VICTORIA WHITE: It is wrong to deem some babies abortable and others not

The circumstances of a baby’s birth should have absolutely nothing to do with its human rights, writes Victoria White

THIS week in the Irish Examiner, Fergal Malone, the new master of the Rotunda maternity hospital, called for legal change to allow abortion in cases of fatal-foetal abnormality.

To not have been moved when he told Catherine Shanahan “we’ve had parents have their child’s remains sent back by courier, to arrive by DHL” would have required a heart of stone.

But emotion alone does not make good law. I do not believe that we should elaborate the errors we have made regarding abortion by allowing for it in certain pregnancies and not in others. I do not believe we should create categories of babies who are “abortable” and others who are not.

It must be horrific to be told that your baby will not live outside the womb. I can only get down on my knees and thank the Creator that I never faced that prospect. I might have gone out of my mind.

However, I am uncomfortable with creating a separate category of abortable infant, because I fear that, with the best will in the world, abortion will become routine in these cases.

That is not Prof Malone’s approach. He speaks convincingly of “a well-developed, perinatal hospice system” with social workers, midwives, bereavement counsellors, chaplains, paediatricians, and “cuddle cots”, so that bereaved parents can spend time with their dead babies.

Prof Malone will not always be in the Rotunda, however, and he can’t be in every maternity hospital in Ireland, all of the time.

Many procedures that begin as options in maternity services soon become routine, to the point that they seem obligatory. These range from interventions like induction of labour to epidural anaesthesia, right down to a D and C operation to clear the womb after an incomplete miscarriage.

There have been cases in Irish hospitals when D and Cs have nearly been performed on babies that were alive. But my worry with abortion being routinised in cases of fatal-foetal abnormality would be less about the baby being viable than about parents deciding to abort before they have even begun to grieve.

I would also worry that we would open the door to the regime in the UK, which friends have described. Parents are given read-outs on their baby’s prospects right through early pregnancy, and are more or less invited to abort if the omens aren’t good.

There is widespread political and public support for abortion in cases of fatal-foetal abnormality. This is understandable. The political and public support for abortion in pregnancies following rape or incest is less so.

Pádraig Mac Lochlainn
Pádraig Mac Lochlainn

Some Sinn Féin politicians, including Pádraig Mac Lochlainn, have called for the option of abortion in these cases, though the party has, to date, only sanctioned abortion in cases of fatal-foetal abnormality.

The Labour Party has called for the option of abortion in cases of rape, incest or serious sexual assault, when the pregnancy creates a risk to the physical or mental health of the mother.

We are now deep in a moral quagmire. We do not need Joan Burton or Pádraig Mac Lochlainn, or any other politician, standing over a baby’s cot like a bad fairy. The circumstances of a baby’s birth should have absolutely nothing to do with its human rights, despite what most of the rest of the developed world thinks.

I challenge the Taoiseach’s Constitutional Convention to come up with a workable wording for change that creates categories of abortable babies, while protecting others.

It is sickening to think of politicians setting themselves up as arbiters of whether a woman should or should not have her baby. Women are being used shamelessly for political gain; they are being criminalised, infantilised, objectified.

The only arbiter as to whether a pregnancy should continue or not should be the woman herself. I don’t say this because it is her “right to choose”. I say it because it is her natural instinct to protect life, if the life is viable.

The presentation of abortion as a woman’s right, like contraception and equal pay, has torn it out of its societal context. The hard truth is that women have always ended pregnancies for which the omens are bad, and they have always protected pregnancies for which the omens are good.

It is wrong to deem some babies abortable and others not

There has been widespread infanticide throughout human history. Even recently, in Europe, it was common.

In Milan, in 1875, for instance, 91% of recorded babies born out of wedlock were abandoned. There were foundling hospitals in every city in Europe, in which the majority of babies died. Of the 72,000 babies abandoned in Sicily between 1783 and 1809, only 20% survived.

What’s more important, from our point of view, is that when social circumstances were different, babies were rarely abandoned. While 69,000 babies were abandoned in Sicily between 1879 and 1881, only 15 were abandoned in the same time in Sardinia.

Sardinia achieved this, says anthropologist, David Kertzer, because unmarried daughters were looked after by “a supportive network of female kin”. We do not have such a network in Ireland today. Women commonly face unplanned pregnancy alone.

We say we do not stigmatise single mothers and yet we give them a one-parent family payment, as if it were charity, rather than a wage to do the important job of caring for a child.

And when the child turns seven, we take away even that charity. A single-parent friend of mine says she can intuit that people think “why didn’t she do the ‘decent’ thing and have an abortion”? Having a child will cost the average mother at least half her lifetime’s earnings and as much as €250,000 in hard cash.

The fact that the figure has been calculated is telling. A child is still a “cost”, despite the fact that Western Europe, today, is fabulously wealthy by any international, historical standards.

The vast majority of Irishwomen who have abortions are between the ages of 20 and 34, with 20-24 being the biggest age category. These women are making economic decisions.

They rightly fear the destruction of their economic prospects, by having a baby at this point in their career, despite the fact that it is when their bodies are most able. They fear for the babies born in these circumstances, and they make the decision that women have made since time began.

Creating categories of abortable babies does not decriminalise these rational decisions and does nothing to question our baby-killing social and economic values.

More on this topic

How a brave few are breaking Ireland’s abortion tabooHow a brave few are breaking Ireland’s abortion taboo

UN says UK violates women's human rights by criminalising abortions in Northern IrelandUN says UK violates women's human rights by criminalising abortions in Northern Ireland

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