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Reading the posters of the times

In the aftermath of the referendum on the 8th Amendment, Gerry O’Hanlon offered a considered analysis of the result. He talked about the importance of events like the kind hosted at Gardiner Street where the church gathered as community to reflect and discern in a careful fashion and called for the bishops in Ireland to commit themselves to explore the possibilities of synods as a means to discern the path forward.

When it comes to the Christians who voted yes, Gerry argued that the church:

has to have a deeper analysis of contemporary culture, because it is clear that contemporary culture isn’t metaphysical in that sense. It’s more to do with narrative, to do with personal experience, to do with story. It’s very clear from the exit-polls that people weren’t so much into that whole thing of rights and that kind of stuff; it was people’s stories that were the important thing.

What Gerry identifies here is one of the key insights required for understanding the cultural shift occurring in Ireland today. It was striking to watch the way both campaigns unfurled their extraordinarily energetic and well-funded advertising campaigns. A large image went up across from my bus-stop early in campaign claiming that 1 in 5 pregnancies in the UK were aborted. “Typical zealotry,” I tut-tutted to myself, “that can’t be true.” I went on an amateur fact-checking quest and found, to my astonishment, that this claim more than stood up to scrutiny.

Cycling around Dublin, I soon noticed another stereotypical image, but this time from the pro-choice side. “Stop policing my body,” read the words, partially scrawled on the torso of a white woman.

I have often in the past had conversations with friends on the pro-choice side of the question where we shared our mutual dismay about the sloganeering excesses which end up replacing our complex positions. “Get your rosaries off my ovaries” or graphic images depicting dismembered foetuses failed to sway even the already-convinced and actively seemed to harm the side proposing them.

I fact-checked ROSA’s poster (no prosecution around abortion or abortion pills has been pursued in the modern era), but as the campaign gained momentum it soon became clear that this was not going to be a debate fought on the basis of marshalling the science and seeking to defeat the other side’s position with the force of your logic.

This is one of the reasons why the Save the 8th campaign floundered so badly; it continued to produce posters that featured fractions and percentages, scientific claims and factual declarations. The Together for Yes campaign materials were just as glossy and expensively produced and just as extensively distributed, but they were full of stories. Relatable testimonies proliferated about families just like yours who faced tragic consequences and horrendous decisions.

Consider some of the prominent posters of the campaign:

Each of these slogans is phenomenally affecting. Who can disagree with the tone of compassion and mutual support that is expressed in them?

But equally, each of these slogans is also an empty container that has no intrinsic connection to an argument about the 8th amendment of the Irish constitution.

Put “Vote No” underneath the words “Sometimes a private matter needs public support” and the slogan still works. In theory, a teenage girl faced on all sides with adults advising her to put her career and her education first and have an abortion might find the strength do what she really wants and keep the baby because of the public commitment to protect the right to life of the unborn. If I was to form my opinion on this issue based on the voices of the women close to me (my sisters, my closest female friends, and my wife), they would all ask me to trust them – and vote no.

The etymological root of “compassion” is shared suffering, so if I was to offer compassion in a crisis pregnancy, it seems to me the most likely form of action is to come alongside someone and offer them the material and communal supports necessary to carry the foetus to birth and afterwards.

The Together for Yes, Green Party, and Labour Party slogans are all tremendously affecting and effective, and they could all as easily be deployed as “No” slogans.

Reflecting on the success of this rhetoric, that is so mutable and flexible in the light of the failure of the more “empirical” approach implemented by the Save the 8th campaign, shows us that Gerry’s analysis hits the bullseye. A poster that accurately informs you that abortion as it is currently deployed in our closest European neighbours effectively eugenically targets people with special needs does not invite you into a story. It shares data, but leaves the reader passive. The Yes campaign posters are almost formally meaningless. They share no real information. But they place the reader at the centre of a drama where they must choose their role.

Narrative, personal experience, and the power of story are demonstrated to be much more important to the contemporary political imagination than the statistical description or scientific analysis which is imagined to be the most trusted form of speech. Consider how much of the campaign was directed towards the hard cases.

The question of the value of life yet unborn is as close to a black and white issue as possible in Christian thinking, but the campaign focused on the area where the policy implementation becomes grey. The Yes campaign emphasised the plight of families facing pregnancies marred by potential fatal foetal abnormalities. To respond, as the Save the 8th campaign did, that FFA was a legal concept, not a medical one, that the Irish medical authorities have no agreed upon definition of the category, and that the existing lists are so expansive as to include cleft lips and Down Syndrome, is to miss the point. Their arguments were coherent and important, but they were sung in entirely the wrong key. The stories are closer to reality than the abstract reasoning and the reality is that the stories won the day.

I am a trained theological ethicist and it is with fear and foreboding that I suggest that the Save the 8th Campaign arguments rested on solid factual foundations, because I am keenly aware that I am not a specialist in questions of bioethics and I might well have a sloppy interpretation of the complexities involved. How much more challenging then is the task of interpreting such posters for someone whose job doesn’t involve dedicating hours every day to reading theological ethics and philosophy!

No such complications exist with the Yes posters. I simply embed myself in the story, by reference to the struggles that my loved ones have already faced or, with the short imaginative leap required, to have empathy for the struggles they could face.

When we think about the campaign from this rhetorical perspective, we come to see how so many of the “conflicted-Yes” voters need not to have engaged with the heavy questions around personhood, ensoulment, or the implicit ableism of contemporary abortion regimes. The campaign was designed to allow them to inhabit a space where they could say, “I personally would never consider an abortion but I can’t stand in the way of someone who feels they must.” The landslide victory does not mean that there is a majority of people who are devoutly committed to unrestricted abortion rights. It means that there is a majority of people unwilling to stand in the way of how others want to live. This is the moral revolution of the Yes campaign. The referendum demonstrates conclusively that Irish people are convinced liberals, in the philosophical sense of the term.

And this is where I would depart slightly from Gerry’s analysis. In his designation of this movement as somehow less-than-fully-metaphysical, he perhaps underestimates the extent to which this conflicted position of “no-for-me, but-not-no-for-others” is a fully-orbed philosophy. The Yes campaign prevailed with this form of open-container-messaging that could be filled with whatever content the potential voter might bring to it. It demanded no adherence to a set doctrine or agreement with a specific anthropology. It left the citizen free to determine for him or herself what their “Tá” meant. The success of the Yes campaign is a success for a pronounced desire for autonomy in the political sphere. Auto-nomos means making a law for yourself. Expressed in the polling booth, it will always take the form of refusing to make a law for others.

Such a movement seems distant from Augustine’s City of God or Thomas’ Summa or Calvin’s Institutes. But it is no less metaphysical because it lacks systematic explication. That’s a precise way of saying that over-arching theories about reality are always driving our actions, even if those theories are never consciously stated. As much as for each “No” vote, every vote for “Yes” contains a vision of what the human is for and what we owe each other. In general, that metaphysical picture holds that the human is for self-actualisation and we owe each other the respect of leaving our neighbour to their own devices. This is a politics of strength, because it excludes everyone whose actualisation is not actually a matter of will and everyone who left to their own devices will flounder.

The church must do business with the metaphysical commitment that arises from this political commitment to autonomy. If we live in an age when political efficacy is linked to the ability to present your ideas as non-binding and radically open to interpretation, then Christians in Ireland must decide whether they are willing to be politically ineffective. Christians worship a story-telling God, who so fiercely values narrative, he writes himself in as a character in our lives, taking on flesh and moving into the neighbourhood. The political rhetoric of this campaign warrants our attention on this level. But the political trajectory also needs our consideration. If we want to be holistically pro-life, in the womb and out of it, at the start of life and at the end, then we must be richly informed by our metaphysical accounts of what humans are for. That our neighbours may not believe this anymore does not mean they believe nothing, and what they believe might be much more dangerous than they realise.

The church needs to read the signs of the times, and these posters are as good a place to start as any.