In the Irish Referendum, only one argument matters and only one side will address it

I am writing this before the results of the Irish referendum on abortion have come in. By the time this goes out, we will probably know the result. I am going to put my neck on the line and say ‘yes’ will probably win it. Barring an equivalent of the 1992 ‘Shy Tory factor’ in respect to maintaining the existing stance on abortion, it seems likely that a relaxation of the Irish law on abortion will be forthcoming and the 8th amendment will be repealed. Whilst stranger things have happened, that’s my best guess.

One phenomenon that might swing it is #HomeToVote. As Gaby Hinsliff writes in an opinion piece on the Guardian:

They came from Los Angeles, from Bangkok, from Sydney, from Buenos Aires; from all four corners of the globe. One woman said her plane ticket was a birthday present from her boyfriend, who knew how much it meant to her. Others are funded by student unions, family whip-rounds, expats who have been away too long to take part. Young Irish women and men are coming home to vote in Ireland’s abortion referendum, many wearing their hearts on the sleeves of their repeal jumpers. They swap knowing glances in airports, proudly tweeting and Instagramming as they go. The #HomeToVote phenomenon is an extraordinarily moving, powerful sight. For what cause would you fly halfway round the world and back again? Only one that cuts to the heart of who you are, how you seek to live.

I initially struggled to get my head around a view that genuinely believes abortion ‘cuts to the heart of who you are, how you seek to live’. As I pondered it, I came to the conclusion that it was undoubtedly true.

I think abortion really does cut to the heart of who we are and how we seek to live. Only, I don’t think it tells us what the writer thinks it does. For what it tells us about who we are and how we seek to live is that we are fundamentally selfish. Indeed, it tells us that our selfishness extends even to the point that we are prepared to kill another life simply because it inconveniences our selfish desires.

Now, I know there are lots of reasons why people seek abortions. I am also sure that, in some cases, those decisions really are very hard and amount to the examples that get debated ad nauseam. However, I am also sure that the overwhelming majority of abortion cases – c. 190,000 of them in the UK in 2016 (the latest figures available) – are not such hard cases. I am also convinced that, as the old maxim goes, hard cases make bad legislation. We are foolish to argue that the extreme cases should form the basis of a fundamental change in the law for all people regardless of circumstances. The fact is that the majority of abortions in the UK are not due to issues of rape and other such heinous things.

The Daily Politics held an interesting discussion on this very issue between Jacob Rees-Mogg and Jo Swinson. You can watch the full segment here:

I was intrigued by the line of argument adopted by Jo Swinson.

First, she argued that no women should be denied abortion because, in instances of rape, they shouldn’t be denied choice. I want to park whether it is appropriate to conduct an abortion in cases of rape or not here and simply focus on the fact that she was arguing for an extension of abortion for all based on this particularly unpleasant scenario. Whatever our particular view on cases of rape, it is surely obvious to anybody that such an argument is not a credible basis to extend abortion rights to all. At best, that argument – if successful – would mean that we would allow abortion in cases of rape alone. It is a non sequitur to jump from such instances to the rights of all women to access abortion on demand.

Second, Swinson argued that ‘no woman takes this decision lightly’. This article in the Telegraph begs to differ. Several of these stories in the Guardian don’t appear to suggest that the decision was not taken lightly. In fact, stories abound of women who claim they spent more time thinking about their new kitchen, or the colour of the curtains, than they did about whether or not to have an abortion. That doesn’t settle the question one way or the other, but it is an emotive argument made by Swinson that is demonstrably untrue.

Third, Jacob Rees-Mogg raised the issue that there were two lives at stake. Whilst women may well have the right to decide what to do with their own bodies, the argument goes, they do not have the right to do whatever they want to somebody else’s body, even if it happens to living inside them in utero. Rees-Mogg pointed out that, if life begins at conception, it is difficult to find a time when it is acceptable to end that life. Staggeringly, Swinson’s response was simply: ‘the best person to make that decision is the woman’. This arguments rests on a presumption that the best determination of when life begins, and thus when it is or is not appropriate to snuff it out, is a woman carrying her baby. In essence, life is entirely subjectively defined.

The problem with this line of reasoning is what happens when somebody subjectively decides life begins much later and thus they have the right to snuff it out whenever they please? If we are going to argue life begins whenever we subjectively decide it does, what philosophical argument can we employ to maintain the distinction between the subjective decision to abort a baby in utero up to 28 weeks whilst permitting us to abort disabled children much later (which even includes such minor defects as the sub-mucus cleft pallet with which I was born)? What is more, what is to stop us arguing – as Peter Singer has done, as have others – for after-birth abortions? There really is no philosophical reason against it if we concede this premise. Indeed, apart from an arbitrary setting of an age of culpability (in this country, the age of criminal responsibility is 10 – most of Europe is much higher), there is no defence. Once we concede the age of culpability is somewhat arbitrary, there is no reason not to extend it in any direction.

Swinson then shifted her argument onto what can only be described as a straw man. She stated that it is inconsistent of Rees-Mogg in particular to argue for protection of the unborn in the womb when – as she judges it – he does not care for the wellbeing of the born. I make no defence of Rees-Mogg or the Tory record on care and support for the needy. You can judge that for yourself. But this argument is exceptionally weak.

For a start, even if we concede that Rees-Mogg is not concerned about the born, how his lack of care for the born (such as it exists) legitimises the termination of the unborn is beyond me! Likewise, that argument cuts both ways. If he is inconsistent to advocate for the rights of the unborn child whilst – in Swinson’s view – not caring about the born poor and needy, isn’t she equally inconsistent to care about the poor and needy whilst not showing any concern for the unborn child? The argument only has teeth if one cares for both the the rights or the born and unborn. Leaving aside Rees-Mogg and the Tories, there are plenty of people who happily support both!

Second, it simply doesn’t deal with the substance of the argument. If the argument being advanced is that we should not terminate unborn child, the equivalence would be to also advocate against the termination of the born. To my knowledge, Jacob Rees-Mogg has not advocated for the systematic termination of any living people group. Should he do so, we have the right to legitimately call hypocrisy. But all he has said is that we should not kill the unborn in utero in exactly the same way as (to my knowledge) he doesn’t believe we should kill the born post-partum. His record on government benefits, housing, welfare or any of these issues is simply irrelevant to this point. Those things – whatever we may think of his (or anybody else’s) views on them – is simply not at issue.

Third, the argument failed as Swinson returned to her focus on extending the case of abortion for those who have been raped to all. She accused her interlocutor of supporting the rights of the unborn to live even under those circumstances whilst suggesting he did not care about the rights of the woman who had been attacked. It immediately deflated as soon as the response came, ‘you are completely right on that’. Apparently, it turns out, Rees-Mogg did believe that rape should be punished and women who have experienced it should be supported. What a shocker! But, as per his earlier argument, there is still a second life involved. That one heinous action has been committed does not mean we should sanction a second one. It is obviously true that we should care about both the woman involved and the life of the unborn child.

The problem was that Jo Swinsons refused to argue about the one issue from which everything else really flows. Rees-Mogg was correct in bringing back the issue to where it really lie: when does life begin? If, as he argues, it begins at conception, there really is no legitimate grounds for abortion and the life of the unborn must be protected. If life begins at some other point, then it is obviously entirely legitimate to abort the unborn up to that point. The problem for Swinson’s argument was that she singularly refused to address this point. The reason for that, I strongly suspect, is that there isn’t really any credible ground for arguing it begins anywhere other than conception. Most philosophers and ethicists agree there is no philosophical difference between a 9-month child in utero and one post-partum. But given that few want to argue for after-birth abortions – except the likes of Peter Singer and a handful of others – they are forced into arbitrarily setting a term with very little to ground it. The argument for when life begins is the central one from which all others flow and it is notable how few pro-abortion advocates wish to address it because it is their achilles heel.

It is interesting that Rees-Mogg – on the grounds of protecting life – makes a distinction for protecting the mother’s life. So he is not quite as hard and fast as some suggest he is. He does not believe in no abortion under any circumstances per se, he believes in the importance and sanctity of life and wishes to preserve it in the born and unborn – for the mother and the child – wherever possible. I am simply staggered that such as view can be called ‘extreme’ and painted as though it is somehow unfeeling. I struggle to see what is so wrong with wanting to protect life wherever possible.

I hope the Irish vote to maintain their existing law. I suspect they won’t and, as you read this, you will know the result already. But I think the argument needs to be made on the only ground that matters: when does life begin and under what circumstances is it appropriate to snuff it out? Focus on these issues and we may just begin to see which position is the more consistent.