I’m a historian who is obsessed with turning points, with how and why changes occur in time. I spend most of my time dealing with transitions that took place five centuries ago, at the end of the Middle Ages, when the world became “modern.” But one news item has caught my eye and diverted my attention to the present.
Ireland is one of the few Western nations in which the rights of the unborn are still legally protected. The Irish constitution’s article 40.3.3, its Eighth Amendment, now up for repeal, reads as follows: “The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.”
Debate over abortion is intense and divisive, and there is little middle ground. The key questions, even when not explicitly stated, are “When does human life begin?” and “To what extent can any fetus can be considered a full human being, with rights equal to those of its mother?” One can slice and dice the issue in many different ways, but the bottom line always remains the same: Is the ending of human life justifiable at any stage of development, under any circumstances? This essential question is also at the heart of all current debates about euthanasia and capital punishment.
Not very long ago, here in the United States, slavery was an unpleasant issue, divisive enough to plunge the nation into a civil war. The bottom line in debates about slavery was not exactly the same as in our debates over abortion, since the key question was not about when life begins or about who has the right to end any life, but there was a parallel questioning of the full humanity of some people and of the extent to which they could have the same rights as others. In essence, those who defended slavery in the 19th century denied full rights to the slaves, just as those who defend abortion deny full rights to the fetus.
Nowadays, a century and a half after slavery was abolished, most Americans, and most civilized peoples, consider it inconceivably evil for any human being to claim ownership of another’s life. Today, it is the abolitionists who are hailed as heroes, as true progressives and champions of human rights. Yet in their own day, when they began to raise their voices against prevailing opinion, abolitionists were reviled and legally silenced through gag rules and legislation. Sometimes they were attacked by mobs, as happened to Frederick Douglass in Boston in 1860.
Slavery was “a positive good,” according to John Calhoun, Yale-educated, the seventh vice president of the United States. Many of Calhoun’s supporters saw those who challenged slavery as troublemakers deserving to be silenced. In the end, the troublemakers won.
All such muffling of debate is intrinsically unhealthy for any democracy.
How did that happen? How were minds changed? How, in a culture’s consciousness, was slavery transformed from “a positive good” to a monstrous evil? Through debate, through constant arguing, and through appealing for the full legal recognition of free speech and of the common rights that should be granted to all human beings. In the United States it took a war to finally end slavery in the southern states, but throughout the rest of North and South America it was debate, the constant exchange of ideas, that turned the tide against slavery, making its reprehensible nature impossible to deny.
Unfortunately, debate is now being stifled in Ireland in various ways, as is bound to happen when the arguing gets intense and the margin between the “yes” and “no” votes appears slim and fuzzy. Even worse, foreign multinational entities such as Google and Facebook have entered the fray by refusing to accept any advertising related to the May 25 referendum, pro or con, raising concerns about attempts to rig the vote in favor of those who want to repeal the Eighth Amendment. All such muffling of debate is intrinsically unhealthy for any democracy. It obstructs the advancement of human rights.
Ultimately, it is the issue of human rights that makes this Irish referendum so potentially significant and of such interest to a historian of the distant past such as me. I escaped from a 20th-century totalitarian state where speaking one’s mind is a crime and where human rights are trampled in innumerable ways. I was exposed to the brutal reality of the slippery slope of ethics — that is, I learned firsthand of the speed with which human rights can slide away from us, with a deafening whoosh. First you take away one right by denying that anyone is entitled to it. Then you can take away another right, and another, and another, until all rights slip into oblivion in the blink of an eye.
It may be useful to keep the abolitionists in mind this week. Something self-educated Abraham Lincoln said to the 164th Ohio Regiment in 1864 applies to what is happening in Ireland now. “There is more involved in this contest than is realized by every one,” he said. “There is involved in this struggle the question whether your children and my children shall enjoy the privileges we have enjoyed.”