January 2016 (supplement)
|These are regular editorials
produced alongside the corresponding issues on Nonviolent
[Return to related issue of Nonviolence News]
There is no more difficult question to decide on, at a personal or societal level, than abortion. It is also a very current issue in Ireland; the Republic has an upcoming referendum on ‘Repeal the 8th’ (Amendment to the Constitution) on 25th May. Meanwhile the issue remains a very live one in Northern Ireland which also has a general prohibition on abortion. Fairly grim political battles over the issue were a feature of Irish life coming up towards the 1983 abortion referendum which introduced the 8th Amendment; abortion was already illegal but this was a constitutional prohibition which was added.
Abortion may not be legally available in Ireland but many Irish women travel to Britain or elsewhere for abortions. Others obtain abortifacient drugs.
A wanted pregnancy is very much a life changing experience. An unwanted pregnancy is likely to be an even greater life changing experience, and in a negative and possibly destructive way. For a woman to decide what to do in the circumstance of an unwanted pregnancy is a really difficult situation, emotionally and practically. The moral reprehension attached to a single woman becoming pregnant may, thankfully, have diminished very considerably in the Ireland of today but there are a thousand other issues, and an unwanted pregnancy can equally happen for a woman who has a life partner.
In this editorial, we want to do a couple of things. One is to raise the pertinent questions which we all need to consider in relation to abortion. Because it is such an emotive and divisive issue, rationality and respect for others’ views can be in short supply – but both are needed. The second thing we will be trying to do is look at the issue from a nonviolent viewpoint.
Firstly, we have drawn up some relevant questions for all of us to consider and weigh up at a personal level. We are not saying these questions have no bias. What we are saying is that they represent a challenge to us to consider all aspects of the issue. Here they are:
- When does life begin? At conception, later on, or at birth? How do we consider the foetus at different stages of pregnancy?
- What rights does the unborn child have?
- What are the values we bring in deciding on abortion? How do these relate to our religious, secular or humanist beliefs?
- How do these values interact with what might be others’ rights?
- When, if ever, is the termination of life or incipient life justified?
- If abortion is justified in certain circumstances, what are they? A threat to the life of the mother? Lack of foetal viability? Foetal abnormality? If so, any kinds of major foetal abnormality? A pregnancy as the result of rape or incest? The mental health of the mother? The social wellbeing of the child? An unwanted pregnancy?
- If abortion is in any way permitted, up to what stage in a pregnancy should it be available?
- Who has the right to decide on abortion in an individual case? The mother, the father, society, the state?
- What rights does the mother have?
- What rights does the father have? Does this depend on his relationship to the mother?
- What rights do society or the state, acting on behalf of society, have in relation to the issue?
- Is abortion a matter which should be decided by the people through referendums and the Constitution or solely by the elected deputies in the Dáil?
- Is it possible to be personally opposed to abortion yet support “a woman’s right to choose” and support repeal of the 8th Amendment? Or does being opposed to abortion mean that a person should seek the backing of the state in making/keeping it illegal?
- (In the Irish case, North or Republic) What difference does it make to the appropriate state response that abortion is available elsewhere, or abortifacient drugs can be obtained from abroad?
- Can those who want an abortion get it abroad? And if so at what cost, financially or psychologically? How do class issues affect the ability to travel abroad for an abortion?
- Does the fact of women having abortions abroad mean “the problem is exported” or “the state refuses to collude in the unacceptable”?
- Would having abortion available in Ireland increase the number of abortions for women?
- How would or could have freely available abortion affect society? E.g. in Norway there are no young people or children with Down’s Syndrome because all have been aborted early in gestation.
- What societal and state supports are necessary to minimise demand for abortion?
- How relevant are these supports – or the lack of them - to our decision on the availability of abortion?
- How can society and the state best assist the avoidance of unwanted pregnancies?
- What kind of supports are necessary for children and families to allow a dignified life for all?
- Would permitting abortion have a knock on effect on other areas of life and death (e.g. euthanasia) as some people have claimed?
Coming at the issue from a nonviolent standpoint is difficult. For example, there are many in the USA who are vehemently opposed to the abortion of unborn children but very much in favour of killing adults anywhere in the world that it is considered in the interests of their country. This is totally hypocritical. We need a consistent stand across all of life.
But if we are opposed to killing and consider life sacred (in religious terms) or of infinite value (in secular terms), what does this mean for our views on abortion? If we defend life, how do we do it, and life from what stage of gestation? How do we balance the wellbeing of the child and the wellbeing of the mother? And do nonviolent views conflict with our feminist or pro-feminist views?
Within the feminist movement and indeed in most parts of society in western Europe, “a woman’s right to choose” is almost sacrosanct, is often listed as a human right, and anyone who questions it can be considered anti-women, and antediluvian. If we support freely available abortion, how can we square that with a belief in the inviolability of the right to life? Or is the issue one of personal morality; is it sufficient that if we are opposed to abortion we will not have one or support one, and try to support anyone in our family or social circle facing a crisis pregnancy, but feel what other people decide is up to them or should be up to them to decide?
In probably the best phase in the proclamation of the 1916 Easter military Rising in Dublin, “cherishing all the children of the nation equally” was promised. This has certainly not happened. Many children live in poverty. Childcare is very expensive on both sides of the border. Support for children - and adults - with special needs of various kinds is very patchy and often poor. How does this affect our view of abortion?
One proposed solution is where there is “a woman’s right to choose” but very few abortions take place for Irish women because there are very few unwanted pregnancies. Leo Varadkar referred to this in saying he would like to see a situation where abortion is “Safe, legal and rare”. (*1) In indicating his decision to support freely available abortion up to 12 weeks, he also said that “the all-party committee [on the issue] has rightly pointed out the impossibility of requiring women to establish that their pregnancy was as a result of rape or incest.”
Making abortion ‘rare’ would require a lot of work, thought, effort and expenditure, not just in avoiding unwanted pregnancies but in supporting and providing adequately for all children. However, there has been debate and disagreement over whether freely available abortion does or does not, and in the Irish case whether it is likely to, increase or decrease the actual rate of abortion. For example, while the rate of abortion in Switzerland, where it is freely available, has been decreasing it is still higher than the ‘revealed’ Irish rate. That, and common sense, would tend to indicate the Irish rate would increase in the event of freely available abortion. However there are statistics and interpretations and some claim abortion rates do not vary much whether legal or illegal, illegality meaning greater dangers and costs for women seeking abortions.
But, if through a moral commitment (based on religious or secular grounds) to oppose killing of any kind, someone is opposed to abortion except in the cases of risk to the mother or major foetal abnormality or unviability then that is a reasonable standpoint to take and should not be vilified as being reactionary or anti-woman. There is, for example, no division between the Catholic and Protestant churches in Ireland on the issue, and most other religions take similar positions. These are principle based decisions. However logically then those opposed to abortion on these grounds should also be opposing the killing of adults and children in war, and oppose any involvement by their country in war.
It can also be stated that Ireland, North and South (and west) of the border, may soon approach the point where it is no longer a majority ‘Christian’ country as opposed to being a mixture of religious (not just Christian), ‘post-Christian’ and secular. (*2) While Ireland remains one of the most religious countries in Europe, questions remain about the right of majorities to make decisions for everyone.
There are no easy answers on the question of abortion. Several thousand women go from the Republic to Britain each year for an abortion, and upwards of a thousand from Northern Ireland. Clearly those who undergo an abortion feel it is justified. They do not deserve moral reprehension.
We are not saying what stand people should take or how people should vote. But we have raised some pertinent issues and questions here.
The fact that there are no easy answers to the question of abortion is why the issue in the Republic (or indeed the North) should be decided by a multi-option referendum using an inclusive/consensus voting methodology such as the Modified Borda Count. To have a ‘yes’ /’no’ decision on an issue like abortion is simplistic and inadequate in seeing a broader picture of where people stand. Of course the repeal of “the 8th” in the Republic, if it happened, would then see legislation proposed, and it or an amended act, then likely adopted in the Dáil.
But in a state where referendums are used fairly widely, in relation to the needs of amending the constitution, it seems reasonable for the people to decide in a more comprehensive way than voting ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the possibility of abortion being legal and then handing over to the Oireachtas. It is also relevant in that TDs seem fairly evenly split on the issue (*3) of introducing abortion on demand up to 12 weeks gestation if the constitutional ban is lifted; legislating for abortion if ‘the 8th’ was repealed could be a sorry business. The Citizens’ Assembly has already had input on the issue so why not continue with greater democracy?
A multi-option referendum of this kind would establish the nearest thing possible, if not to a consensus, then to a strong groundswell on the issue. ‘Consensus’ of any kind is probably impossible, in any meaningful way, on an issue such as abortion where there are strong views on opposing sides. However it may be possible to establish a position that most people would be relatively happy with.
(*1) In the statement of 29th January 2018 announcing government plans to hold a referendum. It is a phrase taken from the USA.
(*2) Census information may overstate effective numbers for particular religions and denominations; in the 2016 census in the Republic 78% declared themselves as Catholic compared to 92% in 1991. One survey shows 39% of young people in Ireland (Republic) having no religion.
For a different take on the same statistics see here See The Irish Times, 3rd February 2018. Responses for possible publication welcome; send to firstname.lastname@example.org
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This editorial essay is the second in a short series looking at feminism (in the last issue), ecology, human rights, religion and secularism, democracy, and radicalism in general, and their relationship to nonviolence.
Things have come a very long way since Rachael Carson wrote “Silent Spring” in 1962, one of the first and most significant ripostes to the idea that the future was chemical. For example, DDT had been welcomed by many horticulturalists and agriculturalists as a great way to control insect damage but the flip side of the coin, that it would decimate nature as well as entering the food chain with carcinogenic effects, was ignored or not initially picked up.
Today we are rather more aware of matters ecological. DDT may have been banned in different countries from the 1970s onwards but we have also had nearly another five decades to foul our nests in other ways and with other products. Glyphosphate and plastics are just two of the current hot topics. And the concept of global warming was itself only warming up in the 1960s and 1970s; the science of human effect in warming the world had been around but it had not been quantified and shown for the danger it is. Change has taken place on some issues, including tackling the effects of CFCs on the ozone layer, but this has tended to be on particularly infamous examples.
Ecological movements are, thankfully, a force for change. In Ireland, the anti-nuclear power movement of the late 1970s was successful. More recently fracking has been banned in the Republic with the possibility of offshore oil and gas exploration following suit. More generally, what are the principles of ecology and how do these relate to, or overlap, with those of nonviolence? This editorial essay aims to explore this area.
The most obvious statement of the overlap of interests is that global warming is the greatest threat to peace in the world. Where will ecological refugees go? How will global warming affect the production of food? How will increasingly dry and parched areas provide water for citizens? We are also likely to see significant conflicts developing over population movements.
We would see major conflicts over food and food producing areas. We would see major conflicts over water. Many major urban centres already having unsustainable water practices, e.g. drawing extensively on aquifers which are not replenishing, and some conflicts already exist (e.g. over the Nile, or with Israeli grabbing of Palestinian water). Even in a wet country like Ireland there is the question of whether to draw water from the Shannon system for Dublin.
If global warming cannot be halted within the limit of 2°C increase (on pre-industrial levels) we are in for an extremely bumpy ride – and there are still very detrimental effects within that boundary. Wars will become more common. Military ‘walls’ will protect richer and less climate-stricken countries and areas; already the EU has a variety of ‘walls’ to try to keep out migrants. Millions and millions of ecological migrants will be pitifully treated. Conflict over resources will become the norm. Pressure on agricultural land to feed people will grow.
Major disruption will be caused by sea level rises; it is estimated that by 2050 up to 20% of Bangladeshi land will have been inundated by the sea and up to 20 million people displaced. There is the tragedy of uprooting for them, their livelihoods, wellbeing and culture, a complex and dire situation in terms of what will happen to each individual. And this is only the figure for one country within a few decades,
Already there are millions literally ‘living on the edge’ in the Bay of Bengal as seawater encroaches on where they grow their crops and they struggle with salination. Sea levels in the area are rising far faster than the norm. People who have contributed very little indeed to global warming, and are already at the bottom of the global pile, are suffering disproportionately and gravely. This is structural violence of a massive kind, pitiless and severe. The people who have done most to cause the problem – the rich northern hemisphere, us – will not escape the effects but comparatively it will be a walk in the park for us because we have the resources to mitigate many of the effects of climate change. But our lives will suffer too.
The loss of biodiversity is a tragedy which may be equal to that of climate change since climate change in the (very considerable) long term can be reversed whereas the extinction of a species is forever. While change is a constant factor on our globe and in our universe, humanity has altered the rate of change (short changing ourselves) to such an extent through extinction that our world may be far poorer in many ways, not least from what we could have learnt from animal species that no longer exist and plants that we will not be able to benefit from.
If this sounds dystopian it is simply because it is. For the poor in the world today, life is often a matter of survival. In a changed world, you could take the current misery for the poor and multiply that by a very significant factor; not only would the numbers of those ‘on the edge’ increase exponentially, their vulnerability would too. In the words of an INNATE poster, it is global war-ming.
In the Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Sí, the matter is expressed as follows: “The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation. In fact, the deterioration of the environment and of society affects the most vulnerable people on the planet: ‘Both everyday experience and scientific research show that the gravest effects of all attacks on the environment are suffered by the poorest’”.
That is to state something of the problem. But in terms of approach it depends whether those who believe in nonviolence extend their belief of not being violent, and doing something positive, beyond humanity to all life, animal and plant, and the earth itself. This is logical. And it becomes ecological. If we damage the earth, we damage ourselves. The Irish proverb Ar scáth a céile a mhaireas na daoine/People live in one another’s shelter can be extended to say that all life lives in the shelter of all other life. Interdependency is not some academic theory, it is a fact of life – and negating it can be a fact of death. In the words of Nonviolent News’ columnist Larry Speight, “The evidence of how we manage our relationship with nonhuman nature suggests we [homo sapiens] have not found our niche in the web of life and are thus destined for a short life-span.” While this is referring to us humans as a species, it is true today that the poor are left to suffer and die early.
Green and ecological activists may be involved for a variety of reasons. Respect for nature, for diversity, for life itself is part of it. Seeking to save the human race may be another basic underpinning of ecological belief. This refusal to accept harm to the biosphere is very close to nonviolence however it extends the concept to our universal home, the earth.
But what about definitions of nonviolence? Some may only refer to violence against human persons. However Adolfo Perez Esquivel, the Argentinean Nobel Peace Prize winner, has defined nonviolence this way; "Nonviolence is a respect for life and for the individual. That is to say, nonviolence is not a method of non-aggression (as it is often considered) but rather a way of life, and a way of understanding the relationship of human beings to their fellow beings and with nature." Another orientation is expressed that “The concern of nonviolence is, in religious language, 'peace, justice and the integrity of creation', i.e. it is dynamic, active and forward looking, working for justice and positive change.” [Both quotes here]
In terms of how ecological activists campaign and work, nonviolence is usually at the heart. Many nonviolent tactics are utilised by eco activists; nonviolent occupations, blockades, demonstrations and so on are used to oppose environmental and ecological malpractices. Building alternatives is also key for green activists; seeking to presage (in a positive way) the future they wish to see; creating in microcosm the future they wish for all.
This is one area where state and society in Ireland have been very poor; yes, nuclear power might have been seen off at the end of the 1970s but there is a very substantial deficit in investment in green energy and ecological solutions, there was no great movement to say “Yes, if we are avoiding high-tech disasters-in-waiting like nuclear power then we need to develop low-tech, renewable energy sources to the best of our ability.” Ireland lags far behind where it should be in relation to green energy; with abundant wind, water and waves there should be no excuse, and we can even utilise the sun even if that is not necessarily the first thought for renewable energy when it comes to Ireland. However something like Cloughjordan Eco-Village sets an example, as do various activist groups on green issues.
Lobbying and general organising for change can be even more important than nonviolent direct action on green issues, depending on circumstances (what stage a campaign is at and what openings exist to influence policy at official levels); in relation to the ban on fracking, and potential ban on new carbon fuels exploration offshore, in the context of the Republic the Dáil has actually been important. None of this would be happening without outside pressure and organising, and indeed the balanced arithmetic of political parties and independents within the Dáil, but happening it is.
It is impossible today for nonviolent principles and practice to avoid ecological awareness and considerations. It simply cannot be done in a world where the ecological crisis is the largest threat to life and wellbeing of humans, animals and plants. An ecological approach is itself nonviolence for the biosphere. It is wrong and confusing to say that one thing is another, or to claim one approach subsumes another, but nonviolence and a green approach are in total accord on so many issues, they are like closely overlapping sets.
We also do not want to imply that conservation and green movements are perfect. When Yosemite National Park in the USA was established in 1890 the Ahwaheechee Indians were expelled. The removal of indigenous people from their land to create national parks has also happened in many African countries. Protecting indigenous people, who are unlikely to pose an ecological threat (or any such threat can be mitigated), is needed while tackling multinational and big business interests who want to ride roughshod over both the earth and the rights of the indigenous people living where they have lived for generations or longer.
Nonviolence has to be built on cooperative societies and aiming for a cooperative world. There is no other possibility to avoid violence than that humanity learns to work together, to share, and build what we need but avoid what we do not need or is destructive. Resources are finite and significantly overused, and also at times the source of conflict. This understanding is close to ecological ideals. Again using Larry Speight’s words, “Studies consistently show that income above what we need for a comfortable existence does not lead to an increase in happiness. This means that billionaires are probably no happier or satisfied with life than those of us on an average income. Thus it is emotionally healthier and more eco-friendly to forego working long hours in order to buy things we really don’t need giving us more time for family and friends, relaxation and creativity.”
Building a green, nonviolent society is an ideal. But it is also a matter of self-preservation. Without being green we condemn the world to a miserable existence, and humanity itself will have a dubious future. Without being nonviolent we risk the wellbeing of all as opposed to the enforced superiority of a few, and the possible destruction of civilisations, and even civilisation itself, through advanced weaponry and perpetual conflict and war.
We have choices as to what direction we head in, and we have abundant signposts. The green and nonviolent paths head in the same direction, often criss-crossing or even sharing the same space. We can help each other on the way, carrying each other’s loads, and encouraging each other towards a peaceful and sustainable future.
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Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –
Our relationship with the world is mediated through the lens of a particular viewpoint, one we started to internalise when in the womb. The lens is composed of our finely tuned emotions and the values and beliefs which orientate our lives. Most people most of the time are no more aware of the nature of their mind’s lens than of the thriving microscopic life living on and beneath their skin. In spite of the secular nature of society a major component of how many make sense of the world is through the narratives of the Abrahamic religions. A pivotal narrative is that God created the world as a bountiful and beautiful place and made humans in the image of ‘Itself’. As stated in Genesis.
And so it was. God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good. (Genesis: 1: 24-25, The Green Bible, 2008)
God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them. (Genesis: 1: 27, The Green Bible, 2008)
Based on the Abrahamic creation story, life on Earth could not have had a better start. God created Earth as a place of diverse forms, colours, scents, interactions and types of intelligence. In order for the biodiversity to thrive and be self-sustaining God ensured it was interconnected, that there was symbiosis, birth, reproduction, death and decomposition. The entirety was contained by the skin of the stratosphere, received energy from a star 92.56 million miles away and held in place by the cosmic constellations and the force of gravity. God not only created humankind in ‘Its’ image but granted our species sovereignty over all other living things marking us as an animal of privilege. It is reasonable to think that created in the likeliness of God humankind was given, at least in a diluted form, the attributes of God. When finished with the creative enterprise God was delighted with the result and celebrated with a period of rest.
If God had intended life on Earth to evolve in its wonderfulness and complexity ‘It’ made a huge mistake in creating Homo sapiens as we quickly became creation’s eco-terrorists, a species with an enormous capacity for gratuitous destructiveness and violence. As reported in Genesis, God recognised that creating humankind was a mistake:
“The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had created humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” (6: 5)
God must still be grieving as our ability to wreak havoc on the biosphere and kill each other has increased over the years. Mimicking God’s capacity for spectacular instantaneous acts we can annihilate hundreds of millions of humans through the use of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. We regularly extinguish trillions of nonhuman life-forms through the application of chemicals to grow crops. As God’s great work was to create and set in motion an evolutionary process our great work, honed to efficiency over millennium has been to destroy.
Not all humans have terrorised the rest of creation and harmed their own kind on the basis of the view that nonhuman nature has no intrinsic value and people perceived as different from them are a threat. There are communities which model an eco-sensitive and peaceable way of living. In spite of this the trend is unmistakably towards the extinction of all life on Earth, including our own. If questioned in a Court of Law of All Beings, our representatives would eloquently deny this but the evidence proves otherwise. Research in the fields of biodiversity and climate change make this abundantly clear. Jonathan Watts in The Guardian, 14 March 2018, informs us that a recent study by WWF, the University of East Anglia and James Cook University, published in the journal Climate Change, found that if the climate continues to warm:
“the picture is apocalyptic, with a likely loss of more than 70% of plant and reptile species and a more than 60% decline of mammal, reptile and bird species in the Amazon.”
The study found that other bio-regions will be negatively affected on a similar scale. Evidence of our destructiveness includes the daily pouring of untold trillions of microplastics into the water courses of the world. It also includes the extinction of a great number of flora, fauna, fungi and micro-organisms due to pollution, poaching, invasive species, disease and clearing bio-rich land for timber, agriculture, urbanization and energy generation. Another example of our being an unruly member of creation is the case of tribes and countries bent on enslaving or exterminating others. This has taken place throughout history and across the globe, most especially during the time of European colonialism. The 7-year long war in Syria, which has been described as a mini-world war, exemplifies why God was sorry ‘It’ created humankind. Syria is a theatre where countries with large military budgets and leaders with a misconstrued understanding of their political role jostle for ascendency at the cost of enormous human suffering, turning the nonhuman and the human-made world into a poisoned and ruined landscape.
In the Biblical account of creation humankind was created with free will. If this is correct (the extent of our free-will is debatable), we can still create a different narrative, reconfigure the lens through which we see the world. The new lens might be one in which we see the world as an integrated whole and ourselves an integral part of it. This would mean acknowledging that if we harm others of our own kind, or nonhuman nature, we harm ourselves. We could reconfigure the mind’s lens in a way that we understand the meaning of life in terms of being rather than having. (Mystics and Militants, Adam Curle, 1976) Whether or not one believes in the narrative that we were created in the image of God we possess an outstanding ability for self-determination and thus can cease to terrorise the bio-world, each other, and live as eco-healers and community builders.