Pro-life to pro-choice: confessions from a convert

On July 4, 2015 I attended the Rally for Life in Dublin. This September 30 I will be attending my first March for Choice.

I was working as a research assistant in College the summer after my first year. I saw the Rally for Life posters every day on my route to and from work but hadn’t seriously considered attending until the day of the rally. It was a Saturday and, since I had nothing else to do, I decided to go along. As I tentatively approached the crowd at Parnell Square, the first thing I noticed was the demographic: most of the crowd were middle-aged or older. There were very few young people. I was immediately caught up in a whirlwind of activity, handed a flag and ushered onto a float, or, more accurately, an open platform attached to a lorry. In retrospect, I suppose that, because of my age, the organisers were eager to put me on show.

As the rally started moving, I stayed where I was and awkwardly waved my flag. It was surreal. When we passed through O’Connell Street we were met by a large group of protestors. The vitriol with which we were faced was overwhelming. At the time I didn’t understand their anger, but now I do.

The rally ended at Leinster House with speeches from people I’d never heard of before. I hung about for a while before sheepishly returning home, somewhat dazed. The organisers estimated that there were between 25,000-30,000 people in attendance. I’ll stick with the Gardaí figures of 5,000-8,000.

I still have the flag under my bed, but I’m not who I was two years ago. My views on politics, social issues and everything in between have changed radically. I used to consider myself pro-life; now I support the pro-choice campaign. It wasn’t an easy transition to make, and it didn’t happen overnight. This is an explanation of why I made that transition. I hope that it will offer people in both camps some anecdotal insights into the experience of one who went from being staunchly pro-life to ardently pro-choice.

The first thing I should mention is that my pro-life views had nothing to do with religion. I understand that for many people their faith is the main reason why they oppose abortion, but for me that wasn’t the case. I do come from a traditionally Roman Catholic family, but I lost my faith long before I became pro-choice. My primary objection to the liberalisation of abortion laws was founded in human rights. The European Convention of Human Rights states: “Everyone’s right to life shall be protected by law. No one shall be deprived of his life intentionally save in the execution of a sentence of a court following his conviction of a crime for which this penalty is provided by law.”

For me, this included the rights of the “unborn person”, extending from the moment of conception. I considered the right to life the most fundamental of all human rights since its abuse means the abuse of every subsequent human right. I used to believe that abortion was only justified when a pregnancy presented a reasonable threat to the pregnant person’s life, or when there was a serious risk to their physical or mental health that may result in death.

I believed that the right to life began at conception, for many reasons, but mostly in response to a simple question: if we agree that human rights exist, when in our development do they come into effect? Arguments about nervous development in utero, when the foetus can feel pain or even when infants develop consciousness seemed weak at best to me, and still do. I think that the failure of leaders in the pro-choice movement to adequately answer this question is one of the largest barriers to effectively convincing people, especially people like my former self. I suspect that some of these leaders wish to avoid the problems that moral absolutes create, preferring instead the comprehensive and compelling utilitarian case for abortion.

I have no doubt that university exposed me to new ideas that I wouldn’t have encountered had I not come up to Trinity. Some of these ideas were familiar but presented in more nuanced ways; others were entirely new to me. Ultimately it was this blend of nuance and novelty that convinced me to make the long journey from pro-life to pro-choice. There’s no need for me to list all of the arguments for the decriminalisation of abortion: I’m sure you are familiar with many of them. But it might be useful to expand on those which I found most convincing.

Firstly, criminalising abortion does not reduce the number of abortions that people have. If anything, it puts people at risk by driving abortion practices underground. This is an empirical matter, supported by peer-reviewed, published studies. It is difficult to defend laws criminalising abortion when it can be demonstrated that these laws manifestly fail to achieve their aim.

Secondly, the suffering of women, transgender men and non-binary people who are forced to complete an unwanted pregnancy is incalculable. This is particularly true in cases of rape and fatal foetal abnormality. The argument that these circumstances are necessary misfortunes is, I believe, morally indefensible.

Finally, it is patently clear that abortion is a class issue. At present, if a woman in Ireland needs an abortion, she has to travel, usually to Britain, in order to receive what should be an accessible medical procedure. In addition to the emotional toll, the cost of travel, accommodation, the abortion itself, and anything else they may need, is considerable. In effect this prevents poor people from accessing safe, legal abortions.

I want the pro-choice campaign to succeed. I want reproductive rights taken seriously by our elected representatives, and to see popular support for “Repeal the Eighth”. It is for these reasons that I will attend the 6th annual March for Choice. It is also why we need to be more aware of the large number of people who are pro-life for secular reasons. Too often I have seen people, on social media in particular, bemoan or ridicule the religious pro-life as if secular pro-life people did not exist.

Reducing the pro-life stance to religion will likely alienate people who are pro-life but not religious, making it difficult to have constructive dialogue with them. I say this not because I think we should be worried about offending people, but because the pro-choice movement needs popular support. We need to convince people to get involved and, when the time comes, vote to repeal the eighth amendment. We don’t have the luxury of neglecting anyone who might give their support.

Abortion is a controversial issue and I admire the bravery of those who open themselves to criticism, derision and even threats in the fight for reproductive rights. I hope that my own experience will help pro-choice activists better understand their interlocutors and, in particular, help like-minded individuals in their journey towards standing up for reproductive rights.