Hell seems to be making a habit of freezing over in Ireland.
On May 25, still fairly fresh from becoming, in 2015, the first country to legalize gay marriage by referendum, the overwhelmingly-Catholic nation voted roughly two-to-one to repeal the Eighth Amendment, the 1983 constitutional provision which bans abortion.
If that lopsided result came as a surprise, the reactions to it have not. Reproductive-rights activists are rejoicing. Anti-abortion activists are mourning. And, as usual when it comes to this issue, I am weaving back and forth between the two. I am willing to bet that many of those who voted in Ireland – where I lived from 2007 to 2015 – have been doing the same. Landslide or not, I doubt that the Irish people have suddenly fallen in love with abortion. Rather, they’ve come to know and loathe the consequences of outlawing it.
In this, they are treading a morality-reality line that, I think, millions of Americans are treading too, and that American activists on both sides need to consider if the U.S. is ever to achieve any measure of peace with this issue.
As it happens, it was through living in Ireland that I achieved some measure of peace with it myself.
Emotionally, morally, culturally, and instinctively, I have always been pro-life. Yet, had I voted in Ireland, I would absolutely have voted “yes” to repealing that ban. There is nothing like living in a foreign country that forbids abortion to make a fence-sitter come down on the side of permitting it back home.
This is not because I have come to believe that abortion is a health care issue like any other. With all due respect to my many pro-choice friends who consider this whole issue a no-brainer, I will never come around to seeing abortion as the moral equivalent of a mammogram or colonoscopy.
Nor can I manage the easy, “you-say-potato-I-say-potahto” sort of division between personal belief and public policy position that seems to come so easily to many others. To believe that human fetuses are human beings is to find it impossible to be A-OK with the notion that their moms have the absolute right to kill them. That’s not idiocy or misogyny. It’s rationality.
This, of course, leads to the question of how to allow for the fact that any pluralistic society is going to feature a variety of views as to when human life begins – a question that I am going to lay aside, and not just because there is no good answer to it. For me – and, I am willing to bet, for plenty of Irish “yes” voters – the issue of legalizing abortion or not comes down to a much simpler formulation:
If abortion kills people, banning abortion kills more people.
Many analysts have taken the Irish referendum as a sign that the power of Catholic church is on the decline in Irish society, while the power of women is on the rise. Both are undoubtedly true. But don’t forget a third, more prosaic factor: unlike their American cousins, the Irish have not been imagining, praying over, or speculating about this ban. They have been living with it. They have seen for themselves that it has been a disaster.
For decades now, the pro-choice movement has set forth two basic arguments: One, regarding abortion and everything else, women have the ultimate right to determine what they do with “their own bodies.” And two, as a strictly practical matter, the outlawing of abortion not only fails to curtail the practice, but both causes and correlates with all kinds of other problems.
No matter how one feels about the first proposition, Ireland has turned out to be Exhibit A that Team Choice is absolutely right about the second.
First, when abortion is illegal, women can and do die for no other reason than that abortion is illegal. This is not a pro-choice scare tactic. It is the truth – and not only in terms of those women who may feel driven to "back-alley" terminations. The case of Salvita Halappanavar seared the soul of Ireland, and it bloody well should roil the conscience of the world.
Halappanavar was a 31-year-old Indian-born dentist who had emigrated to Galway with her husband and small child. In 2012, some four months into her second pregnancy, she felt horrible back pain and sought help at University Hospital Galway, where she was told that she was in the process of having a miscarriage. She was also told that even though the pregnancy was hopeless, it could not be terminated so long as a fetal heartbeat could be detected. Her family begged for an abortion, but to no avail: the well-trained, well-meaning medical personnel, working in a modern, Western hospital, were not willing to risk jail to save her. Seven days later, Halappanavar died of an utterly preventable blood infection – strictly and solely because it was illegal to prioritize her life over that of a child who had no chance of being born.
This case was singularly appalling. Equally compelling, in the aggregate, were the numerous real stories told by real people of the real danger into which this ban had placed real women: the legal and logistical hurdles that women have had to jump through in order to end once-welcomed pregnancies that had turned on them. Contrary to pro-life lore, these were not people who were looking for some easy way out of some fetal unpleasantness. They were wanted-to-be parents searching for the safest, least-dreadful resolution to one tragic revelation or another, and being obliged to wait for the lawyers to weigh in on if, when and how that resolution could be effectuated.
Clearly, whenever that scenario played out in Ireland, it was awful. If it were to play out in the U.S. it would also be ironic. It is, after all, the GOP that champions the pro-life cause. And it is a GOP article of faith that government interference automatically equals catastrophe. Whether the context is the smallest business or the biggest idea, Republicans reflexively (and sometimes accurately) equate government involvement with sloth, delay, ineptitude, illogic. Yet, when it comes to pregnant women who may find themselves in dire straits, these same folks seem to have total faith that the government is suddenly going to become the soul of humane efficiency. Isn’t that odd?
Second, even embracing the perspective that abortion is a pure, straight-up evil, the fact remains that banning abortion does not, in many cases, extinguish that evil. It offshores it. The Irish people are well acquainted with the fact that should one of their countrywomen face a pregnancy that is merely unwanted, as opposed to traumatic, she does not say “oh, that’s illegal, I guess I need to have the child and then either learn to love my little boo-boo or arrange an adoption.” She hops over to the U.K.
Likewise, in the U.S., should the Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade and thus strip abortion of its constitutionally-protected status, unhappily-pregnant women would travel to the states that still allowed abortion, and failing that, to Mexico, Canada, and any number of other countries. Thus, banning abortion would not end the slaughter of innocents, as my pro-life friends and family might put it. It would simply ensure that the slaughter occurred someplace else.
Of course, one can argue that shooing murder abroad is better than tolerating it at home. But it doesn’t sound quite so heroic, does it?
Any abortion ban effectively applies only to those women who lack the wherewithal to skirt it: namely, the poor and those whose particular circumstances, from physical infirmity to abusive partners, might otherwise preclude them from traveling. In other words, the less able the woman to cope with the arrival of an unwanted child, the greater the odds that she would be forced to do just that.
Now, in theory, a pro-life person could and would argue that it is worth saving the lives of any unborn children, whatever the circumstances of their availability to be saved; and that it is an especial disgrace to tolerate the killing of children on the grounds that they would be economically inconvenient or socially undesirable.
If remotely serious about ushering that theory into practice, however, one would have to establish – or at the very least advocate for -- a society replete with caring, costly and sophisticated supports for such children and their parents.
Here, the cases of Ireland and the U.S. diverge.
Ireland is by no means a utopia for struggling mothers and children. But there is a general consensus in favor of providing for them. By bizarre contrast, the American pro-life movement has tethered itself to an ideology that prides itself on providing for nobody.
I’m not accusing Republicans of cruelty, but simply citing their philosophy: the less government, the fewer social programs, and above all, the lower taxes, the better. That’s a perfectly valid world view – until it is twinned with a policy of obliging over half a million women annually to bear children they do not want but for whom they will be left to fend, at which point it becomes too weird for words.
Just last year, in the original version of their tax bill, the Republicans in Congress actually tried to cut the tax credit for adoption. How can anyone possibly believe that, if their pro-life dreams come true, they are going to find additional billions for the fetuses (and indeed zygotes, and fertilized-but-yet-to-be-implanted eggs) they have required to become children?
Now customarily comes the cry that it isn’t the cold, hard government that would be called upon to care for such children. It’s warm, cuddly families and churches and charities….all of which would require even more massive government funding and tax-empting than they receive now.
Let me emphasize: I certainly know pro-life people who really walk their talk; who don’t just work against abortion, but for life. These people are heroes and angels and workhorses rolled into one. They don’t merely donate diapers and cribs, but truly help pregnant women in crisis, sometimes to the point of fostering or adopting their children, who might well be drug addicted or developmentally challenged. The question isn’t whether such people exist. It’s where to find hundreds of thousands more of them every single year.
Given all of the above, it is impossible to square a genuinely pro-life moral position with any existent political option. Here’s the closest I can get:
I will never believe in abortion.
In part for that very reason, I believe in widely-accessible birth control and full, frank sex education from an appropriate age, which these days is about four.
For that matter, I believe in plain old education. After years of spouting statistics that show the clear connection between higher levels of education and lower rates of poverty, mother-and-child mortality and all kinds of other horrors around the globe, I now find it sadly urgent to reassert that connection at home.
I believe in publicly funded health care, day care, pre-k, and all that Scandinavian-socialist-sounding stuff that conservatives equate with tyranny, but that struggling families often equate with the difference between doing OK and drowning.
The current crop of Republicans believe in none of this.
Understand, I say “current crop” because I know that there are some moderates, feminists, libertarians and pragmatists still standing in the GOP, and the last thing I want to do is knock them down. But as for the right-wing ideologues who now control the party: their "plan" is to guarantee an increase in the number of unwanted pregnancies and then require that those pregnancies result in children, whom they will later vilify for failing to pull themselves up by bootstraps that these same jokers are working hard to abolish.
Sometimes, I put all that together, and it makes me want to call the current crop of Republicans a lot of things.
“Pro-life” is not one of them.