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
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
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