Eight Amendment: Let’s debate the meaning of humanity

The question of the Eighth Amendment touches the most core value of a civilised society, the value we place on human life simply because it is human, rather than because it is strong or healthy or able-bodied or young or self-supporting or anything else, writes Margaret Hickey
Eight Amendment: Let’s debate the meaning of humanity

A Red C poll, commissioned by Newstalk Radio, shows 76% of the Irish electorate agree with abortion in the case of fatal fetal abnormality and 78% in cases of rape and incest. A smaller majority of 59% support abortion where the woman is suicidal. This means there is less support for abortion on grounds already permitted in Irish law, suicide ideation, than on certain other grounds.

Despite high support for abortion in the specified hard cases, only 48% of respondents favour the repeal of the 8th Amendment.

It appears then, on the evidence of this poll, that the electorate supports abortion on restricted grounds within a constitutional framework that upholds the right to life of the unborn in a general sense.

Those polled also express the view that abortion, where permitted, should take place before 210 weeks, in other words well within the first trimester of pregnancy. This is a view we hear from politicians as well as from many pro-choice campaigners. But can these two objectives hold together?

We know that rape prosecutions are a long, painful, and often futile process for the victims. Ivana Bacik, who heads the Labour Womens Group calling for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment, is campaigning for first-trimester abortion in cases of rape, as well as fatal fetal abnormality. Lawyers like Ms Bacik need to clarify how they would establish that rape has taken place in a way that satisfies the demands of both justice and compassion in such a short timeframe.

Those who are pro-choice at the more restrictive end of the scale need to be aware that it may be much more difficult than they think to have abortion that is both “rare” and “early”.

From the pro-life perspective, of course, abortion is not more or less wrong because it takes place before or after a given point of gestation.

Rape is a horrific violation of a woman’s body in everyone’s book. But abortion is a greater violation for the unborn child who pays the ultimate price for a crime he or she is wholly innocent of. By comparison, the rapist, if convicted, will probably serve four or so years in prison.

Fatal fetal abnormality is even more problematic. With advances in embryology and medical scanning, more and more can be known about the genetic profile of the unborn child but it can take considerably longer than the first trimester to discover the extent and nature of abnormality.

There is also the question of what exactly constitutes fatal fetal abnormality. Just how inevitable and how imminent must death be and how accurate must the diagnosis be?

Any case based on compassion is compelling but it must be assessed within a wider frame of values and with due consideration of unintended and unacceptable consequences.

There are undoubtedly far worse outcomes for a pregnant woman and her family than fatal fetal abnormality. The child who will need a lifetime of care because of severe disability demands more emotionally, psychologically, and financially of his or her family than the child who lives outside the womb for a matter of hours or days.

There are women who will seek abortion in such cases because of the frightening and daunting prospect of having a child with a severe life-limiting condition.

If compassion is good and sufficient grounds for abortion in a case of fatal fetal abnormality, on what basis can such women be denied? What of all the other hard cases that will emerge in Russian doll sequence once the first two or three are unpacked? Think of an unborn baby girl carrying a BRCA gene mutation, as Angelina Jolie does, that leads to an 85% or more risk of developing an aggressive, genetic breast cancer.

For Jolie, the appropriate treatment was a double mastectomy followed very recently by further surgery to remove her fallopian tubes and ovaries. Some women pregnant with a baby girl carrying that mutation may feel justified in seeking abortion, all the more so if their family and medical advisors take this view too.

Again, if compassion for a woman, distressed at the prospect of having a baby with a significant genetic flaw, is grounds for abortion, it will be hard to find a rationale for refusing anyone on this basis. After all, the true scale of any problem is the scale of its impact on the person concerned.

The world may or may not lose a future Hollywood star or humanitarian campaigner, but the real issue here for pro-choice supporters is that eugenics and discrimination on grounds of disability and function are the underbelly of the argument for choice.

What message is this giving to the disabled and those enfeebled by illness or age?

There is no doubt that developments in embryonic screening are going to raise tough, deep questions for future generations. Ethics has long been outpaced by scientific knowledge and medical technology.

In an age that extols control in every area of life the incoherence of our moral and ethical thinking can reach the absurd and risable. In the UK, one in every five pregnancies ends in abortion. In the same country, a man was fined for animal cruelty after he swallowed a live goldfish in a fairground competition.

One of the positive things, however, about advances in embryonic screening is that it is more and more difficult to reduce the unborn to a pre-human or sub-human state, a mere “collection of cells”. We know, for instance, that a baby’s heart starts to beat between 18 and 21 days after conception, when many women will still be unaware they are pregnant.

The notorious Kermit Gosnell’s trial showed how thin the line is between infanticide and abortion. However, it was the testimony that described “good practice” in late abortions that was most chilling of all.

Good practice, the court, was told meant that babies delivered alive received “comfort care”. When asked what this involved, the witness said: “You wrap it in a blanket... it will soon pass.”

Perhaps, more a comfort blanket for the uneasy consciences of those who had participated in the destruction of a helpless, fragile, human life.

Our own legislators must look at this question in all its complexity.

It is not good enough for them to block their ears as they did in Seanad Éireann when Senator Jim Walsh described in grim detail how abortions are performed. It is their responsibility to vote in an informed and well briefed way on all issues and abortion should not be an exception to this rule.

Before any legislation comes to the Oireachtas, however, it will be the peoples’ choice whether or not to repeal the Eighth Amendment. There are many ways of being pro-choice, ranging from the out and out libertarian to the highly restrictive. So the battle for the Eighth Amendment will be fought over wide ground.

It is likely to be emotive, anecdotal, personalised, making heavy use of scientific data and statistics, the usual flexible friends in any moral debate. The media, rights’ bodies, and many celebrities will weigh in on the side of choice and the pro-life opposition will do their best to to be heard.

The issue deserves a full and fair debate. It touches the most core value of a civilised society, the value we place on human life simply because it is human, not because it is strong or healthy or able-bodied, or young or self-supporting or anything else. There are no sub-categories of humans.

The unborn are not a group apart from the rest of us. Being unborn is simply one of the many stages of our lives. We were all unborn just as we were all infants and adolescents and, eventually, many of us will be humans of great frailty and advanced years. But throughout our life journey, we retain the status and dignity of our humanity.

Can we make exceptions to this principle without weakening it fatally? We have a right to ensure our core values as a community are enshrined in our laws and in the freedoms we give our citizens.

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