise medicine, even if they acted entirely within the law.

Digging deeper this false claim also has the result of deflection discussion from the dangerous distinction between threats to the life as opposed to the health of the pregnant women. Not only can threats to the health become threats to the life as appears to have happened in Savita's case but the very concept behind this distinction is barbaric. Acceptance of the distinction can only mean forcing a pregnant women to go to term in conditions where she not only does not want to remain pregnant but where doing so is going to damage her health.

False claim 4. Opposition to abortion legislation is “in keeping with the wishes of the public”.

This is clearly false as shown by opinion poll after opinion poll and both the 1992 and 2002 referendums where the governments of the day tried to roll back the X-case judgement and the people, said no. But it's also a red herring.

If the majority of the people voted to remove citizenship from Jews or Muslims would that be OK? If a majority of US citizens voted to reintroduce slavery for black people or more realistically if instead of the civil war there had been a referendum on slavery that had voted to preserve it would that have been OK? That sort of democracy is the sort that would have two wolves and a lamb voting on what is for lunch.

The people do not collectively have the right to deny any women the right to control her own body even if everyone save the woman wants to do so. This is something that pretty much everyone actually silently recognises which is why, even from Youth Defence, there is no talk of seeking out and prosecuting for murder the 150,000 women who have had abortions abroad or the 1,000 or so that each year appear to be using pills ordered from services like Women on Web to provide abortions for themselves in the republic. Indeed the silence of both Youth Defence and the Pro Life Campaign on that particular reality is a stunning example of how they don't actually believe there own rhetoric.

But this 'the majority says' talking point is important to them because every time they draw us into arguing it they create the idea that somehow it might be OK for a majority to vote to control women's bodies. That will never be OK. The question for us is not so much about how to win over the majority as an end in itself but how to quickly and effectively create the situation where women control their own bodies. We might have to do that through referendum but this is no better than finding ways to make the current laws unenforceable.

False claim 5. The European Court of Human Rights ruling in the ABC case does not require Ireland to legislate on abortion. "

This one isn't so important except in how it relates to the 'democracy' question. The idea that you can't use democracy to agree to do bad things to people isn't something that just anarchists have recognised. Its quite a broadly accepted concept with the remaining argument being over the detail of how bad things need to be before they are ruled out. Extreme examples of state's trying to control women's bodies lie on the unacceptable edges of this democratic equation for the western democracies. And trying to deny women abortion in every possible circumstance, even where their lives are at risk and the foetus is not even viable has proved a little bit too much for Europe to take.

As we saw above the anti-choice brigades lack of interest in women providing abortions for themselves in Ireland demonstrates that the democratic question is not one that the anti-choice movement feel they can argue directly. In any case their position is a mirror of their as they want to control women's bodes even if the entire population opposes them doing so. But these arguments about European intervention are a way of having a side swipe at that democracy can't impose argument through linking it with the undemocratic nature of the European project. All the better that it works well with their base, many of whom are hostile to the European union for narrow nationalist reasons.

Talking points
But above all else these taking points are popular because they feed in so well to the practise of 'modern politics' a practise where there is never the time or inclination to take them apart as I have sought to do here. Many of you reading will have witnessed them being trotted out over and over on the TV and radio panels that have been allowed to frame the debate since Savita's death. If they are challenged at all it is only as Fintan did, on the basis of fact correction. The broader agenda behind them is left untouched.

The only people who benefit from the restriction of politics to a battle of talking points are those who want to defend the status quo. Soundbite politics don't allow you to step far outside very narrow limits of debate around the status quo. If you are going to say something that sounds very different you will need time to explain it.

In the current round of debates this restriction has meant that while the bigots who argue for complete control over women's bodies have been on every panel - their view representing the legal status quo even if only the views of 15% of the population - the counter argument that there should be no state control over women's bodies has almost never been heard. Instead the rather empty discussion has been around under what exceptional circumstances might some experts have been able to make or approve allowing a women access to abortion. It's not a debate for or against controlling women's bodies, its a debate whose unspoken premise is accepting the maintenance of that control. 

WORDS & IMAGE: @Andrew Flood