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Baby, the rock n’ roll spirit should be on your side

I am a rock ‘n’ roller by origin and inclination. I started off in rock journalism writing about bands and song and gigs. I wrote a book vaguely about U2, though not really. I loved the blues, where the whole thing started: the cry of the slave waking up to the theft of his life. I revered Lennon and Dylan because they tuned into that cry and sought to mobilise its power into the modern world. For a few years in my youth I nestled into the cool embrace of modern rock ‘n’ roll culture of protest and hope. But then I began to sense something amiss. Rock stars were talking about a woman’s ‘right to choose’ as if, as with slavery, this was a straightforward matter of freedom from oppression, as though the unborn child was the equivalent of the slave master. I grew uncomfortable. I listened to Billie Holiday singing Strange Fruit and heard a different song to everyone else: Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh/Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

I heard the dying cries of the hanged slaves, strange fruit hanging from those southern trees. But I heard, too, the silent cries of the children torn out from their nests of expectation, in Graham Parker’s unforgettable phrase, ‘with talons of steel.’ I began to experience a profound alienation from the idea that the annihilation of these children was part of some agenda of coolness to which I was expected to subscribe. I baulked. I didn’t stop listening to the music – some of it anyway – but I stopped subscribing. I’ve never thought of myself as a pro-lifer – a reductive piety to my ears – but as pro-baby.

A diminishing part of me is appalled at where I’ve ended up: I can’t think of myself as ‘right’ or ‘alt’ or ‘reactionary’ or ‘neo’ or even ‘conservative’, although I have come to accept that these labels will follow me to the grave. I don’t feel any of those things. I would love to be cool again, but there is an insurmountable problem: the truth. Facts that block the way. Abortion is the killing of the innocent and most defenceless. I have looked at it every which way and cannot find another way of looking. I accompanied my own baby as she grew from a quark to a queen and today I see her as nine months older than the world counts her to be.

I know I am against the grain of the culture to which I have belonged in most other ways, and, in a certain sense, it breaks my heart. But it seems to me that, were rock ‘n’ rollers to be true to the impulses from which their music grew, there is only one place for them to stand: on vigil for the baby sleeping inside the most vulnerable place he or she will ever be, condemning the slaughter of innocents, decrying the loss of 60 million American lives since Roe v. Wade, nine million lives in Britain since abortion was legalised in 1967 – including 170,000 Irish lives since we introduced the Eighth Amendment to block the same kind of legislation being enacted in Ireland, 35 years ago. I cannot see that there is any other place you can stand and think yourself to be to our age what John Lennon was to his.

Bands whose music I loved wear Choice T-shirts and write terrible songs in praise of genocide or duck and dive around the question in interviews. Even the sublime Graham Parker, author of the most searing and beautiful pro-baby song ever written, ‘You Can’t Be Too Strong’, doesn’t hear in it what I hear, which is fine, because I think of it as my song, not his:

‘Did they tear it out, with talons of steel/ And give you a shot, so that you wouldn’t feel/ And wash it away, as if it wasn’t real…’

And so I am the sole member of my personal Reformed Church of rock ‘n’ roll.  People I used to know don’t exactly cross the road when they see me coming (most of them anyway) but they do, I notice, squirm a bit if we stop to talk and they examine me for signs of the knuckle-dragging habits they need to spot to justify the gap they must conjure up between us.

I meet, too, with people I might once have avoided out of prejudice – self-describing pro-lifers, ‘right-wingers’ etc. – and find them as personable as the cool people I used to hang out with. More honest, too, to be honest.

I am a Catholic and this is frequently proffered by trolls, social justice warriors and others as an ‘explanation’ for my perverseness. There is a connection, but it is not as they would have it: I come to this via the use of reason, and Catholicism was just one of the ‘texts’ by which I learned to think that way. This is not a matter of doctrine or diktat, but of truth and justice.

Sometimes, in talking through the arguments at public meetings and the like, I am aware of the issues becoming unaccountably abstract. This is, in part, because what confronts us in this arena is a thick fog of propaganda, blurring and rendering the most vital things theoretical. But then I think: what if, instead of thinking about all unborn children, we were to think about just one specific unborn child. And imagine that, in a dream perhaps, we had to rush, late in the evening, to a specially convened court to request a life-or-death judgment about that child’s right to go on living. Imagine it as something akin to the circumstances of a last-minute application for a reprieve in the case of a prisoner on death row. But here, not only is the subject of the hearing unquestionably innocent of any wrongdoing, but completely defenceless apart from whatever protection the court will extend her. And imagine that, in this jurisdiction, there has never been as much as a half-sentence in any judgment of any court to say that this being – this child – was not a human person from the very first moment.

How can it be countenanced that the right to life of this innocent, defenceless person might be written off by some consideration of the separation of powers, the alleged will of the people expressed in votes or opinion polls, or the imperatives of some political argument measured as ‘social progress’ across a span of time? It is unconscionable. It would be wicked beyond comprehension.

Yet, this is the moment that may be approaching in Ireland. It needs to be stated very clearly that the Irish people, when they inserted the Eighth Amendment to the constitution in 1983, did not in doing so raise, sanction, enact or otherwise legally generate the right to life of the unborn child. This right already existed and is reflected in numerous contexts in Irish statute law. What happened with the addition of Article 40.3.3 to Bunreacht na hÉireann (the Irish constitution) is that this right, existing as of nature or divine ordinance, was ‘made visible’ in the constitution, as a reminder of the true facts – lest there be any doubt.

Article 40.3.3 begins:

‘The states acknowledges the right to life of the unborn…’

The use of the word ‘acknowledges’ makes clear that the rights at issue here are fundamental ones – antecedent, inalienable, imprescriptible, eternal. They do not exist by concession of the state, or at the gift of the electorate. There is not – could not be – any legal, constitutional or moral basis for asking the Irish people whether or not they might dispense with the fundamental right to life of a section of humanity in Ireland. And the Irish people have no right to make such a call.

In a certain sense, then, the amending or deletion of Article 40.3.3 ought to make no legal or practical difference. The people voted this article into the constitution and, in theory, can vote it out; but, since they did not vote into being the rights it contains, a vote of the electorate cannot void or dilute those rights. At most, the repealing of Article 40.3.3 could mean simply that the people have chosen to render ‘invisible’ again the rights a previous electorate chose to make visible.

However, it is possible – even likely – that the removal from sight of the fundamental right of the unborn child might be read by some future court – testing, say, a statutory instrument designed to regulate abortion in some form – as a resolution to void the rights ‘acknowledged’ in Article 40.3.3. Even though such a decision would be illicit, immoral and impermissible, it is possible to envisage a future time when it would, in practice, be impossible to invoke the absolute nature of those rights.

The effective meaning of the forthcoming referendum will therefore be to ask the Irish people if they are willing to acquiesce in the destruction of a category of human person. The approach has now been decided: a request for a nod from the electorate to allow future government’s to legislate for abortion. The proposal as announced a few weeks ago is to repeal Article 40.3.3 in full and insert a new article to expressly affirm that laws may be enacted by the Oireachtas (parliament) providing for the regulation of termination of pregnancy.

This is a high-risk strategy because it asks, in effect, for a blank cheque to allow politicians – now and into the unbounded future – to legislate for abortion as they see fit. It is hard to see the electorate trusting politicians that much on anything, never mind something as sensitive and, as it were, knife-edged as this. Nevertheless, given the density of the fog, there is no room for complacency. But we desperately need some new songs to sing the cries of the babes who cannot cry loud enough to be heard.

John Waters is an Irish journalist and columnist


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