The National Car Test (NCT) is all about safety.
That’s why there are
so many different ways to fail. It could be the lights, the brakes, the
steering or the tyres.
If any one of those is defective, then the car
There’s no point in trying to tell the tester that two out
of three is a good score and, after all, the lights and the brakes are
Long before the NCT, St Thomas Aquinas used a similar method to
describe how human actions are good or evil (moral or immoral). He
explained that there are three essential ingredients in every human
They are the object (what I am doing), the end (my intention in doing
it) and finally the circumstances in which I do it. For a human action
to be morally good, all three of these elements must be good (just like
in the NCT).
If any one of those elements is defective, then the action
is immoral. This basic principle can be very helpful to us when it comes
to evaluating our decisions about the care of expectant mothers and
their unborn children.
People have all sorts of reasons for the things they do. Sometimes
they are generous reasons and sometimes they are selfish. Some people
believe that, by having an abortion (or enabling someone else to have
one), they are acting responsibly and even solving a problem for other
On the other hand, many people have abortions simply because being
pregnant interferes with their life-style. Some doctors see abortion as
part of their care for their patients, but others do it simply to make
It is certainly better to be motivated by generosity and
compassion than by greed and selfishness.
But no action can be good or
morally justified on the basis of intention alone (just because “I meant
Some actions are always objectively evil (or wrong in themselves), no
matter what our reasons are for doing them. This is because they
conflict with reason or truth. One of these is the deliberate killing of
the innocent, which conflicts with the truth about human dignity.
is why the Catholic Church and indeed many other groups and individuals
regard abortion as fundamentally immoral. It is true that, following an
abortion, some problems may be resolved.
These apparently ‘good’ consequences do not change the fact that what
was intentionally done, the heart of the action, was fundamentally
immoral. The end doesn’t justify the means. It is worth remembering also
that morality is not just about what happens (the external
consequences); it is about what I become through my decision to make it
happen or to condone it, or even my failure to prevent it.
Actions don’t happen in a vacuum. There are always circumstances. In
the case of abortion, the mother may be very young; she may be
frightened, or poor or under pressure from other people. An
inexperienced doctor might be faced with a sudden emergency and, without
thinking it through properly, might abort the baby.
The level of personal freedom involved determines the level of moral
responsibility. A woman acting out of fear would be less responsible,
for example, than an experienced medical professional who is probably
better informed and less emotionally involved.
The important thing to remember is that while they can be mitigating,
the circumstances cannot turn a fundamentally bad action into a good
From both a practical and a moral point of view, there is a vast
difference between abortion and medical treatment. It would be truly
awful if people were to support the legalisation of abortion in the
mistaken belief that it is necessary for the care of women in pregnancy.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The following examples may
help to explain this.
a) Cancer of the cervix
The treatment for cancer of the cervix during pregnancy is the same
as it would be at any other time. It doesn’t ignore the reality of
pregnancy or the well-being of the unborn child, but it is realistic
about what it is possible to achieve. In early pregnancy, the baby would
be unlikely to survive even if the mother’s treatment were to be
delayed, whereas the woman’s life would be placed at great risk.
Medical treatment, involving surgery, medication or a combination of
both must be the priority. Objectively it is not an abortion because the
target is the disease, not the baby.
While the foetus inevitably dies, the intention is to save whatever
life can be saved. If cancer were diagnosed later in pregnancy, once the
baby is viable outside the womb, the pregnancy would be ‘terminated’ by
delivering the baby early with the intention of saving both lives.
b) Ectopic Pregnancy
An ectopic (or tubal pregnancy) happens when the fertilised ovum
doesn’t travel down into the womb. It can be quite dangerous for the
mother and often requires surgery which results in the death of the
embryo. This, like the previous example, is justified under what is
known as the principle of ‘double effect’ because the bad effect is not
intended, and is not disproportionate to the good effect, and because
the mother’s life is saved by the treatment of her fallopian tube and
not by the destruction of the embryo. There are also chemical treatments
for ectopic pregnancy which involve directly destroying the embryo.
While the end result seems to be the same for the embryo, these
treatments using metathrexate are morally unacceptable because they
actually target the embryo directly.
Another common problem during pregnancy is ecclampsia (associated
with high blood pressure). This is unpredictable and can be very
dangerous if it is not properly managed.
Ecclampsia is associated with the second half of pregnancy and normal
treatment includes the early delivery of the baby, together with
medication to control the hypertension. There is, therefore, no conflict
between the treatment of the mother and the survival of the baby.
d) Severe Bleeding/Infection
Infection or severe bleeding in the womb obviously places both the
mother and the baby at risk. If the pregnancy is sufficiently advanced,
the baby will be delivered and the mother will be treated immediately
and there is a good prospect of saving both lives. If the pregnancy is
not that far advanced, the mother has to be treated for the infection or
the haemorrhage. The death of the foetus as a side effect of treatment
is foreseen but not intended. Since it is not intended, it is neither
illegal nor immoral. If the doctor were to directly target the unborn,
that would be different, but there is no medical reason for doing so.
e) Suicide ideation
Finally, we must address the question of the risk of suicide in the
case of women who may be depressed or anxious during pregnancy. A woman
might consider suicide because of a pregnancy but, if her life is at
risk it is from herself not from the child in her womb. The appropriate
response to the mother’s crisis is to treat her depression or anxiety,
through counselling or medication. Abortion, even if it could be morally
justified, is not a treatment for depression. The evidence actually
points to its being, in its own right, a cause of depression.
The law of the land (the 1861 Act – passed by a Protestant
Parliament) and the teaching of the Catholic Church actually have much
in common. Both prohibit any action which is done with the “intent to
procure a miscarriage” i.e. a deliberate abortion. Neither the Church
nor the State prohibits medical treatment which is intended to save
life, even if it is not possible to save both lives, provided only that
no life is disregarded or deliberately ended. Ultimately the practical
decision on the day has to be a medical one. In Ireland, the result is
that, without abortion and thanks to the quality of medical care, we
have one of the lowest levels in the world of maternal death.
The report of the Government’s Expert Group is presented as a
response to the judgement of the Supreme Court in the X case, and
subsequently the judgement of the European Court of Human Rights
At the outset, I would question the jurisdiction of the ECHR in this
matter because abortion is not a human right. The finding of the Supreme
Court in the X case was, at most, that under certain circumstances
abortion may be a civil right. Civil rights are not human rights.
More important, however, are the various options presented by the
Expert Group, because they all propose the legalisation of abortion,
whether by ministerial order or by legislation.
No consideration seems
to have been given to the possibility that the State could respond to
the judgement of the ECHR by seeking to reverse the judgement of the
Supreme Court in the X case.
This would, of course involve a further referendum. The present
Government seems committed to holding a range of referenda, so there is
no reason why a referendum on an issue of such importance should not be
The people of Ireland, in the eighth amendment to the Constitution
(1983), acknowledged the right to life of the unborn, and the equal
right to life of the mother. In its decision in the X case, the Supreme
Court, in effect, argues that the right to life of the unborn child is
not really equal to the right to life of the mother.
An argument like
this could validly be used in respect of other rights because there are
quite clearly some human rights, such as the right to education, from
which an unborn child cannot benefit. The right to life is, however, a
precondition of the exercise of any other right at any time in the
Mr Justice Finlay maintained that the threat to the life of the
mother (which was a matter of speculation or at best probability),
carried greater weight than the threat to the actual life of the unborn
(which was certain). His judgement also failed to take account of the
fact that, while the pregnancy was the circumstances in which the young
woman in the X case found herself (through no fault of her own), the
risk to her life was not from the child in the womb but from herself.
Mr Justice McCarthy acknowledged that the magnitude of risk applying
to the mother would always be less than that applying to the child to be
aborted. Then, in spite of that, he went onto say that abortion is
envisaged by the eighth amendment, and used the expression “with due
regard” as if it in some sense cancelled out the expression “equal right
Mr Justice Egan interprets the terms “with due regard for the equal
right to life of the mother” and “as far as practicable” to mean that an
abortion will not in every possible circumstance be unlawful. His
conclusion does not follow logically from the premises.
In reality, the above phrases simply acknowledge that, despite the
best efforts of the State to carry out its responsibility, the unborn
will sometimes die, whether naturally, through medical complications, or
through some human agency which is beyond the reasonable control of the
State. To acknowledge that the unborn may die, and that the State may
be helpless in the face of this death, is fundamentally different to
suggesting that it may ever be lawful for the unborn to be killed. Once
again, the key issue is that of intention.
The Supreme Court, instead of interpreting the Constitution, went
beyond it and changed its meaning, which it is not the competence of the
court to do. The court should have respected the stated intention of
the vast majority of the Irish people, and might usefully have made
reference to the principle of double-effect, which allows for all
necessary medical treatment for the mother.
The basis for the decisions in both the X case (1992), and
subsequently the C case (1995), would seem to be the very strong public
sympathy for the young women concerned who were pregnant. The
ground-swell of compassion was perfectly valid and understandable in
both cases, but what is not understandable is that judges of the Supreme
Court should allow the emotionally charged atmosphere to obscure one of
the essential facts, namely that the unborn child also has rights, both
under natural law and under the Constitution.
Given that, in both the X and the C cases, the State seemed disposed
to believe that the mother was subject to grave pressure, and likely to
commit suicide, the question arises as to how else the State might have
carried out its responsibility of care, other than by consenting to and,
in the C case, formally participating in an abortion.
Two questions in particular arise in respect of these cases
What resources were made available, and what specialist agencies were
approached to provide on-going counselling and care for the mother,
with a view to reducing or removing the risk of suicide?
What consideration was given to the possibility that the abortion, in
itself a violent act, may have added significantly to the trauma of the
mother in either case. What kind of post-abortion care has she, the
mother, received in either case?
I appreciate that, circumstances such as the recent death of Savita
Halappanavar, place politicians under enormous pressure. It is not my
wish to add to that pressure.
I would point out, however, that the
judgement in the X case has ramifications which far exceed anything that
might be required to provide appropriate medical care for women during
It would be very unfortunate if politicians, in an attempt to
respond compassionately to the death of Savita, were to see the
legalisation of abortion as a solution.
A Government which by definition has responsibility for the common
good cannot, in my view, simply roll over and legislate for abortion,
since the common good cannot be achieved by any means which undermines
the good of the individual.
I am asking public representatives not to implement the report of the
Expert Group but to seek an alternative response to the ECHR which
would equally respect the right to life of mothers and their unborn
Previous governments have presented us with follow up referenda in which the option was a little abortion or a lot of abortion.
I am calling for a referendum which allows the people the opportunity to exclude abortion altogether.
This should be accompanied by legal clarification of how medical
treatment to save the life of the mother can be provided under existing
legislation even when, as an unintended consequence, the unborn child