Sunday, January 13, 2013

Emer O'Kelly: We must have courage to admit we are making an ethical choice

A SEED is inert.

Planted, it begins to grow. 

Pull it out of the ground as a seedling, and it will die within minutes. 

To kill a 100-year-old oak tree requires huge amounts of labour, and if inadequately felled, it may continue to live, however badly maimed.

And most people would think hard about felling a tree, and indeed regret the necessity to do so. 

Dead seedlings don't have the same effect on our consciousness or even perhaps, on our moral sensibilities.

And that is why the two sides of the abortion debate are incapable of satisfactory resolution, and why the civilised tone of the Oireachtas Committee hearings is almost bound to disintegrate into the bitter war of words with which we're so familiar once the Government publishes the wording of the proposed legislation on termination by medical intervention to save the life of a pregnant woman, however it is threatened. 

Experts in the Canon Law of the Roman Catholic Church have long held that life begins at conception. Under such teaching, once the male sperm has fertilised the female ovum, pregnancy has begun. Even the morning-after pill, a miracle of science for a generation of women, is an abortifacient. The Church forbids its use in that context. But in Ireland, the Church lost that battle a long time ago. 

Now what looks like the final battle here on the issue of pregnancy termination is being fought. Since Irish women finally gained control over their own fertility with the legalisation of various forms of contraception, people on what can be termed the liberal side of the fertility argument have placed a stress on being unsure of when "life" begins. While admitting to being very firmly on that side of the argument, I confess to finding the hedging less than acceptable. 

I don't want 14-year-old girls, raped and made pregnant by a family friend, as in the X Case, to have to carry that pregnancy to term. Because a forced and unhappy pregnancy is more akin to a cancer than it is to what should be the joyous celebration of a much-wanted new life. And that does not even begin to consider X's age. 

Nor do I want a married woman, looking forward eagerly to her first child, but tragically in premature labour with the foetus (and it still was a foetus rather than a baby) with no chance of survival beyond the premature birth, to be refused delivery of that foetus, as has been claimed by Savita Halappanaver's widower. That was because our politicians have refused for their various cowardly and personal reasons, some of them religious, to introduce required legislation despite that refusal being unconstitutional. Twenty years separates those two horror stories, and only now are we contemplating action. 

But although X miscarried early in the pregnancy, there can be no doubt that she had been carrying life. Just as Savita Halappanaver was carrying life. And that is a fact which must be faced. To terminate a pregnancy is to terminate life, although for many months into the pregnancy, it is life that is unsustainable outside the womb. 

To admit that, and to accept the right of the pregnant woman to survive while using all medical means to ensure that the fluttering possible life of the future baby is also preserved, is an ethical choice. Because a fertilised egg, even when it has become a living bunch of cells, should not be ethically equated with a full human being, and to claim that it can be is to ignore centuries of scientific learning and medical progress. 

It is to take us back to a time when women dying in labour were subject to a witchdoctor who reached inside them to crush the baby's skull, thus giving them a chance to survive. Or when the woman was sacrificed because the child was considered of greater importance than the mother. Usually, both died. But at least primitive humanity recognised that mother and child were not equal in such circumstances: the life of one or the other had to take precedence. 

What is being proposed for Irish law, as far as we know, is for it to be unequivocally legal to deliver a woman if this is required in order to save her life. And no matter what stage the pregnancy is at, every attempt will be made to help the foetus/baby to survive. 

Making that choice amounts indirectly to prioritising the mother. But it is also the only way in which women can be legally certain that they will not be denied any life-saving treatment that they require. We must face that fact, despite denials by the Catholic hierarchy that Ireland denies a woman life-saving treatment. The denials also ignore the 4,000 Irish terminations annually in the UK, hundreds of which may have been necessary for health reasons. 

Church thinking was made clear in 2004, when Pope John Paul canonised a woman called Gianna Beretta Moller who died in 1962. Aged 39, pregnant with her third child, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. It could have been treated, but she refused. The cancer grew, and Dr Moller (she was a paediatrician) died from her cancer a week after giving birth, leaving her other children motherless. That, in the Catholic Church's eyes, was a model of moral behaviour, worthy of sainthood. 

Suicide threatened by the mother is actually a spurious issue, not because it is not a real issue or because women might try to "trick" doctors, as has disgracefully been suggested by people who should have more respect for the dignity of others. Yes, we need to protect the life of any woman in such a situation. 

But she is far more likely to choose the certainty of an immediate UK termination rather than subjecting herself to a range of doctors who may, she believes, decide against her termination request. Or of course, she may just kill herself. 

Humanity has spent centuries trying to defeat nature's cruelties. We have succeeded in hundreds of ways thanks to scientific and medical research. We have developed methodologies for men and women to have children instead of living forlorn and bitterly bereft. We have found ways to keep barely viable babies alive, and ways to reverse horrors that in times past would have limited their future or even their lives. 

We have used science to enhance, preserve and lengthen life. But all along the way there have been forces which set their faces against such developments, labelling them morally corrupt or "against nature". But in most areas of life, reason, intellect and compassion have triumphed over the forces of reaction. They have triumphed because the human intellect is developed enough to accept complex matters of comparative ethics: we now have choices if we have the courage to take responsibility for them. 
 
In Ireland it seems, we do not yet see 4,000 Irish women terminating their pregnancies in the UK as an accusation against logic and our legal system. Sadly, that seems set to continue, and the people who call themselves "pro-life" offer no solutions. 

But at least we now have a groundswell which, if carried through, will give us some medical dignity in the cause of critically pregnant women. 

But we must acknowledge that the groundswell implies making choices: let's not claim later that "we didn't know".

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