Abortion: is rational debate possible?
Abortion has again hit the headlines and my immediate instinct is to bury my head and hide. I have no wish to relive the acrimony of the debates that marked the abortion referenda of the eighties and nineties. On the one hand there are the people who call themselves “pro life” while branding others as murderers and, on the other hand, there are those who believe a woman has the sole right to control her body and seem to want abortion on demand. There is little indication that we, as a nation, are capable of rational debate on this issue, and the initial exchanges on this one are not very promising. The media coverage of the Galway tragedy, with its tendency to jump to premature conclusions, does not reassure me that we have learned from past discussion.
This abortion question has challenged every government since the Supreme Court judgement on the X case. The European Court of Human Rights has added to the pressure by calling for legislation to clarify the situation.
The leaflet “Day for Life” earlier this year by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference states:
“Our public representatives now face a critical decision. They can preserve current medical practice …or they can choose to introduce abortion to Ireland for the first time”.
This seems to ignore the following:
• There has always been abortion in Ireland. Women have been known to drink gin and get into a steaming hot bath when faced with an unwanted pregnancy. I am old enough to remember when a body was found in Hume St., Dublin. She died due to undergoing an illegal abortion.
• We also have abortion under another guise, the “morning after pill”.
• Many Irish women go to England for abortions.
The leaflet speaks in lyrical language about parents gazing in wonder at the ultrasound scan of their baby. It fails to mention that some women gaze in utter panic and fear at the sight. It does acknowledge that women can feel frightened and isolated when faced with unwanted pregnancy but seems to link such fear with pregnancies resulting from violence or rape. Many women don’t want to continue a pregnancy for reasons that have nothing to do with violence.
If our government legislates for the termination of pregnancy, I believe it will do so reluctantly because, apart from the political sensitivities, I don’t know many people who believe that abortion is a good thing, something to be desired. I agree with the view of the Catholic Bishops that once abortion is introduced, “even for apparently very restricted or limited situations, it becomes more widespread than was first intended.” Be that as it may, I believe that a woman is entitled to choose termination when the foetus has no chance of surviving outside the womb.
Others argue that it should be more widely available and the court ruling in the X case included the risk of the mother dying by suicide. I am wary of legislating for abortion in such cases because I believe that the threat of suicide can be used as emotional blackmail. I presume that if abortion legislation were to include the risk of suicide as grounds, psychiatric assessment would be essential, and it would be incumbent on psychiatrists to act ethically and truthfully. They would be under pressure to err on the side of caution and confirm the risk of suicide—just in case their appraisal proved incorrect—especially in a society where there is little patience with any form of misdiagnosis, and where litigation is common.
In this debate, as indeed in all circumstances, we should give our politicians the same respect that we accord other professionals. It is important to recognise that their beliefs may be just as conscientiously held as those of other citizens and we must also remember that, whatever their personal views, their job is to legislate for all the people. Labelling them cowards and murderers detracts from the quality of commentary. We must also give respect to people who argue sincerely for legislation.
I listened to a retired president of the High Court speaking clearly on a radio interview about the need to legislate for the X case. He did not sound like someone who ignores human rights or who wants abortion on demand and I am not at all sure that we can dismiss the judgement of the Supreme Court as “deeply flawed”, just because we disagree with it. I would much prefer if the judgement had not included suicide but, as a citizen of a Republic, I have to accept it.
Finally, I hope that if abortion is made legal in this country we will be mature enough to allow medical personnel to absent themselves from the procedure on the grounds of conscience. Such a clause would go some way towards recognizing the rights of people who may be against abortion on religious or conscientious grounds. It would reassure people that we respect the primacy of individual conscience. And of course those of us who are Catholics will continue to be guided by the teaching of our Church in our own personal lives and decision making.