May 2019 Editorial: The Abortion Referendum – One Year On
A year on from the referendum on the Eighth Amendment, we are in a very different landscape. Or, to be slightly less metaphorical about it, we are in a different wordscape. In the run-up to the vote on 25 May of last year, we were acutely aware of the language of the abortion debate. on the pro-choice side, for instance, the issue was declared to be ‘difficult’ and ‘complex,’ while the pro-life side was accused of indulging in simplistic, generalising nostrums. Now, after the apparent game, set and match victory of last May, the pro-choice outlook has attained the status of self-evident truth, while it is pro-life diehards who persist in complicating matters.
There is, however, something brittle and self-conscious about the victorious position. It may have won the day, yet in its insecurity, it feels the need to roll a stone against the entrance to the tomb. This is most clearly seen in the proposals regarding ‘exclusion zones,’ those ample and profoundly undemocratic spaces that are to be maintained in the vicinity of abortion facilities.
The new orthodoxy is fragile. As we continue to contest it, which we must, we will find that it becomes increasingly aggressive in its fragility. The fact that it cannot tolerate peaceful dissent should speak volumes to all the citizens of this democracy. Self-evident truths need hardly worry about pretenders to the truth. The truth, after all, will out. And maybe – surely! – that is just the point. Truth has a way of asserting itself, and that is worrisome to untruth.
What is the fundamental pro-life task in this new era? It is a multifaceted task, of course, but at its heart is a robust presence in the worsdscape. We must not allow a culture of abortion provision to proclaim itself as self-evident. We must be present in the public discourse – such as it is. Let us be trounced by legislation and harangued by popular sentiment, but let us not be silenced. Let us continue to press the inconvenient logic of fundamental human rights.
The right to life has been terribly compromised, and in order to prop up that moral catastrophe, the right to free association and free speech must be the next target. This is not paranoid speculation, but the clear logic and intent of the proposed exclusion zones. Last year’s decision was that the right to life was not inalienable, but conferred. Next year’s decision may well extend to other matters. We may yet see that those who presume to confer fundamental rights are willing to revoke them when it is expedient to do so.
I was saddened, recently, to notice that my own pro-life ‘fluency’ had declined during the past year, and I imagine that I am not alone in experiencing this decline. In the run-up to the referendum, many of us were honing our ability to argue, to marshal facts, to witness. But after the defeat, and the inevitable discouragement, we may
have dropped the baton. The first anniversary of the referendum is surely an invitation, a challenge, to pick it up again.
We are in this for the long haul. Let’s not be afraid to say it clearly: we will not give up until the right to life of the unborn is restored, and that of every vulnerable human being is respected. We do not know how or when this will happen – we can leave that in the Lord’s hands. but in the matter of the defence of the unborn, we may take it that in a sense we are, despite all our limitations, the Lord’s hands. That observation is not the thin end of a theocratic wedge: it is a simple acknowledgment of the fact that we do not regard any government or legislature as absolute, and that there is no such thing as morally self-legitimating authority. Authority can conform to fundamental moral truth, or it can fail to do so. And when it fails, it must not be allowed to forget.
We must, to use a slightly hackneyed phrase, speak the truth to power. In order to do this, we must maintain our pro-life fluency, so that the wordscape is not entirely colonized by pro-choice language and ideas. This is not a matter of winning an argument. It is a matter of keeping faith with the most vulnerable. It is about witnessing to the truth. We need not become inflated in our witnessing – it’s mundane and workaday, for the most part. But we might do well to recall that the words ‘witness’ and ‘martyr’ are one and the same, and that whenever we are taking flak, we can be sure we are near the target.
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Father Chris Hayden