A bad week for human dignity and honest journalism

I’m not sure that that I needed it, but affirmation of one’s judgement from independent sources is always useful. Eilis O’Hanlon’s piece in today’s Irish Independent reaffirmed me in my judgement that I did the right thing in refusing to fund the Irish Times with my weekly subscription. We have been through a bad week for objective journalism – sorry, not objective, honest journalism. The Times is not the only medium in which my colleagues have shamed themselves but it led the charge.

The shamelessness with which the paper fostered the hysteria around the sad death of Savita Halappanavar,  and used the woman and her family in promoting a cause which is accountable for the deaths of millions of children across the globe, is astounding. The complexity of the case, the sensitivity with which human decency should have suggested it be treated, were thrown to the winds.

O’Hanlon cites the submission by the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists to the Oireachtas All-Party Commission on the Constitution as an example of the standards which should have applied. It said on that occasion: “There is a fundamental difference between abortion carried out with the intention of taking the life of the baby … and the unavoidable death of the baby resulting from essential treatment to protect the life of the mother.”  The institute’s Clinical Practice Guide on the management of early pregnancy miscarriage, she notes, warns: “Women are sensitive about references to pregnancy loss. As their loss is not out of choice, use of words like ‘abortion’ can be sometimes offensive at a vulnerable time. Hence, discussion or documentation of management of early pregnancy loss should be worded appropriately.” O’Hanlon continues:

There was no such sensitivity shown at the Irish Times last week in its reporting on the death of 31- year-old Savita Halappanavar in a Galway hospital after contracting septicemia following a miscarriage. Instead the paper opted to present what had happened as a simple morality tale of what can happen when a woman is denied an “abortion”. Beyond the headlines there was more nuance about the range of treatments which, in practice, are offered to women in Ireland in similar circumstances, but there was no doubt that the pitch being presented by the Irish Times was one of the dangers of failing over a 20-year period to legislate for abortion in light of the X Case.

The debate for the rest of the week was coloured entirely by the Irish Times’s decision to reduce a complex personal tragedy, about which few facts were still known, to a rallying call for a new abortion law. And it wasn’t only in Ireland. The world’s media, having picked up on the tragedy, echoed the same line, deaf to the testimony of doctors that what was being called for in this case was not an abortion but a routine clinical procedure carried out on thousands of women in Ireland, and ignoring entirely the position of pro-life campaigners who made it clear that they had no moral or legal objection to Savita’s life taking precedence in these circumstances.

The Irish Times rushed to fill the vacuum left by an absence of facts with a single word, “abortion”, which was then tossed into the debate like a hand grenade into a small crowded room. In doing so, they not only sent out a message to the world that Ireland is some benighted, backward, bigoted land where religious dogma takes precedence over young women’s lives. At home they also opened the door to a vitriolic assault on pro-lifers who were suddenly being blamed for a chain of events which none of them had supported or would ever support.

There was an air of palpable nastiness in the air; the sense that a coiled spring of anger and bitterness which had been building since Clare Daly’s private member’s bill to deal with abortion was defeated in the Dail had suddenly found an outlet and could be unleashed. Pro-choice groups were now able to portray anyone who did not want to immediately legislate for more liberal abortion laws as a monster who was responsible for the death of an innocent young woman.

There was no doubt that they were upset and outraged by what had happened, but no side has a monopoly on compassion. This wasn’t a case of good vs evil, the compassionate vs the heartless, but pro-choice campaigners seemed to feel that they had a monopoly on human sympathy. They took total ownership of the story, refusing to allow anyone to even express their own sense of horror and sadness at a woman’s death unless they signed up wholesale to the pro-choice manifesto.

Everyone who dared put their head above the parapet was raked with rhetorical machine gun fire. Caroline Simons, solicitor for the pro-life movement, was measured and humane on Tonight With Vincent Browne, but her reasonableness seemed to annoy the critics more.

Senator Ronan Mullen received even more abuse when he appeared on Pat Kenny’s radio show. Fine Gael’s Michelle Mulherin, on the same programme the next day, didn’t stand a chance, having previously made an ill-advised comment about “fornication” in an unrelated context.

Anyone who tried to present any sort of argument for limiting abortion was tarred as a hardhearted dinosaur, a defender of the abstract rights of foetuses over the life of living, breathing, suffering women.

I heard recently that at a promotion event in the head office of the Irish Times, its editor – in defending the paper’s coverage of the abortion issue – said that he himself was a Catholic and that he was not pro-abortion.  If that is so then the only explanation for what the record of publication shows is that  the paper’s standard of honesty, fairness and integrity is being set by a clique within his organisation. This clique is clearly far more interested in achieving legislation which will facilitate the deaths of thousands of babies in their mother’s wombs than it is in providing an honest, comprehensive and balanced news and comment service to its readers. Whatever the truth of the matter is, and while this standard persists, I feel vindicated in my personal decision to cancel my subscription.

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