Belief In The System

English: Lucinda Creighton, TD
Anti-abortion Minister Lucinda Creighton, who resigned rather than vote for her own government’s bill (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So in the wake of the Savita Halappanavar tragedy, the Irish government rushes through legislation which… Would have done nothing to avert the Savita Halappanavar tragedy. We are left to explain this to a mystified world.

What they’ve done is take advantage of the mood to enact law that has been missing for two decades. In the X Case the Supreme Court found that the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, introduced by anti-abortion campaigners to create a right to life for the unborn equal to the life of the pregnant woman, had the weird but logical consequence, where a pregnancy threatened both, of requiring abortion to be legal.

No government however had the political guts to enact this – until now. In the meantime we were left in an untenable limbo where not only was the law in conflict with the Constitution, but it was unclear whether or not one could save a woman’s life without going to prison. Medical professionals probably did intervene in ways that resulted in the death of foetuses, but had to do so almost clandestinely, studiously avoiding words like “abortion” or “termination”. We don’t know if this fear, uncertainty and doubt contributed to Savita’s death. (We may after the malpractice suit.) We do know though that the new law still does not allow the termination of a non-viable pregnancy like hers, an operation which she requested and which would have saved her life. The life of a foetus – even one that cannot survive – is still legally equal to hers.

So if the general thrust of this legislation was simply to clarify what the Supreme Court’s judgement had already made legal reality, why was there so much concerted opposition? There are a few reasons, the most prominent being that the danger of suicide was considered by the court to be a threat to life. Anti-abortion campaigners see in this a trojan horse. Soon women would be claiming to be suicidal to get an abortion when they weren’t really suicidal at all, merely desperate enough to pretend to be.

Yes it is all a bit strange.

But when it comes down to it, the main reason is of course belief. The Eighth Amendment was thirty years ago. In these slightly more sophisticated times, few admit to being motivated purely by religion. Dana, speaking on Tonight with Vincent Brown, weirdly attempted to justify her anti-abortion views with science. An embryo is a person because “All the DNA is there” – as if a plan is the same thing as the finished building.

Having a preconceived belief and misrepresenting the facts to fit it is of course the precise opposite of science. Complete opposition to abortion requires a supernatural mindset. You have to maintain that from the very beginning, the developing foetus has rights separate from and (at least) equal to those of the woman it is developing within – a difficult position to hold unless you subscribe to the idea that humanity arrives complete at the moment of conception by some miraculous process.

Which, as it should happen, is what Catholics and some other conservative Christian groups teach.

People are entitled to their beliefs of course. A huge proportion of Irish women could but do not avail of abortion services overseas, precisely because they have this outlook. Beliefs become a problem though when you try to make other people live by yours. You don’t have that right, even if you are a minister or TD. Especially if you are a minister or TD. All that can ever be enforced is what a society, by overwhelming consensus, accepts as necessary. And our law on this issue no longer reflects any such consensus. Perhaps a majority still believe that human life begins at conception, but few even of those are so dogmatic as to insist that this early life is equal in importance and humanity to that of the woman it abides within. Experience has shown this to be not a reasonable precept but a dangerous religious dogma foisted upon us by extremists.

The government did do right, but it did the least possible right. No one was ever really in favour of the Protection Of Life During Pregnancy Bill, few are celebrating its passage. It’s just a workaround, a patch for the contradictions that will ensue from enshrining the equality of women and embryos in a Constitution. There will be more horrific situations, there will be more bad and unworkable law that no one really wants, until the day comes when we finally have the courage to repeal the Eighth Amendment.

(Apologies to mailing list subscribers who were accidentally sent a much earlier draft of this post.)

 

Mend The Constitution

Pregnancy in the 26th week.

Over four thousand women from Ireland are known to have obtained an abortion in England or Wales last year, a figure that probably under-represents the true numbers significantly. Why are they having abortions abroad and not here?

If you could sum it up in a single word, that word would be “hypocrisy”.

We have a hypocritical Constitutional ban that has the effect not of preventing abortion, but of making it someone else’s problem. It allows us to pretend it hardly happens at all, that we live by higher ideals. In fact, we live a lie.

And oddly, to an extent it is not even our own hypocrisy. The amendment was the result of a manipulative campaign coming largely from overseas, particularly the British organisation SPUC, that intended to make Ireland a showcase for Conservative Christian values. They wanted to prove it was possible, despite the examples of the US, UK and most of Western Europe, for abortion to be banned in a country where women had a vote.

Yes, a clear majority disapproved of abortion. They don’t necessarily approve of enforced birth either though. Irish people are no strangers to moral complexity and contradiction, and even if doctrinal absolutes came easy in those post-Papal-visit days they would not have stayed that way for long. But the amendment to the constitution stifled that moral debate by rendering it pointless.

It still stifles it. Even now we are hung up – insanely – on whether a danger of suicide constitutes a legitimate threat to the life of a pregnant woman. Of course suicidal feelings are a real threat to life, but some want to pretend the danger away in case it is used as a pretext to give abortions to those who merely want them.

This is all mad. Why are we trying to force women to give birth when, for whatever reason, they do not want to give birth? Only remorseless ideology produces such inhumane law.

Ah but the unborn are people, you can’t kill them!

Except they are not. That is just a religious doctrine, a philosophical view, forced into our Constitution to make hypocrites of all of us. Who is to say at what point human life begins? We could leave the decision to priests, to doctors or scientists. But I think instead we should leave it up to the woman who has to bring that life into the world.

Who else’s decision should it be?

Galway's Vigil for Savita

This evening I stood for an hour in Eyre Square Galway thinking of Savita Halappanavar, an Indian-born dentist who died in hospital here. While investigations are ongoing, it appears that she was refused the termination of an already miscarried pregnancy, a procedure that might have saved her life. There seems little room for doubt that this was an avoidable tragedy caused by our wholly inadequate laws.

This is the hospital I go to when I get sick. Where my mother gets regular check-ups. Where my father was pronounced dead. It is the hospital attached to the University where I study science now, where I once took courses in women’s rights. I’ve always had confidence in it and its staff. But they made decisions here that were not based on medicine, but on a certain doctrinal viewpoint. That is wrong.

If they made an immoral choice though, they made it under the threat of an immoral law. Or we should say an immoral absence of law, thanks to one political leadership after another running scared from its duty to enact legislation clarifying this issue, and despite a Supreme Court judgement that found a blanket ban on abortion unconstitutional twenty years ago.

So what is the legal position on medical abortion in Ireland? Frankly your guess is as good as mine. According to the Constitution:

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.

This seems to suggest that there are circumstances in which a pregnancy can be terminated in order to save a woman’s life, and in practice this can happen. An ectopic pregnancy – the condition where the embryo implants and begins to develop outside the uterus – will be removed without compunction. It would be monstrous to give an embryo which could never survive the same rights as the woman it would inevitably kill.

And yet Savita’s foetus had no hope of survival and the threat to her life, while not certain, was severe. Why was a non-viable pregnancy allowed to cause her unimaginable distress leading almost certainly to her death – were they hoping a miracle would somehow save its life?

No. They did not terminate the pregnancy because they didn’t consider they had the right to. The foetus was a person with an inviolable right to life, so the fact that it was going to die was not morally relevant; you can’t kill people just because they’re going to die soon anyway. Only in circumstances where it was absolutely certain that the continuation of the pregnancy would lead to the woman’s death could they have moved to end it, and outside clear-cut cases like ectopic pregnancy such certainty is of course rare.

So they went instead with the moral – but wholly fictitious – certainty that the foetus was a human being with a right to life that must be respected, and Savita Halappanavar died.

The idea that human life begins at conception is not a scientific fact. Nor is it ancient knowledge – conception was only understood fairly recently. It is a doctrine. We might as easily consider human life to begin with the first breath. (Indeed that used to be the belief.) We might consider that it begins at some point between conception and birth, even that it begins before conception in some spiritual realm. But a foetus is not a baby any more than the separate sperm and ovum is, and to treat it like one is just a doctrinal fantasy. Enforcing that fantasy on real people can only lead to tragedy.