Abortion Debate…1983

There is something curious about being a Catholic that means Catholics always seem to be on the wrong side of History. The Crusades, the Reformation, the “Glorious Revolution”, Jacobitism, the French Revolution, Democracy, Feminism.

For “liberal” Catholics there is always a feeling that Catholicism eventually catches up to the Enlightenment. For “traditional” Catholics, there is a perverse joy in being on the wrong side of History. It plays to the narrative that the world is a conflict between GOD and Mammom. Indeed, my involvement…..I would not say “friendship” with modern (sic) Jacobites and “legitimists” is pretty depressing. These people actually believe that Democracy and (especially) Republicanism is a form of Satanism……after all democrats/republicans challenge Kingship in the same way that Lucifer challenged GOD.

Pretty depressing stuff. It would be wrong to think of Catholics as divided between liberalism and traditionalism. Most are somewhere in the middle……and certainly in Ireland over the past ten years, people are making their own accomodation with the Catholic Church regardless of major doctrinal or moral issues.

I am 60 years old……and younger people than me……will be unaware just how powerful/influential liberal Catholicism was in the 1960s and 1970s, a post Vatican II euphoria. This process was put into reverse by the papacy of John Paul II…..ironically an election welcomed by liberals as breaking the “Italian” stranglehold.

In the 1960s the “debate” was really about Contraception. There was a peculiar stand-off where both sides of the debate talked “around” the subject. Traditionalists held it was a sin. Liberals held that it wasnt. So easy enough for any Catholic couple to avoid “confessing ” a non existent sin.

Abortion is different. The liberalisation of British (but not Norn Iron) laws in the 1960s tended to bring it to the fore. A new crisis of conscience.

As is often the case, Drama presents the issue better. “Bill Brand” was a 1970s ITV Drama by Trevor Griffiths.

Bill Brand is an idealistic young left wing MP. He advocated the right to choose. Alas his constituency in South Lancashire was heavily Catholic and “Irish”, traditional labourites who opposed abortion.

In some ways this was a difficult time for the British Labour Party. Its advocacy of abortion lost several thousand Catholic votes in the west of Scotland and the North of England. Of course Catholics and indeed many other Christians were at the forefront of the Labour movement from its earliest days. And there was certainly in the 1970s a feeling that the abortion agenda was being pushed in the Labour Party by cosmopolitan London-based members rather than coal miners, shipbuilders…or their wives.

While this severely damaged the labour Party in England, there was no real problem in Ireland, north and south. Abortion was illegal in the Republic of Ireland Norn Iron. There was of course an Irish solution to an Irish problem. Many young women simply boarded planes to London. Ergo…..no problem.

Which brings me to 1983, the year after we married and later in that year Mrs FJH was heavily pregnant with our first baby. We attended a meeting of a “Catholic” organisation to which we then belonged. And the meeting was given over to a “pro-Life” group (NOT SPUC).

Most people sat in silence. I supposed we felt that it was such a delicate personal issue that it should not be really discussed. It is…nuanced. Is anything ever really absolutely right or absolutely wrong?

During the course of the night, reference was made to campaigns in the Republic of Ireland to make abortion “unconstitutional” and David Alton’s attempt in England to roll back some of the aws governing abortion in England. Alton was a Liberal MP. His Party Leader David Steel had been a prime mover in the legalisation of abortion in 1967.

The debate around Abortion is …divisive and it turns nasty too easily. A dilemna for a Catholic. And certainly fora  “liberal” one.

See heres the thing. David Alton was a Liberal MP…..and a Catholic. Most Catholic MPs who signed up in support of his campaign were Conservative MPs …many ardent Thatcherites like John Biggs Davison and John Stokes who had no serious track record on other “life emhancing issues” like nuclear disarmament, capital punishment or opposing the kinda poverty which can put pressure on families.

And no Catholic Labour MP put their heads above the parapet at all. Running scared of de-selection in many cases.

Yet that night in late summer 1983 is a night I remember well. I dont believe in “single issue” politics. And to the “pro-life” (their word not necessarily mine) the single issue of Abortion trumped all others. Vote for parties which were anti-abortion was the message. An irrelevant one in Norn Iron.

By way of a  handy guide we were told that Sinn Féin (largely new to the political process in 1983) opposed Abortion. DUP (essentially the political wing of Ian Paisley’s Free Presbyterian Church) opposed Abortion. So did the UUP and SDLP. And that the Alliance Party favoured Norn Iron having the same laws as in England. The Alliance Party were the “bad guys”.

Regular readers of this Blog will know my pathological hatred (as it has been described) of the Alliance Party. But I felt singling them out as the bad guys was unfair. After all, Sinn Féin were still at that stage the political wing of the Irish Republican Army…..the UUP and DUP were both nasty and sectarian.

And thats the problem with the Abortion Debate. There is simply no tolerance of “nuance”


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