Abortion is not as black and white as people might portray it, and ‘there is a lot of grey’ in this profound, complex moral issue, writes Alison O’Connor.

MY FRIEND, a pro-choice activist, seemed annoyed with me. “It’s great to hear reason and respect,” began the text from her on Monday morning. “Ultimately though my question is how can a person be respectful if what they are saying is that women should be forbidden from exercising their reproductive rights?”

She was responding to a tweet I had just posted. In it I gave credit to Fianna Fáil finance spokesman Michael McGrath who was on the Today with Sean O’Rourke programme being asked about abortion. I tweeted that he was outlining a view opposite to mine on abortion “but doing so in a reasoned, respectful way”.

The Cork TD is against the repeal of the Eighth Amendment or the availability of abortion up to 12 weeks without restriction. He would support amending the Constitution in certain cases but the rights of the unborn should not be removed.

Upon receiving the text from my friend I fired one back inquiring as to whether she was being “patronising or just passive aggressive?!” Neither she told me, “just trying to understand”. At this point I picked up the phone thinking text was not the best medium with which to continue the conversation with this good friend. We had a good, practical conversation, each giving the other the space to talk, not that difficult to achieve given that we are both on the same side of this argument, but differ on certain approaches. “Would you tweet in favour of someone who said they were vaguely but not fully racist?” she asked me.

Later she sent another text saying she thought it was OK to “tell the truth and that being honest about the nastiness and cruelty in the anti-choice position is essential. That can be done in a respectful way”.

I’ve been thinking about it since and wondering am I a bit of a sap. Am I conditioned to be grateful for any crumb of reasonableness from the anti-choice side, ignoring the treatment of Irish women over decades, which, if I stop and actually think about it is enough to drive me to rage within minutes.

Am I too easily swayed by someone who simply comes across like they’ve put genuine thought into their position, and don’t try to shove it down other people’s throats, but are essentially, as my friend pointed out, in favour of restricting a woman’s right to choose?

Is it wrong to feel far more tolerant of listening to Kerry TD Michael Healy-Rae’s seemingly reasonably stated views in the Dáil last week on why he is anti-abortion, rather than the obnoxious, strong arm approach of Deputy Mattie McGrath or Senator Ronan Mullen as evidenced on the Oireachtas committee? Or to feel an understanding as to why Fianna Fáil TD Sean Haughey has concerns about babies being aborted because of a cleft palate. Or should it just be a plague on all their houses?

Instinctively though I feel that in any discussion if you hold back from immediately nailing someone for expressing their views delivered in a reasonable manner, even ones that are directly contrary to your own, they may be more open to hearing what you have to say; that you might even, in time, persuade them over to your side.

After all, in a way, isn’t that what happened with Micheál Martin. As we’ve heard the Fianna Fáil leader say on a number of occasions over the past week, he took himself home to Cork over Christmas with the report of the Oireachtas committee on the Eighth Amendment and the transcripts of its hearings. He also paid attention to what had happened at the Citizens Assembly.

When I decided last year to sit through the Citizen’s Assembly hearings on the Eighth a number of people asked why I was bothering to devote the time to it. It was seen as a nothing more than a talking shop. In truth I found it fascinating, not least because it proved that a bunch of Irish people could gather in a room and have a reasonable, respectful and informed debate on abortion. It also showed how, after listening to legal and medical argument, particularly the evidence heard from the doctors who deal with Irish women’s reproductive health, they decided that our current abortion restrictions simply had to be liberalised.

Roll on the Oireachtas committee on the Eighth, where in the beginning there was difficulty even filling the seats with TDs and senators. But once it began its work, and as the weeks went on, you could see the same phenomenon occurring there as had happened in the Assembly, as they too heard from legal and medical experts. These were a different bunch of experts. But again they mainly work in female reproductive health, or were legal experts familiar with the law in this area, or those who told personal stories, and similar conclusions were reached in terms of what had to done for Irish women in terms of abortion availability.

In both instances it felt so hopeful — not something that you would usually associate with abortion. In the instance of the Assembly because it was a group of Irish citizens who had given so much of their time and energy and consideration and bravely came to the conclusions that they did. In the case of the Oireachtas committee on the Eighth it was watching those politicians from all sides of Leinster House coming together and doing such a fine job of considering this most controversial issue — even though a number of them feared how it might cost them electorally. Last week in the Dáil debate on their report the respectful tone, largely, continued.

THE problem now, if I may call it that, is that the debate has spread into “normal” life ahead of the proposed referendum. For instance if you listened to the abortion discussion on Liveline last Friday you might have had to quell the urge to get into bed and stay there until the vote was over. I’ve been involved in discussions myself where I’ve almost lost the head at being subject to a smug pro-life argument delivered by someone who clearly believes themselves morally superior to me and my pro-choice position and often I suspect has a deep rooted misogyny. But what’s the point in that happening?

Maybe it’s utterly unrealistic to think that we won’t all be at each others throats for the next few months — with neither side willing to give proper consideration to what the other is saying.

But as Micheál Martin said on Prime Time on Tuesday night abortion is not as black and white as people might portray it, and “there is a lot of grey” in this profound, complex moral issue.

“We must respect different issues and alternative perspectives.” We can only hope.

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