Abortion is a difficult and controversial subject. It often pits the mother against her unborn child in a way that fails to properly respect either. As Mother Theresa comments,
The so-called right to abortion has pitted mothers against their children and women against men. It has sown violence and discord at the heart of the most intimate human relationships. It has aggravated the derogation of the father’s role in an increasingly fatherless society. It has portrayed the greatest of gifts–a child–as a competitor, an intrusion and an inconvenience.
The abortion consultation on changing the law in Northern Ireland in relation to abortions following rape and lethal fetal abnormalities closes today. Northern Ireland is unusual in not allowing abortion on demand. This consultation is also unusual in a number of respects. First, it is shaped and framed around the story of one individual – Sarah Ewart. Second it talks about the Department ‘believing’ on 8 occasions – how or what does a government department believe? And finally it is unusual in seeking to exclude and limit views it doesn’t agree with. Section 10.3 states,
there is also a clear recognition that this is not the time for a debate on the wider issues of abortion law – issues often labelled as ‘pro-choice’ and ‘pro-life’. There is no part of this document which seeks to open up this conversation, and no response which addresses these issues will be taken into account.
This is a very sensitive area, but the danger is as Lord Denning warned, that hard cases make bad law. The law in Northern Ireland has always struck a balance between the mother and the unborn child. The abortion debate unites people across traditional religious divides but nonetheless splits opinion. There seem to be three questions that must be addressed whether one approaches this issue from a faith perspective or otherwise. (I found Peter Kreeft’s thinking helpful on this)
1. Do you accept the moral premise that it is always morally wrong to deliberately kill an innocent person? This requires intention to force death by an act of violence. This moves beyond omission or letting someone die, for we are talking here about active killing. The person too must be innocent, to avoid being sidetracked into a discussion on war or capital punishment. Most will accept the moral premise.
2. Do you accept the factual premise that an unborn baby is an innocent person? This is perhaps the area most debated in this consultation. At the moment a sperm penetrates egg, a new entity comes into existence. This zygote is composed of human DNA and other human molecules, so its nature is undeniably human as opposed to some other species. This DNA includes the design for life – a blueprint for what is to come. The zygote’s genetic composition is unique and different from any other human that has ever existed, including its mother – countering the ‘my body my choice’ argument. It is worth noting that 66% of people in a NILTS thought an embryo is definitely or probably ‘a human being from the moment of conception.’
Some would concede the unborn is a human being, but not a person. This is not a scientific argument, but a philosophical one. Ethicists like Peter Singer deny that birth is critical to personhood – there are differences of size, location, dependency, and development, but they consider these morally irrelevant. Instead of working back to grant the foetus personhood, Singer goes the other way and denies the newborn personhood until a later unspecified date – the point of self-awareness. “Human babies are not born self-aware, or capable of grasping that they exist over time. They are not persons . . . the life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee.” Peter Singer
If the unborn is not a human person, then it is property, to do with as you choose, and history reminds us where that path leads. There is a also the interesting case of The Attorney General for Northern Ireland and Siobhan Desmond v The Senior Coroner for Northern Ireland which establishes legal personhood ‘to include a foetus in utero then capable of being born alive.’
3. The final question is should the law intervene? If it’s always wrong to deliberately kill an innocent person, and if abortion deliberately kills an innocent person, then abortion is always wrong. Some will agree with this premise but say they don’t want to impose or legally force their views on others. But surely the purpose of law is to protect people? If law doesn’t do that minimal job, it’s not doing anything. Law has to at least protect the innocent and weak against the guilty and strong. Imagine this argument – I am personally opposed to human trafficking, but I am pro-choice – you go ahead and traffick people if you want to.
If abortion is not the taking of another human life then it is unacceptable to tell a woman what to do with her body. But if it’s somebody else’s body, then no-one has the right to kill that other person. There are certain choices the criminal law does not and should not allow.
So what will happen? The reality is that the Justice Minister is not pushing for a change in the law in relation to rape and sexual crime. The Human Rights Commission has sought to undermine the consultation process by issuing legal proceedings while it is ongoing, despite the Department making clear it has sought legal advice saying they have complied with their legal obligations. Practically, a change in relation to rape would be very difficult to administer. In relation to unborn children with profoundly life-limiting conditions, or lethal foetal abnormalities as the Department would put it, things are more complex. None of the Department’s proposals bring clarity and their preferred option puts too much power in the hands of two medical practitioners – a system that has not worked well across the water.
The consultation is flawed in its framing around an individual’s story. It is factually inaccurate in stating in s 1.2 that babies born with anencephaly do not survive – they have lived for up to three years. It is arguable that a hawk’s egg has more protection under the Countryside Act 1981 than a human embryo. While appearing compassionate, this consultation seeks to undermine the fundamental human dignity and being of the most vulnerable in our society. We are talking about divine image bearers. We need to shift the narrative from death to life; from abortion to the affirmation of life found in adoption, perinatal hospice care and relational support services.
These are tragic cases, but they are also real stories about real people. As CS Lewis said,
Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free-wills involves, and you find that you have excluded life itself.