(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz, November 1.)
On Radio New Zealand recently, Kim Hill interviewed an Irish poet named Doireann Ni Ghriofa. Don’t ask me to pronounce her name, but she sounded a very pleasant, gentle person.
She had a lovely voice that was even more beguiling when she spoke in her native Irish, which sounded like the sort of fairy language Tolkien might have invented.
Ni Ghriofa was brought up bilingual and writes poems in Irish (aka Gaelic). She recited a couple of them, then gave us the English translations.
One of these poems was about pregnancy. Ni Ghriofa has four small children, so presumably she loves kids. That impression was confirmed by the poem, which she wrote when she was carrying her second child.
In the English version, Ni Ghriofa marvels at the “jumble of limbs”, the “shadow stirring under my skin” and her “swollen middle suddenly punctuated by nudge of knee or ankle”.
She writes of piecing this “jigsaw” together until she could recognise the parts of her baby’s anatomy, right down to its “wee feet”. She finished with the charming line: “Then you grew, little stranger, and I grew to know you.”
It was a poem that thrilled at the human taking shape inside her – all of which seemed strikingly at odds with what she and Hill had been discussing only minutes before.
Hill had asked about the recent referendum which overwhelmingly approved the liberalisation of Ireland’s abortion laws. Ni Ghriofa welcomed this “progressive” development as heartening for her generation of Irish women and a change that needed to be made.
Now I can see, at a stretch, how a woman might celebrate her own pregnancy while supporting the right of other women to terminate theirs. But it’s still hard to grasp how a baby can be a source of such joy in one set of circumstances, yet be treated as an inconvenience to be discarded in another. Hill could have chosen to explore this paradox with Ni Ghriofa, but didn’t.
It can make sense only if the incipient human life is considered intrinsically valueless unless its mother happens to want it. Is that what we’ve come to? In which case, in what circumstances does a life become worth saving?
A similar question arose last year amid the general rejoicing at the news that Jacinda Ardern was having a baby. Many of the people who expressed delight at the prime minister’s pregnancy and the subsequent birth of Neve Te Aroha Ardern Gayford support the right of women to have an abortion, no questions asked.
But isn’t it odd that we placed such value on Neve’s life when hardly anyone batted an eyelid at the 13,285 unborn babies who were aborted last year? What sort of strange lottery determines that one baby becomes a source of national celebration while others are sucked from the womb and consigned to a hospital incinerator?
A similarly strange dichotomy occurs when skilled doctors perform miracles to save fragile newborns while elsewhere in the same hospitals, other doctors are paid by the state to kill them in the womb.
More than 40 years after abortion was made pseudo-legal, we seem to be no closer to resolving this moral conundrum. It’s an issue that now confronts us again as pressure builds for the few existing controls on abortion to be removed.
The Big Lie, which you can expect to hear repeated endlessly, is that abortion is a health issue. This is now a feminist article of faith. But no amount of repeating makes it true, because pregnancy and childbirth are not illnesses or disorders, and it’s impossible to imagine anything less healthy for the unborn child than to have its life terminated.
The debate will be ugly – we know that from 1977. And the anti-abortion camp will be fighting with one hand tied behind its back, because the media are overwhelmingly pro-choice.
Broadcaster Alison Mau gave an early example of the fatuous arguments likely to be deployed when, in a predictably one-sided panel discussion on Radio New Zealand, she proposed that men should be required to get permission from certifying consultants before getting prostate checks, as women seeking an abortion have to do.
This reduced the whole issue to a puerile game of gender tit-for-tat. It got her a cheap laugh, but the nature and purpose of the two procedures are fundamentally different. Prostate checks are about identifying and treating a potentially fatal disease. Their purpose is to save life.
But pregnancy is not a disease, a foetus is not a tumour, and the consequence of an abortion is that life is extinguished, not saved. If a high-profile broadcaster like Mau can’t grasp that crucial difference, we’re in bigger trouble than I thought.