One of the prime issues of the recent Assembly election – although I am not sure it really affected the result – was abortion. The Greens and assorted leftist candidates took an absolute “pro-choice” stance (and specifically pro-extension of the law as applies in the UK); the DUP and SDLP took a resolute “pro-life” stance opposed to any change in the law (although the latter did suggest decriminalisation – an odd position for a “pro-life” party, as abortion is not decriminalised anywhere else).
Yet it was in fact an SDLP candidate, Claire Hanna, who perhaps gave the most honest response to the question, on BBC Talkback, by noting she was in a pro-life party but was “conflicted”.
It is an odd thing that when a politician openly admits to doubt, as any thinking person should, they immediately get savaged by absolutists on either side of the debate. This is known as making something a “wedge issue” – you have to be for or against; with us or against us (and woe betide you if you are against).
It is unhealthy.
Life does not consist of “wedge issues”. As I noted in a letter to the Irish News in March, the fact I have arrived at essentially “pro-choice” position (taking the definition from the audience at the same debate in which Claire Hanna declared herself “conflicted”) does not somehow make me “anti-life”. The very terminology is ludicrous.
The abortion debate is taking place primarily between religious zealots who delight in the ridiculous pretence that the issue is simple (“You are killing babies”) on one hand, and social liberal hardliners who demand specifically a piece of legislation very few of them have ever read on the other. Anyone falling in between – suggesting that perhaps a 14-year-old victim of incest and rape should not have to have the resulting child, or that perhaps a poorly drafted piece of legislation which ended up reliant on interpretation in the courts with unintended consequences is not the best thing to copy on such an emotive and complex issue – is instantly dismissed by both sides as a weasel belonging to the other.
The electoral penalty is borne by those who, perfectly reasonably, fall between two positions and allow for a degree of doubt. But it is worth noting that the political penalty is actually borne by advocates of change. By insisting that any change must be specifically the change they want and only the change they want, they actually cause a divide among those wanting some form of reform, making life a lot easier for those who do not (who by definition are already united by their commitment to opposing any change). In politics, united beats divided every time.
The practical penalty is borne, appallingly, by the women of Northern Ireland. The promotion specifically of the “’67 Act” as the only acceptable change renders any change impossible – because that change is not available based on the votes of the people last week, and is in any case opposed on perfectly rational grounds by most reformists who have actually read it.
There is no harm in being a passionate advocate of a cause – but the key is to be so in a way which delivers results for the victims of the status quo, not just in a way which makes you feel good (and maybe nicks a few votes on the margins) but achieves nothing practically. Thus far campaigners for reform of Northern Ireland’s disgracefully archaic abortion law have merely delivered confusion and if anything a worse position than existed when regulations were clearly in place. The definition of madness is to repeat the same thing and accept different results. It is time for a different approach.
Creating “wedge issues” never does justice to the complexity of any social issue and rarely helps advocates of change. The identifiable need is to bring people on the journey. That means that all of those who advocate reform must unite around moderate and achievable goals – otherwise we will enter the 2020s having still achieved nothing for the real victims of the status quo.