There is a very odd paradox to the on-going political feet-dragging about abortion in this country. On the hand, it is clear that there is a huge level of support for action; a recent Sunday Business Post poll showed that a massive 85% of the Irish electorate support legislating for abortion. And yet, on the other hand, not just since the death of Savita Halappanavar, but going as far back as the aftermath of the X-Case in 1992, there has been a large-scale effort by politicians to ignore public opinion. To ignore the Supreme Court ruling after X that demanded the government legislate. To ignore the 2010 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that the Irish State has to legislate. And now to act as slowly as possible in the wake of the release of the Report of the Expert Group, with the ultimate intention of producing the most watered-down legislation possible, and so to put off any real conclusion of this issue for the foreseeable future.
Why is this so? It would seem like a political no-brainer. If massive support exists for proper legislation that would deal with this issue in a mature and open way, why do the Irish ruling-elite seem so opposed to doing this? Normally politicians love to be seen to be doing what ‘the people want’, to be on the right side of history, and so to buttress their own electoral support. What is different about abortion?
The fact is that these kinds of debates about Sex are never just about Sex, they’re almost always also about Power. First, when the Government grants women the right to choose (or more typically when women forcibly demand it), it is recognised that women are the ones who should control their own bodies and destinies, not men in power, and an important struggle over power has been won. This struggle against sexism and gender discrimination is a globally pervasive struggle over power.
But there is another issue of power here, one that is less universal and more specific to Ireland. From the second half of the nineteenth century until the closing decades of the twentieth century, conservative political Catholicism was the dominant ideology in Ireland. It was the veneer that justified continuous class- and gender-based discrimination. But in the closing decades of the last century, something started to break; this system went into free fall as Irish people started to demand greater freedoms. The collapse in religious attendance, the legalisation of homosexuality and divorce, the public revelations of what had long been privately known about clerical child sex-abuse, the end of the absurd legal fictions about contraception – all these were parts of this much broader phenomenon.
Proper legislation for safe and legal abortion could be the final chapter in all this. But to do that would be a dangerous move for those who want to preserve the status quo in Ireland. Because if it were finally accepted that the old Church-State complex was no longer the dominant force in Ireland, the way would be paved for a very awkward discussion; what should be the dominant ideology in Ireland? How should the state relate to class and gender? Who should hold power and, more importantly, who should have power taken away from them?
And so we get Lucinda Creighton, Enda Kenny, and many other politicians who ordinarily are full supporters of free-choice (as long as it is the limited neo-liberal kind of free choice in the market place) clamouring to strictly control this debate, to not pass legislation for as long as possible, and, whenever they do finally pass legislation, to make sure it is as limited in scope as possible. This practiced silence and inactivity is a conscious strategy, based on the idea that by not talking about abortion, they might be able to also prevent us all from talking about all these other issues, of power, class and sex.