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Abortion: is rational debate possible?

Abortion has again hit the headlines and my immediate instinct is to bury my head and hide. I have no wish to relive the acrimony of the debates that marked the abortion referenda of the eighties and nineties. On the one hand there are the people who call themselves “pro life” while branding others as murderers and, on the other hand, there are those who believe a woman has the sole right to control her body and seem to want abortion on demand. There is little indication that we, as a nation, are capable of rational debate on this issue, and the initial exchanges on this one are not very promising. The media coverage of the Galway tragedy, with its tendency to jump to premature conclusions, does not reassure me that we have learned from past discussion.
This abortion question has challenged every government since the Supreme Court judgement on the X case. The European Court of Human Rights has added to the pressure by calling for legislation to clarify the situation.
The leaflet “Day for Life” earlier this year by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference states:

“Our public representatives now face a critical decision. They can preserve current medical practice …or they can choose to introduce abortion to Ireland for the first time”.

This seems to ignore the following:
• There has always been abortion in Ireland. Women have been known to drink gin and get into a steaming hot bath when faced with an unwanted pregnancy. I am old enough to remember when a body was found in Hume St., Dublin. She died due to undergoing an illegal abortion.
• We also have abortion under another guise, the “morning after pill”.
• Many Irish women go to England for abortions.
The leaflet speaks in lyrical language about parents gazing in wonder at the ultrasound scan of their baby. It fails to mention that some women gaze in utter panic and fear at the sight. It does acknowledge that women can feel frightened and isolated when faced with unwanted pregnancy but seems to link such fear with pregnancies resulting from violence or rape. Many women don’t want to continue a pregnancy for reasons that have nothing to do with violence.
If our government legislates for the termination of pregnancy, I believe it will do so reluctantly because, apart from the political sensitivities, I don’t know many people who believe that abortion is a good thing, something to be desired. I agree with the view of the Catholic Bishops that once abortion is introduced, “even for apparently very restricted or limited situations, it becomes more widespread than was first intended.” Be that as it may, I believe that a woman is entitled to choose termination when the foetus has no chance of surviving outside the womb.
Others argue that it should be more widely available and the court ruling in the X case included the risk of the mother dying by suicide. I am wary of legislating for abortion in such cases because I believe that the threat of suicide can be used as emotional blackmail. I presume that if abortion legislation were to include the risk of suicide as grounds, psychiatric assessment would be essential, and it would be incumbent on psychiatrists to act ethically and truthfully. They would be under pressure to err on the side of caution and confirm the risk of suicide—just in case their appraisal proved incorrect—especially in a society where there is little patience with any form of misdiagnosis, and where litigation is common.
In this debate, as indeed in all circumstances, we should give our politicians the same respect that we accord other professionals. It is important to recognise that their beliefs may be just as conscientiously held as those of other citizens and we must also remember that, whatever their personal views, their job is to legislate for all the people. Labelling them cowards and murderers detracts from the quality of commentary. We must also give respect to people who argue sincerely for legislation.
I listened to a retired president of the High Court speaking clearly on a radio interview about the need to legislate for the X case. He did not sound like someone who ignores human rights or who wants abortion on demand and I am not at all sure that we can dismiss the judgement of the Supreme Court as “deeply flawed”, just because we disagree with it. I would much prefer if the judgement had not included suicide but, as a citizen of a Republic, I have to accept it.
Finally, I hope that if abortion is made legal in this country we will be mature enough to allow medical personnel to absent themselves from the procedure on the grounds of conscience. Such a clause would go some way towards recognizing the rights of people who may be against abortion on religious or conscientious grounds. It would reassure people that we respect the primacy of individual conscience. And of course those of us who are Catholics will continue to be guided by the teaching of our Church in our own personal lives and decision making.

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  1. I am a cradle Catholic from America who taught secondary school in the public system for over 30 years. Because of my exclusively Catholic training and knowing my own strong bias, when teaching the curriculum on debate, I never allowed the topic of abortion to be on the list of possible choices. Because of my strong feelings on that topic, I knew it would be unfair to the students to try and win such a debate; not because they were unfit debaters but because of my own prejudice regarding that issue.
    I have been retired some 15 years now and have had more time to think, research, and meditate. I recently saw an excellent panel discussion given by world-class Catholic theologians who advocated for a much more lenient understanding of abortion than anything coming from Rome. Even back in my teaching days, I always thought we Catholics were approaching the controversy from the wrong direction. Over the years and talking with some of my former students who are now parents themselves, my understanding and compassion about the topic has matured.
    This is not a black and white issue which was the former way of the RCC to approach any moral question. We 21st Century Catholics now have a much better understanding of the physical, psychological, biological, ethical, sociological and theological considerations to be given to an individual in making a decision about abortion. How can we as individuals or as governments intrude ourselves into a situation that is the most intimate and personal between a woman and her concept of her God? I’ve now come to believe that the question about abortion is, like all moral and ethical questions, to be answered by the woman who has meditated over it with her spouse and her God. This is certainly not a proper venue for the government to be involved in. The RCC or any other religious organization can be consulted for their thinking, but ultimately the choice is proper to the woman alone.
    If I were teaching the debate curriculum at this time, abortion would be a proper and suitable topic; I have overridden my prejudice by research and scholarly pursuit and could now make a judgement call on the basis of the debater’s skills. The idea that a controversial topic can be decided simply on the basis of what the Pope, Curia, or a collection of bishops say is now no longer rational or believable. We have come to a point of theological and moral maturity where we understand that we ourselves need to research and meditate on making the right decision. No longer can we just simply ‘go and ask Father’.

  2. Pádraig McCarthy says:

    My hope is that the debate in Ireland would focus on the “foundational! problem: Article 40.3.3 of 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.”
    Problems have arisen because of the failure of governments to legislate for that guarantee given, leading to the X and C cases.
    Surely it cannot be beyond us to formulate legislation to guarantee that respect for both lives, while recognising that it is not always possible to save both.
    We have to acknowledge that:
    1. Medicine is not infallible. Medical professionals, with the best will in the world, sometimes have to make decisions on the spot. I remember, as hospital chaplain, one night when people were brought in from a crash. Sadly, all six died. With short staff, who should be treated first? It will not always be clear what to do in the moment. Regulation is necessary, but also trust, and a recognition that a decision mistakes can occur, and may not always be recognised.
    2. Law cannot guarantee that all will be done correctly. Again with the best will in the world, in a particular situation the appropriate course of action is not always clear. No law can be so watertight that it is impossible for someone to manipulate a situation for other ends.
    3. “Danger to life” and “danger to health” can be a continuum rather than two easily distinguished states. “Not life-threatening” is not infallible.
    4. In cases of rape or incest or similar violence, the person so violated must always have available the necessary support, whether or not she is pregnant. Such violation can leave a person feeling worthless, dirty, guilty and hopeless. To see abortion as “the” answer is to ignore the root of the situation.
    5. Some fear that the life of the mother is devalued. Others fear the life of the child is devalued. Even for situations where it is not possible to save one or both mother and child, we can build in safeguards.
    6. Within this context, we can give our best assurance that a mother when pregnancy poses a threat that she and her child will receive the best we can offer.
    See my other article on this topic on this website at http://www.associationofcatholicpriests.ie/2012/11/motherhood-birth-healthcare-abortion/

  3. Tom Morally says:

    I welcome the contribution of the Margaret to this debate and as one who would probably be labelled ‘pro-life’, I also welcome the contribution of the Archbishops at this critical time. While the government are surely the ones responsible to legislate, the church leaders have both a right and a responsibility to make statements on such important moral issues- the fact that their statement was given such extensive coverage by the media indicates that the catholic view is still important to a large number of people in this country.
    My primary concern however is the contradiction there is in their appeal to the Taoiseach and Tanaiste to allow their party members follow their conscience, if / when, there is a vote on the matter.
    I wonder what priests like Brian D’Arcy and Tony Flannery feel when they hear them making such a point.
    Is it not a case of ‘do as we say but not as we do’.
    The church (worldwide) now seems to be adopting the very opposite approach with it’s own members, who not alone are not allowed followed their conscience, but must not even discuss any issues which the church deems ‘inappropriate’ and which they have conscientious concerns about.
    At least in January the Taoiseach has agreed to meet with the hierarchy and hear their concerns – again the Bishops have not afforded this courtesy to priests in the ACP.
    I fear this glaring contradiction between their actions and words, will weaken their credibility now on what is such an important and significant decision.

  4. Raymond McIntyre says:

    I would like appeal for a calm and rational debate too with an absence of name calling and vitriol.
    However perhaps the good women and men who flock to the ACP debating fora could for a moment sample some of the vitriolic malicious diatribes originating from the rabid pro abortion on demand lobby instead of recycling lazy stereotypes of angry prolifers ad nauseum as per an Irish Times storyline. I would hope that ACP has recognised that a degree of independence from the nation’s ”paper of record ” is necessary and that the ACP fraternity can actually ”think for themselves’.
    I have been on numerous prolife marches and recently have been called a ”nazi scum, a mysogynist bigot, a foetus fethisher” and other complementary terms. I have been told ” it’s a pity your mother didn’t have an abortion” …all being shouted with venom: meanwhile peaceful prolife women and babies were walking under a hail of condoms being thrown over our march.Nice people! the abortion extremists…At a recent ”Savita Vigil ” there was a large sign saying ”F…king legislate already!!!” Such vehemence such anger such hateful language and all I ever hear is appeals for calm to ”raving mad fundamentlalist nutcase prolifers”…People here should really get out and about more often. Reading the Irish Times leaves one with an extremely myopic view of the world and of reality…
    As for the above article’s assertion ”that we have abortion in ireland already”…I say that we are living in the dark shadow of the world’s most aggressive abortion regime. We are living next door to the abortion capital of the world.For example Germany with 80 million people has approx 100,000 abortion per year with about 1 in 6 pregnancies ending tragically for the baby.In the UK with a population of some 55 million they have 200,000 plus abortions per year and more than 1 in 4 babies never see the light of day.The UK’s aggressive and radical abortion culture is being exported to Ireland and being spread by willing missionaries. Please open your eyes and apply some reason and compassion before you prise open the door to a world of misery and death for Ireland’s women and babies. Put some effort in lobbying for a perinatal hospice and for better social supports for disabled babies and for their moms.”The poor cry out for social justice and all you offer them is abortion”

  5. Never read The Irish Times, but would be interested to hear a woman’s input here.
    Four men so far.

  6. Raymond McIntyre says:

    Very interesting indeed.Yes where are the women.Pro abortion women don’t speak for all women.Interesting too to note the deafening silence from the usual suspects in the likes of the NCWI regarding the evidence for sex selective abortion in the UK.Sex selection abortion typically focuses exclusively on identifying ”female babies” and then aborting them because girls are ”cost too much” to marry off in certain ethnic communities.However as everyone in this forum will agree girl babies are 100% equal in dignity to male babies and women’s equality must start in the womb or else the horrific treatment of women in the developing world and the carry over discrimination in our ethnic communities will continue ad infinitum.

  7. Mary O Vallely says:

    L,(5) I am a mother and grandmother and like all of us I am anti-abortion but I don’t see it as a simple black/white situation. This is a hugely emotive issue and the reasons are usually much more complex than they appear. Of course everything possible should be done to support any woman who finds herself pregnant, bewildered or plain terrified. However, I cannot bring myself to join a march or a protest against abortion because each woman must decide for herself what to do and preferably with a willing supportive father-to-be by her side. I will not judge. I cannot judge.
    I abhor the conduct of those people Raymond (4) describes above. That is nasty, mean and vicious but then mobs, as we know, can get out of control so easily. I live in N.I. and taking to the streets to protest is a risky business as we know to our cost. There are nasty people on the Pro Life side too and it is shameful to call anyone names or to act as God in judging anyone when we do not know the individual’s circumstances.
    I find it interesting that the bishops are now uniting under a banner against abortion when for years they did nothing to show compassion for children already born who they knew were being or had been abused. That is not meant to be a sweeping statement nor do I wish to tar them all with the same brush but perhaps there is a corporate sense of guilt manifesting itself now in this fierce campaign to fight the “scourge” of abortion. We’ve been praying at masses all week here and more plans are afoot to pray, fast and do novenas to stop it becoming law south of the border. However, I do not think any of the southern politicians really want abortion laws to be any way as lax as they are in the UK. I am sure most feel that this is a very complex, difficult and hugely emotive area. Compassion must rule above all.
    There. I didn’t ever want to join in this debate and I realise I may be branded weak or a coward but I cannot,in all conscience, condemn any woman for making a choice to terminate a pregnancy.Listen to her story first, support her as much as possible but let her and the father (who has rights too) make their own decisions. God help any woman who finds herself in an unwanted pregnancy situation. It is totally heartbreaking as it is as heartbreaking for the childless couple who would give anything to have a child.
    Here we are on the eve of the Nativity so may I wish you all a blessed, peaceful and joy-filled Christmas. May each child born be cherished and grow up knowing that it is loved unconditionally and may the Christ child dwell in all our hearts and bring us true peace.

  8. Siobhan Hall says:

    Back in 1983, people would tut-tut over how divisive the abortion issue was, but a friend of mine used to say any issue worth its salt is divisive. So let’s not run away from an issue because it’s divisive. By all means, let’s be respectful, but never let us fudge the issues. And here the issue is, an unborn child is a human being at his/her most vulnerable stage of life, and like the rest of us, he/she has a right not to be deliberately and intentionally killed. I agree with Martin Luther King who said the law might not be able to make someone love him, but it could stop them lynching him. I feel the same applies in the case of continued protection of the right to life of the unborn child. Laws will not make it so that every pregnancy is created with unbridled joy, but pro-life laws protect against decisions made in a hasty rush with a possible lifetime of regret to follow. And as mentioned above, not every pregnancy is met with enthusiasm initially, which is why organisations such as http://www.life.ie are so important, to provide support for women in crisis pregnancy situations

  9. Mary Stewart says:

    I wonder what research Teilhard actually did when it didn’t demonstrate the humanity of the baby in the womb? With our increased knowledge of the development of the baby, it is much more difficult to argue for abortion, which is the deliberate killing of the baby. I don’t know about a ‘black and white’ issue but killing is killing, and no amount of waffle will cover it up. Its surprising too that those who were most vocal in criticising the Church for covering up, should seek to cover up the actual methods of disposing of the baby.
    As a woman I consider it a God given privilege to give life, and, as every other assistance is now available to those with crisis pregnancies, killing the baby should never be an option.

  10. Here’s a woman who believes that this is more than a woman’s issue, it is a human rights issue, that affects everyone in society. And for that reason, women’s opinions on this matter should not be valued more (or less) than other contributors merely because they are women. How exclusive and hypocritical of us to do so. The pro-life position is the inclusive position, it advocates for equal human rights for all, regardless of their circumstances of conception, size, gender, age or location. The pro-abortion position is one that attempts to exclude men from the debate, and equates the rights of the human male and female in the womb with that of a bodily organ. As Catholics we know that they are so much more than that, and that is the basis for our anti-abortion position. Not because we are pro-woman, which should go without saying. I am a little surprised by this article from the ACP, although I do not agree with their stance on a lot of other issues, I have always been impressed by their vocal stance, and their courage to speak out. There has been talk of late that we must reach out to the ‘middle ground’ on this issue – yes I totally agree – but we must not become the ‘middle ground’ on this issue as a result. If we truly believe that abortion causes the horrific death of an unborn child and very often hurts their mother, then we must act like it. we must never concede ground on that fact. By using the language of the ‘middle ground’ as above when speaking on the issue, for instance using the term ‘termination’ when referring to abortion is wrong. Termination of pregnancy can mean multiple things – birth, premature delivery etc. It can refer to pregnancies that were ended by caesarean section prematurely, in cases such as women who are suffering from pre-eclampsia. This misuse of language causes confusion, and only results in the ‘middle ground; becoming even more confused. We must be clear and unequivocal on this issue. The ACP must raise its voice and speak out against this evil being legalised in our country. Sure they may not agree with the language used by the church in its Choose Life campaign, but instead of criticising, why not release a clear, concise message of their own, and encourage and educate their parishioners on this issue? THe country is crying out for information, clarity and truth on this issue. The entire church needs to be more vocal, now, before its too late. The governments abortion legislation is not a done deal, if enough people speak out against it.

  11. Gene Carr says:

    The idea that there is a ‘middle ground’ on abortion is a dillusion. This is one of those issues where ‘half a baby is a dead baby’.

  12. Soline Humbert says:

    Thank you Mary. Your comment resonates with me.

  13. Joe O'Leary says:

    Nuance from the women here, arrant dogmatism and obtuseness from the men.

  14. Joe O'Leary says:

    “With our increased knowledge of the development of the baby, it is much more difficult to argue for abortion, which is the deliberate killing of the baby.”
    Except that in the first two weeks the fertilized ovum is not an individual form of life since it can split into two or two of it can fuse into one.

  15. To return to the question which set off this discussion: is rational debate possible? I doubt it. There are already at least two aspects of the pro-life argument which are liable to undermine the argument from principle alone which is or should be the bed-rock of the pro-life case.
    (1) We are constantly being told how safe it is to have a baby in Ireland. This point is not coherent with a truly principled argument against abortion, because it suggests (although this is obviously not intended) that there are degrees of wrongness about abortion which vary in proportion to the relative safety of maternity services.
    (2) It is being said in some quarters that the judgment in A, B, C does not require the state to legislate in accordance with X. I have now read (with the eye of a lawyer) A, B, C three times, and, to put matters bluntly, this assertion by some pro-life campaigners seems plain wrong.
    A couple of hard questions.
    Would the pro-life people support a referendum to reverse X? Or are they afraid that they would lose?
    Why cannot the pro-choice people contemplate a free vote in the legislature? Are they afraid of the result of doing so?
    Finally, apologies for the ‘pro-life’/’pro-choice’ labels. They are not wholly satisfactory to either side, but I don’t know of any better shorthand.

  16. Agree with 6, 8, 9, 10 and 11 above. Much as I love my mother, I deny her the right to directly target me in the womb – which is the sole purpose of abortion. Not to save her life, but to kill me. Never.

  17. Stephen Edward says:

    If the Church can’t stand together on this one, it is tempting to think that all is lost. The current US president was one of few Ohio congressmen who voted to lift the ban on ‘partial birth abortion’. This basically involves killing the child by the crushing of the skull and the squeezing out of the brain by pump just prior to birth. A slim majority of US Catholics apparently voted to make this man their president. I guess that we are in a great deal of spiritual trouble.

  18. Eddie Finnegan says:

    Joe (at 13 above) surprises me. I can’t find the un-nuanced “arrant dogmatism and obtuseness” he takes exception to in the contributions of Teilhard, Pádraig McCarthy, Tom Morally, the indeterminate ‘L’, or even Raymond McIntyre. Gene Carr, I agree, rarely seeks fifty shades of grey in any controversial subject – but then his comment, like Joe’s, got delayed in the Christmas post, so probably wasn’t a cause of Joe’s strictures on the males of the commentariat.

  19. We are living in the ‘Culture of Death.’ I am so surprised to hear so many Catholics agree with abortion in the cases of rape. This is a horrible situation for any woman to face but abortion will have her doubly traumatised.
    My question is ‘why should the baby die for the crime of the father?’
    Unfortunately there are not enough women speaking out who have suffered the effects of abortion and also the men speaking out who have been involved in paying for and encouraging abortions. I pray that they will get the courage to speak before it is too late.

  20. Con Devree says:

    Given all the above comments, the conclusion is clear – The ACP has a mandate to support the Bishops.

  21. Elizabeth says:

    I have more questions than answers.
    I think that Catholics are not trying to save the unborn but are trying to save souls.
    St Augustine thought the soul entered the body when the unborn took on human form. That is not at conception or anywhere near conception.
    I don’t know of any declaration that the soul enters the cells at conception.
    An unborn baby can’t be baptised. An unbaptised soul can’t go to heaven.
    One third of pregnancies end in miscarriage – where do those souls go?
    Since Limbo was abolished(?) where did the waiting souls there go – -where are they now?
    Our Pope could save a lot of worry by declaring that miscarried and aborted babies’ souls go to heaven.
    Does any person of faith really believe that a woman should be forced to give birth against her will – -particularly in the case of rape or incest, but otherwise too. Forced.
    A woman or girl who has an abortion at 10 weeks of a few cells without a soul is deemed to have sinned but the same person hasn’t sinned if she gives a real living conscious baby away.
    I think this attitude has been bred in Ireland by The Catholic Church. Before there was access to abortion women and girls were ‘sent away’ to give birth if the pregnancy wasn’t legitimate. In the 19203, 30s 40s many women killed their newborn babies rather than have the shame of illegitimate birth.
    These are deeply unnatural and inhuman acts but adoption is still seen as a better option than abortion. Adoption is cruel to the mother, abortion is not (unless she is made to feel guilty by the Church)
    The Church used to let a woman die in childbirth if the baby could be saved at her expense because the baby hadn’t had the benefit of baptism so my thoughts are relevant.

  22. Elizabeth at #21. Your thoughts are extremely relevant and I think you have made some excellent observations. The Irish church has been especially put upon by Rome because, in the past, it has allowed itself to be. Now, in this 21st century with the winds of freedom and scholastic thought sweeping the land, the Irish people are beginning to think for themselves and to question what they had always accepted on blind faith previously. This development and evolution in matters of the reasoning power in some individuals are gifts from God. The revelation of global sexual abuse by the RCC and its cover-up was an explosion that blasted individuals out of their mental stupor and awakened them to their God-given right to make their own informed decisions, a fact proclaimed by the Second Vatican Council of 50 years ago. This was clearly stated in the Document on Religious Freedom wherein the Council proclaimed the primacy of personal educated conscience even over the official teaching of the RCC. This current pope and his predecessor, John Paul II, have done everything in their power to suppress those documents so that they can continue to deny the very freedom of thought and expression promised by Jesus, the Christ and the Second Vatican Council. Kudos to you for being aware and exercising your freedom to think! God bless.

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