Referendum Debate

Pro-life, pro-choice and on-the-fencers alike, anyone paying attention to the Eighth Amendment Referendum knew that the Late Late Show debate on Friday night, first of the televised public debates of the official campaign, would be an important moment in the run-up to polling day. It did not disappoint, and could well be a turning point in the No side’s campaign, with social media commentators praising the compassionate, measured performances of Wendy Grace and Caroline Simons.

Many were wondering would Simon Harris be a part of proceedings, having been challenged to a public debate this week by Love Both. They said that with the government pushing for a Yes result, there was a lack of debate surrounding the provision of better supports so that women did not feel abortion was their only choice.

“Government ministers pushing for repeal are fully aware that not a single government-sponsored debate has taken place in the past six years focused on positive alternatives to abortion despite the fact that we and others pleaded with the government to create space for such a debate. Instead of voting away the right to life and repealing the Eighth Amendment, we should, as a society, be focusing on initiatives that bring us together rather than divide us.

“In 2017 there were close to 30 homeless pregnant women living rough on the streets of our cities … This human suffering could be alleviated and suitable sheltered accommodation found, if the political focus were on alternatives to abortion rather than on obliterating all legal protection for unborn babies”.

Wendy Grace and Caroline Simons highlighted this lack of attention on the part of the government in their remarks on Friday night. Grace, a young mother, said that supports need to be improved so that “women no longer feel that abortion is their only option”.

She said that having been pro-abortion at one time in her life, she now realised that abortion was “not the compassionate solution I once thought it was” and followed by sharing the story of a friend of hers who had attempted suicide after enduring an abortion procedure. This experience, she said, forced her to think again, and seek out the facts, such as the fact that “in the UK for every four babies that are born alive, one is aborted”.

The Yes side was represented by Dr Peter Boylan and Dr Mary Favier, whose argument centred on their view that abortions “happen anyway” and regulation of illegal abortions was best achieved by making it legal.

Caroline Simons explained in response that the problem of “backstreet” abortions was even higher in the UK than in Ireland, and that it was an issue right across Europe even in countries with wide-ranging abortion regimes. She reminded viewers that women who present to their doctor having started a medical abortion will not be judged, will be treated, and should feel that they can indeed seek medical help.

Viewers picked up on several comments, in particular from the Yes side. When asked when he believes life begins, Dr Boylan’s answer was “at conception”. He rushed on to talk about the high percentage of miscarriages that occur in early pregnancy, something not especially relevant to the debate. Wendy Grace was quick to pick up on his earlier point, and when asked when she believed life began said that she agreed fully with him.

Dr Favier also caused raised eyebrows when she disputed the figure of six months as being the government’s proposed cut-off point for abortions. She stated that it was in fact going to be the threshold of viability, or “24 weeks” – a comment that had viewers reaching for their calculators to check that their arithmetic hadn’t failed them, and that 6 multiplied by 4 is indeed still 24. This aspect of the government’s proposed legislation has caused widespread concerns, as the proposal is almost identical to the UK’s abortion regime.

Businessman Declan Ganley, a prominent pro-life supporter who spoke at the Rally for Life, was only one of many Twitter commentators who said that the debate was won by the measured, compassionate approach of Grace and Simons, and the witness of young mother Mary Kenny who spoke from the audience. Kenny emphasised that when abortion was introduced in the UK doctors didn’t have the benefit of the ultrasound technology that helped her change her mind. “I saw my perfectly formed baby at just under 12 weeks. She had fingers and toes and was thirsty for life. Knowing what we do now, how can we deny the humanity of the unborn child?”

While analysis of each side’s performance is still ongoing, most have been fairly happy with how the debate was run by the Late Late Show. Host Ryan Tubridy seemed keen to avoid allegations of bias, making sure to keep a close eye on the speaking time allocated to each speaker. With two more televised debates expected before 25 May – on Claire Byrne Live and Prime Time – campaigners will hope that calm, rational debate will keep viewer numbers up and encourage a high turn-out on polling day.

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