Not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart. Toqueville
People rarely answer the question they are asked in a referendum. They prefer to answer a different question. The most recent referendum was no different.
Most people agree that abortion is a necessary evil. Some only approve of abortion in order to save the life of a woman who will otherwise die (with her baby) if the pregnancy continues. Others go further and approve abortion when a pregnancy involves rape, fatal foetal abnormality or suicide. Some go further still and approve abortion whenever women want it (though usually within certain limits).
Yet nearly all those approving abortion in these different circumstances will acknowledge that the act of abortion itself is regrettable as it terminates the life of another human being (or potential human being, depending on your point of view). Certainly that has been my experience from numerous conversations with people holding different views on the matter around the country in recent months. Few have any enthusiasm for abortion, even if they reluctantly support its provision.
So why the obvious jubilation and celebration as the results were announced? That takes us back to the 'question' people answered. For many older voters (and older journalists) it perhaps had something to do with finally throwing off the last vestiges of Catholic 'suppression'. And just as our neighbours across the water exhibit an unhealthy obsession with 'The Battle of Britain' and 'the SS' long after most of the participants in the actual events have died, so some here in Ireland have a similar obsession with 'The Magdalene Laundries' and 'the Christian Brothers' long after the original events occurred (with RTE standing in for the BBC as the obsessive curator of a past most never experienced). Just as most Britons under 50 could care less about 'their finest hour', so most Irish under 30 have never experience the 'belt and crozier' thing that so terrified (and seemingly still terrifies) their elders.
So back to the emotional outburst that accompanied the result. Were Yes voters simply tricked and misled by media bias, political evasion and clever campaigning? Hardly. If anything the No campaign appeared more pervasive (bar a few issues with Google and Facebook) than the Yes campaign, certainly outside of Dublin. No, everyone who voted Yes on May 25th did so in full knowledge of the consequences of their vote, without any duress or coercion. If anything, the only 'shy voters' were those voting Yes rather than those voting No.
Still, none of this provides a sufficient explanation for the reaction to the Yes win. Certainly nobody was celebrating a decision to abort babies in Ireland. Evil is still evil, even when it's necessary. No, clearly there was a 'good' worth celebrating in the win, regardless of the more unfortunate consequences. For a small minority it was their VE Day (or VC Day?): 'Gilead has fallen, the handmaids are free' and other fictions for women and men of a certain age.
But for younger voters the 'good' boils down to one simple word: 'choice'. Why such a focus on choice? It's partly captured by Tocqueville, quoted above, describing (or perhaps extrapolating) from what he saw in 19th century America and its implications for Europe and the rest of the world. We live in a world in which 'autonomy' is sacrosanct (indeed, the highest virtue in most western societies), and any restriction on that autonomy is simply intolerable: including the requirement to see a pregnancy through to birth when a woman does not want to. In a world in which a pregnant woman ends up 'alone and confined entirely within the solitude of her own heart' it is no wonder that so many Irish women favour abortion. A pregnant woman is a very vulnerable human being - perhaps the most vulnerable - and in a world of no fault divorce, single parenthood, cohabitation, Tinder and hook up culture then a woman cannot rely on men or even other women to have their back during and after pregnancy. This is what Bernadette Waterman Ward observes:
Since abortion seems to offer escape from the costs of having a female body, legal challenges to abortion provoke aggressive condemnation as a "backlash" and a "war against women."It also explains much of the anger - especially among young women - on display during the Irish referendum. If 'anger is fear in disguise' then the source of so much anger and fear is obvious: feeling alone, vulnerable and without support. It's the shadow side of individual autonomy: freedom to choose means that you might make the wrong choice and have to face the consequences on your own. No wonder there were calls early in the campaign that men 'should not have a vote' on the issue. It also explains the success of the Yes campaign with its focus on compassion: channelling an 'other-directed' emotion in support of a 'self-directed' choice for those portrayed as having no choice - with obvious effectiveness.
Of course, the theme of choice and autonomy is not specific to the issue of abortion. The West - including Ireland - is living through the consequences of modernity's turn away from truth as something that is objective to truth as whatever you believe yourself. The Catholic Church in Ireland has been clearly blindsided by this turn (as it has been in other countries). The fact that most 'Irish Catholics' voted Yes would suggest that 'Catholic Ireland' took flight with the last Spitfire some time ago. Despite its alleged influence over the Irish education system, it is fair to say that the Church's failure to educate successive generations of Irish Catholics in their faith has been surpassed only by the State's failure to educate successive generations of Irish speakers. In both instances, the well worn policy of 'keep on doing the same thing hoping something different will result' is still being pursued with relentless vigour. Perhaps it's time to stop (both).
So what happens next? It's a bigger question than legislating for abortion. The sexual revolution will continue to reverberate in Ireland and further afield, with dismally predictable results. But beyond the contested issue of abortion (now swinging back to the pro-life side in the United States), Ireland will likely see autonomy through to its 'logical' conclusion, including euthanasia and doctor-assisted suicide. Though even these are 'side issues' in the context of the bigger changes unfolding in Irish society. A 'right liberalism' that reduces humans to consumers and workers uprooted from families and communities, is working with a 'left liberalism' that reduces humans to autonomous individuals stripped of collective and cultural identity right across Europe.
Nevertheless, these are - and will be - ripe circumstances for organisations like the Catholic Church (and other faith and tradition based organisations) to preach a different creed and philosophy. One based on dignity, continuity and responsibility for one another, including future generations - especially those carried in the wombs of this generation. It will take time, but just as anger is fear in disguise, so patience is hope in action. I'm hopeful.