It is sometimes difficult to tell whether the off-key British coverage of many Irish issues has to do with woolliness due to distance or something more ideological.
A report in the Times last week asserted that a proposed new Irish abortion law “would lift the threat of criminal sanctions for women who illegally terminate their pregnancies in Ireland”. This was an unthinking – or collaborative – lift of a spin put out by the Irish government, which claims that many women are ending their pregnancies after obtaining abortion pills by post. Yet not a single woman has spent a night in jail on any charge relating to the termination of a pregnancy in Ireland, and – leaving aside the possibility of a set-up to manipulate public opinion in advance of the coming referendum – that situation is certain to endure.
The report continued: “A referendum is expected to be held in May on whether Ireland’s anti-abortion laws should be lifted, after the government supported a national vote at a cabinet meeting on Monday.”
This is another standard construction of British media, which refers on a daily basis to “Ireland’s restrictive laws against abortion”. The referendum will not pose a question about abortion, but about the fundamental human rights of a category of human being: the unborn child in the womb, defined in the Irish constitution’s Irish text as mbeo gan breith, “the living without birth”. Abortion may be the sub-textual purpose of the referendum, but it is not the core issue.
The primary question facing the electorate relates to whether it will dispense with the constitutional recognition of the fundamental, antecedent right to life of the child in the womb. The word “abortion” does not appear within the constitution’s pages. This is not pedantry. The objective of removing this right, of course, is to introduce abortion, but we would not speak of the attempted jettisoning of any other form of fundamental right in this way. Imagine a proposal to annul the article guaranteeing the right of citizens “to express freely their convictions and opinions” being presented as a reform of “Ireland’s excessive anti-censorship laws”.
The question facing voters could not be starker: are they prepared to vote in a manner that appears to void the right of a section of humanity in Ireland? Yes or no?
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