There comes a point where it stops being reasonable to claim that the unborn is anything other than a person.
On the 25th of May, Ireland will vote in a referendum to determine whether to repeal or retain the 8th Amendment to the Irish constitution. The arguments for and against repeal have been teased out across the airwaves, the internet, the print media and the dinner table. We’re probably all sick of it. We’re probably all a little disappointed with how it played out.
For my own part I am frustrated that far too little of the discussion has focused on what I consider to be the central ethical question in this debate – that being the question of when the unborn becomes a person with the right to life.
Reasonable people can disagree about when during a pregnancy this occurs. However there does come a point – a stage of gestational development – at which it stops being reasonable to claim that the unborn is anything other than a person.
No-one would suggest that a premature but viable new-born doesn’t have a right to life. No-one would assert that this right should be conditional on how the baby was conceived or the mental health of her mother. No one would suggest, were the baby severely – perhaps even terminally – ill that we should simply kill her and be done with it.
That same baby still in the womb must also be a person. A viable but unborn child must also have that same unconditional right to life. It is not tenable to claim otherwise.
“Yes” campaigners (including the very pleasant and patient canvassers who called to my door) have sought to reassure me that, under the legislation that the government has signalled it will introduce in the event of repeal, abortion will be allowed only up to the point of viability. After this point, pregnancies will be terminated by delivering the child.
I do not find this reassuring. Premature babies born at the early stages of viability are incredibly fragile. A child born in Ireland after 23 weeks of gestation has just a 19% chance of survival. Put another way, 81% of early deliveries at 23 weeks will leave the baby every bit as dead as had they been aborted. I cannot vote for repeal knowing that this is a likely consequence.
Having listened to the “Yes” campaign for weeks now, I suspect I can anticipate many of the counterarguments that might be put to me.
It is possible I will be told by some that my reasoning is faulty somehow and that a viable unborn baby is not a person and not a “baby” – that I should, instead use the term “foetus”. However, to make this claim, one has to believe that there is a material ethical difference between two genetically, anatomically and neurologically identical human-beings when one is the womb and the other is not. Perhaps you think the umbilical cord has some profound metaphysical importance. Perhaps you believe that not being surrounded by amniotic fluid gives us our right to life. If you believe such things then no reasoned argument I can offer is going to persuade you otherwise. Just know, however, that you are engaging the same kind of faith-based assertions as someone who contends that a fertilised ovum is a person.
I may also find myself accused of trying to foist my personal morality onto other people. To this I would simply point out that my arguments have only ever appealed to the principle that it is wrong to kill people. This is not personal. It is universal. But, again, if you don’t accept this there is little I can say to change your mind.
As part of other rebuttals, I may be told that only a tiny proportion of terminations take place at the threshold of viability and that it is unreasonable to oppose repeal on the basis of something that is so rare as to be negligible. There are several things to say about this. Firstly, I am not sure that there is any lower number of dead babies below which it becomes unreasonable to object to them being killed.
Secondly, to talk of small percentages is to ignore that even a tiny proportion of a sufficiently large number is, itself, a large number. One can only imagine the reaction were I to suggest that fatal foetal abnormalities occur in so small a proportion of pregnancies that we need not be concerned with them. Or if I dismissed some poor mother’s death in pregnancy as being a “negligibly rare event”.
Finally, if late-term terminations are, indeed, so few in number that I shouldn’t object to them happening then couldn’t I just as easily insist that they are so few in number that no-one could reasonably object to them not happening? If you claim that late-term terminations are too rare to be bothered about then isn’t it a double standard to complain if I call for gestational limits that would prevent them?
Other counter-arguers will ask that I consider the right to life of the mother and tell me that it is necessary to repeal the 8th amendment so as to vindicate that right. This, however, simply is not true. Abortion to save the life of the mother is neither illegal nor unconstitutional and if the medical or legal guidelines in place have contributed to a needless and tragic death then let those guidelines be improved.
It is also absolutely clear that the government has committed to permitting late-term terminations in circumstances where they are not necessary to save the life of the mother. Specifically, they will legislate for terminations where there is a threat to the health of the mother. The effect of this will be to allow for the killing of one person so that the wellbeing of another may be improved. Notwithstanding the severe health implications of problems that can arise in pregnancy, this simply cannot be justified.
Other Yes voters may remind me that women are already accessing late-term terminations abroad – in Britain or the Netherlands – and that Ireland should not insist that women continue to go abroad for procedures we are unwilling to provide here. This is an odd argument whose logical extension is the claim that anything that is permitted in another country should be legalised in ours.
Some may go further and claim, as I have heard several pro-repeal advocates do, that it is essentially hypocritical for someone to support the retention of the 8th without also campaigning for the removal of a woman’s constitutional rights to travel and information about abortion. This simply does not follow. It is perfectly legitimate for a person to oppose late-term terminations without supporting every disproportionate and draconian measure that might prevent them. In all seriousness, would the arguments I have presented be any more credible if I was also arguing to stop all pregnant women at the border and deny them access to the internet?
Let me be clear; if I could be confident that the repeal of the 8th amendment posed no material risk to the life of unborn people (not embryos and not clumps of cells – I am talking about sufficiently developed people), then I would vote for its removal. But it does. So I cannot.