Slogans and Blinkers

A referendum on abortion in the Republic of Ireland a while ago was strongly influenced by a curious case that aroused great controversy. You probably remember it, but I'll briefly recap the main points. A (very) young rape victim wanted an abortion (or her parents wanted it for her -- I'm not really sure, but it doesn't matter here). She was not only denied it, abortion being illegal in the Republic, but was prevented by a court ruling from going to get one in a country where abortion is allowed. Now, I'm not concerned here with the moral question of abortion itself; what interests me is the confusion evinced (but apparently not felt) by most of those whose comments on the case were reported -- a confusion that afflicted those on both sides of the debate. The results of the recent referendum have reflected the confusion perfectly, with the Irish people offering their collective opinion that a woman shouldn't be allowed an abortion even if her life is endangered, but that women should be allowed free access to information about abortion and to travel to countries where abortion is legal. This would still have denied an abortion to the young rape victim, but would have allowed her to come to England for one. The confusion, it seems to me, is a symptom of two dangerous tendencies of thought concerning other people's moral beliefs -- tendencies which are often linked.

The most common reaction - according to the media, at least - was condemnation of the decision to prevent the girl from leaving the country in order to get an abortion. This, you might think, was understandable in the case of those who are pro-abortion. Well, I'll have more to say about that later. Let's deal first with those who, though against abortion, seemed to think that the girl in this case should have been allowed to have one. The obvious first question to be asked is: why are they against abortion? The most likely answer, the one most often given, is that abortion is murder -- that the unborn foetus is a human being, and is entitled to the same rights as other human beings. But why should the fact of the mother's having been raped lead us to condone the murder of her child?

The only argument against abortion which might make sense of this isn't terribly common: it's that abortion is not wrong in itself, but has bad effects, either on an individual (usually the mother) or on society as a whole. It could then be argued that, in certain clearly defined circumstances, abortion would not have these bad effects (or that worse effects would follow from the failure to abort). I must admit that I don't see how such an argument would proceed in the present case -- but then I don't see how the original argument against abortion is supposed to work. Anyway, as I said, it's not a common position, and I'll leave it in order to pass on to my main interest.

The group which I find most confused comprises, oddly enough, the pro-abortionists who objected most vehemently to the Irish court's decision. Is this as paradoxical as it sounds? Let me explain. My point is not that they objected, but why they objected, and precisely what they objected to. It would be perfectly natural and acceptable for a person who believed that abortion should be legal to point out that the Irish case demonstrates the inhumanity of the Irish anti-abortion law. It would be perfectly natural for such a person to shrug and say `Well, what do you expect from such a system?', or to wave their arms in the air and grow purple in the face at yet another example of the suffering caused by an inhuman and immoral law, or to react in any number of other ways. The person whom I find most confused is the one who argues, not that abortion should be legalised in the Republic of Ireland (that, for the people I have in mind, goes without saying), not that the circumstances should have been taken into account in this particular case, but that, given the illegality of abortion in the Republic, the Irish court should not have prevented an Irish citizen from leaving the country in order to obtain an abortion elsewhere.

This confusion, I suspect, can be traced to two tendencies of thought: first, many people, regardless of political persuasion, substitute slogans for thought; secondly, they can't see past their view of other people's moral positions. These are the dangerous tendencies which I mentioned at the beginning. The pro-abortion slogan par excellence is, I suppose: `A woman has the right to choose what she does with her own body'. The notion that anti- abortionists don't contest this right, but deny that in the case of abortion the foetus is the woman's body, frequently never occurs to many pro-abortionists (just as the notion that pro-abortionists aren't slavering mass-murderers never seems to occur to many anti-abortionists). In this particular case, the fact that the Irish law treats abortion as murder sails right by the average placard-waver.

Imagine for a moment a fairly straightforward analogy. In Freedonia a wife is considered to be under the authority of her husband, but is protected from injury or abuse at his hands. In Sylvania, she is his absolute chattel, with no protection under law. When one day a Freedonian husband declares his intention to torture, rape, and murder his wife, and attempts to buy tickets to Sylvania, he's prevented from doing so by a Freedonian court. Now, doesn't Freedonia have not only the legal right but the moral duty to prevent the husband from taking his wife to Sylvania? Shouldn't we be appalled if the Freedonian court said: `Well, we have a duty to protect this woman as long as she's here, but we should not be so assiduous in our duty as to restrain one of our citizens from lawful foreign travel'?

In the Republic of Ireland abortion was illegal -- the State held that its duty was to protect the foetus. Wouldn't it have been appalling if the State had said, effectively: `Well, we have a duty to protect this foetus as long as it's here, but we should not be so assiduous in our duty as to restrain one of our citizens from lawful foreign travel'?

The two tendencies of thought that I mentioned above can be found in another hot contemporary debate -- that concerning pornography and censorship. On the one hand, there are those who are against pornography, and who see their opponents as being for pornography; on the other hand, there are those who are against censorship, and who see their opponents as being for censorship. (There are, in fact, small minorities who are positively pro-pornography and pro-censorship; their existence, however, is not the source of the confusion.) Unless this sort of misunderstanding is cleared up, the two sides in this as in many other debates stand little chance of genuine discussion, and therefore of some sort of solution to their disagreement. All too frequently, of course, this would leave them unconcerned, for their goal is not a solution, but victory.

Peter J. King

Up to "My Contribution".   | send 
me e-mail.
Intro. Page  | Philosophy  | Everything Else