If you think abortion is not always black-and-white, or you feel compassion allows limited exceptions, you’re not the middle ground. You’re pro-choice, writes Donal O’Keeffe.

The media loves a Punch and Judy Show, and the standard narrative says there are two extremes in Ireland’s abortion debate. On one side are the loudly “pro-life”, those who believe it’s a baby at conception. On the other, apparently, are what people who don’t like feminists call “feminazis”, crazed, harpy women with mad ideas about actually owning their own bodies, and labouring under the illusion that their reproductive choices are nobody’s business but their own. 

And, received wisdom says, the rest of the country is in the middle ground.

We’re into a three-month roaring-and-shouting match as we get to the referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment. The Eighth, which grants equal right to life to both the mother and the unborn, was passed in 1983 following a vicious and utterly divisive campaign which at one point featured the consummately-hypocritical Father Michael Cleary literally wheeling disabled people in as human props. The media-savvy Cleary – while demonising “fallen women” – had a secret family with his housekeeper, whom he treated disgracefully.

Do you consider yourself “middle ground”? Instinctively “pro-life” but you could see limited, rare situations where exceptions might make sense? 

Do you think that there’s a case to be made for abortion in the case of rape? After all, anyone who has been raped has suffered what Irish law recognises as the most serious crime bar murder. Is it right that a woman pregnant from rape be forced to carry her rapist’s child? Having had her bodily autonomy taken violently once by the rapist, the State then does exactly the same.

Or do you think there’s a case to be made for abortion in the case of a girl or woman pregnant by incest? There’s a horror story all of its own, and who are we to force anyone to carry to term the product of the worst violation of natural family boundaries?

Or do you think no woman should be forced – if she chooses not to – to carry to term a child who will either die in the womb or very soon after birth and in agony? That’s what “fatal foetal abnormality” means. 

Well, then. Congratulations. You might think yourself the middle ground, but you’re actually – at least in these circumstances – pro-choice.

There are indeed two sides. We all know one side. It’s David Quinn and the Iona Institute, the right-wing Catholic pressure group. Quinn has in the past written for Breitbart, the far-right, white-supremacist conspiracy site Steve Bannon credited with Trump’s election. 

It’s the Pro-Life Campaign’s Cora SherlockThe Supreme Court recently politely declined the PLC’s offer of their insights into the rights of the unborn.

It’s "Save the 8th". As far as I can figure, that’s Niamh Uí Bhriain – founder of Youth Defence – and the Catholic millionaire with a penchant for high-profile referendums, Declan Ganley. “Save the 8th” seems to spend most of its time trying to put out PR firestorms of its own making.

That’s one side. The other side is everyone else.

We’ll spend the next months dancing around the head of this particular pin, so let’s ask now: Does life begin at conception? Of course it does, but that’s where the nuance is. Life starts as almost nothing and – over a 9-month continuum of viability from zygote to embryo to foetus – it becomes a baby.

Anti-choice campaigners claim a foetus can always feel pain. Science says a foetus doesn’t develop the neuro-anatomical architecture to feel pain until around the 26th week of development. Worldwide, the usual cut-off point for abortion is 24 weeks. For much of its history, the Catholic Church taught that a foetus only becomes a person when infused with a soul at ‘quickening’ – when the mother feels the child moving in the womb. In 1591, Pope Gregory XIV decreed that quickening occurs at 166 days, or almost 24 weeks.

In an ideal world, there would never be a need for abortion. In an ideal world, every pregnancy would be desperately wanted and every yearned-for baby would thrive from conception. Sadly, though, we don’t live in an ideal world.

Regardless of your position on the Eighth, the truth is Ireland already has abortion; potentially dangerous, unregulated self-induced abortion in bedrooms and bathrooms here, and cruel, exiled abortion in clinics abroad. 

The internet has changed everything, offering online access to illegal abortion pills which can be taken up to 12 weeks. But even pre-internet, Ireland had abortion. We just had it elsewhere. For decades we’ve exported a dozen terminations every day so Ireland could pretend to be “pro-life”, even as we forced Irish women to go in shame to Perfidious Albion. (Incidentally, forcing women to travel just means later abortions.) 

The Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment recommended repeal, followed by legislation to permit abortion up to 12 weeks, which would bring Ireland into line with most of Europe, and which would be considerably more restrictive than the UK’s 24-week limit.

Some feel 12 weeks is too liberal, but that cut-off point was recommended because women are taking abortion pills – which work until the end of the first trimester – and those women need medical care. If we are to allow abortion in the case of rape, then given the legal difficulties in verifying rape and the concomitant delays involved, the only way of doing that is to provide regulated abortion up to 12 weeks. 

The Eighth Amendment has given us tragedy upon tragedy. Savita Halappanavar is a name we can never be allowed to forget, but the Eighth also gave us an alphabet soup of horrors, with women and girls known only by letters, A,B,C,D,P,X and Y.

Ms X was a 14-year-old rape victim, injuncted by the High Court from travelling abroad for a termination.

Ms P was kept artificially alive – against the express wishes of her grieving family – because her doctors feared jail if they didn’t do all they could to keep her unborn child alive.

Ms Y was a teenaged refugee, a survivor of gang rape, force-fed by tube and kept alive until she could be carved open by c-section and delivered of her rapist’s child.

Remember too all of the other girls and women, forced to suffer, forced to travel, forced to endure a denial of bodily autonomy no man can ever imagine.

In the end, it’s really simple. If you think it’s wrong to force continued pregnancy on a victim of rape, or a victim of incest, or a woman carrying a baby who cannot survive, then the middle ground is made up of kind and compassionate people.

No change to Irish abortion law can happen so long as the Eighth Amendment stays in our Constitution.

It is a legal truism that hard cases make bad law. The bad law that is the Eighth Amendment has been making hard cases since 1983. If you agree that Ireland’s cruel and hypocritical abortion status quo cannot be allowed to continue, then please vote to repeal.