The votes are counted and the people of the Republic of Ireland have spoken – article 8 of the Irish constitution is to be repealed. Months of campaigning on the part of pro-life and pro-choice sides has culminated in a 66.4% decision to allow women to avail of abortion. The media attention focussed on this referendum gives a sense of the importance that it carries, not just nationally but for Europe more broadly. News outlets carry images of triumphant crowds celebrating the outcome of what was a hotly debated election.
Before the news was official, Janice Turner in The Times had already begun to plot the political coordinates of what such a victory might mean, with special reference to Northern Ireland. ‘Ulster’, she opined, ‘is still stuck in the moralistic world of the 1950s’, making it a European anomaly in its insistence on privileging the rights of the unborn. What follows in her opinion piece, however, is a hammer blow ad hominem attack on any and all who might have a different view on abortion. Young people in Northern Ireland ‘feel a growing misery and sense of shame’ at the illiberal views enshrined in law, knowing that they are ‘stuck in a socially conservative backwater’. The reason why the pro-choice agenda has not yet prevailed is because of a politics which is ‘ideologically guided by the US Christian right’ who are ‘intransigent’ and ‘Bible-bashing’.
No doubt some of this caricature carries truth. There are, arguably, many people whose views on abortion are steered not by considered reflection and study but by a blind acceptance of what powerful people have preached and legislated for. No doubt there are people who have adopted a fingers-in-their-ears approach to the arguments of those who differ from them, refusing to allow any counter-facts to get in the way of their prejudices. But Taylor makes a serious error when she assumes that she can take a broad brush and paint a culture of which she is not a part, and for which she obviously has little empathy.
Many of us lament the outcome of yesterday’s referendum, not because we sense that political leverage now lies with the liberals, but because we have drawn our moral decisions from intellectual reflection and from sincere spiritual beliefs. Many of us wish to fervently and respectfully disagree with those who reclassify what exactly develops within a woman’s womb, when exactly it is a person, and who exactly has the right to decide its destiny. Many of us genuinely mourn this evening, not for a lost vote, but for the lost lives which will follow in its wake. I don’t think that those who hold this view are entitled to special pleading or to special treatment, but we are at least owed a fair hearing, and some intellectual portraiture which transcends the clumsily scrawled caricature that Janice Taylor and others like her will manage to achieve in their assessments. History may be written by the victors, but integrity is still a badge of honour in representing the views of those with whom one disagrees. Once upon a time this was known as tolerance.
So Northern Ireland is now the last outpost of the unborn in Western Europe and undoubtedly, as The Times predicts, this is for a limited period only. In the meantime many of us will remain thankful that abortion is not available in Ulster at present, we will seek to sharpen our pastoral practice in ministering to those who find themselves in unspeakably complex circumstances personally and emotionally, and we will pray that many lives (North and South of the border) which now stand in peril as a result of the referendum outcome might be saved. For those who rejoice over an election victory, we make a simple plea that they show respect for those with whom they differ, and exercise a continued humility in listening to the deeply felt and clearly thought through opinions of those who do not in any way share their joy today.