Abortion vote - A changed and changing Ireland

This evening the 166 members of the 31st Dáil will vote on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill.

The Bill is expected to be passed by a solid majority as it has support — and opponents — in every grouping in the house.

The almost unprecedented toe-the-line discipline imposed by Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore on their deputies means its rejection would represent one of the great upsets in Irish parliamentary history. At this stage only the most optimistic opponents of the legislation still imagine that possible.

This, irrespective of the issue at hand, shows how power has shifted dramatically, how social influence has slipped away from the Catholic Church in this country. Even a decade ago, it would have been very difficult if not impossible to bring such legislation before the Dáil, much less anticipate its endorsement.

This vote will represent a conclusion, or at least a cessation of sorts, on more than two decades of prevarication, often deeply felt, dramatic and powerfully emotional, on what has, unfortunately if understandably, become one of the most divisive, if not the most divisive, issue to confront this society since the foundation of the State.

We are not alone in this; abortion is one of the fault lines dividing societies right around the world. In countries with liberal abortion regimes, its opponents are outraged and determined to have the laws repealed; in countries where it is illegal, advocates argue that women’s human rights are being needlessly denied.

The only thing that can be said on the issue with any degree of certainty is that it is deeply and intractably divisive. Each side dismisses the other with a certainty that cannot often be applied to human affairs. There is hardly an issue more polarising or one where opposing sides find it almost impossible to see any merit in the arguments they reject. It is a battle of immovable absolutes colliding with unwavering certainties. It is impossible to reach a compromise that satisfies anyone.

Tonight’s vote can be seen as another step in the inevitable social evolution that has decriminalised homosexuality, legalised contraception and divorce, recognised same-sex civil partnerships and even reformed laws around succession rights to protect those people, mostly women, who might be treated unfairly.

Those who oppose it will see it as another grievous step along the road to a godless, secular society where the values they cherish are disregarded. They will see it as an attack on the values they regard as a god-given road map for proper living.

Despite these divisions, the Bill will, if all predictions are accurate and the political planners have done their work properly, make the major step along the road to becoming legislation tonight.

In those circumstances, we should review the environment that confronts a woman when she finds herself unexpectedly pregnant in this country. We should review the circumstances and behaviours that lead to unexpected pregnancies in Ireland in 2013. We should ask why, despite freely available contraception, the possibility of an abortion becomes an issue. Limited and very restricted abortion may become available in Ireland but that does not mean we cannot do much, much more to make it a choice of the very last resort.

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