Legal reform is a moral obligation
This is not one of my typical blogs, and many of you will be surprised to receive it. It is also significantly based-on, and influenced by, discussions with my 18-year old daughter.
The Republic of Ireland is holding a referendum to amend its constitution permitting new legislation to bring Irish abortion laws in line with best practice in the developed world. Under current law, abortions are only legal if there is imminent and substantial risk to a woman’s life, including suicide. An Irish woman may not obtain an abortion if she is pregnant due to rape. Women obtaining abortions in Ireland outside of the law, for example by taking abortion pills, can be imprisoned for up to 14 years.
Whatever one’s view on the morality of specific acts of abortion, there is a moral obligation on Ireland to reform its current law. To be clear, the illegality of abortion in Ireland does not mean that Irish women do not have abortions – they do. According to UK Department of Health statistics, approximately 10 Irish women travel daily to obtain abortions in the UK. Irish women also travel to other European countries to terminate pregnancies.
Abortions in Ireland are currently rationed by income, resources, family support and tolerance. They are also rationed by the subjective judgement and willingness to take legal risk by the medical profession. Where there is stigma, poverty, rape, and sexual abuse, many Irish women are left to fend for themselves, with serious physical and psychological consequences. Self-administering illegal abortion pills also carries substantial health risks, as outlined by the Irish Institute of Obstetricians. In 2014, 1017 abortion pills were seized by the Irish customs authorities.
The interests of men and women are not equivalent
Ethical discourse involves weighting the interests of all those affected by a given course of action. Ideally, all those affected can act as their own advocates and grant their consent. The issue of abortion clearly does not affect all of us equally. If our interests are not equivalent, equal weight should not be given to our voice.
My daughter and I approach the issue of the legalisation of abortion from very different starting points. She is much closer to the reality – and this an area of discourse where there is a strong case for men to defer to the greater risks women face and their more relevant experience. The interests of men and women are not equivalent.
When she and I first discussed the legalisation of abortion, this was the first point she raised. She has been brought up in the UK, and is in her late teens. She has also spent time socialising with young women in Ireland. Their lives are not so different from those of her friendship group in the UK. The risks of sexual abuse and rape are real issues that all women across the spectrum of our society face. Her friends have had infrequent but direct experience of sexual assault and threat. The reality of teenage life in Ireland and England is very similar. An Irish priest does not risk pregnancy due to rape. Irish men cannot know what it is like to face this threat.
This begs the question of the role of genuine discrimination in Irish thinking and beliefs. In the absence of legal abortion, women face risks to which men are not exposed. The institutional context of many advocates of illegality cannot be ignored. The Catholic Church actively discriminates against women. Although there are now female Eucharistic ministers, the church has a male-only power structure. This has absolutely no basis in any morality, it is the exercise of discriminatory power. Intriguingly, abortion was also illegal under Apartheid South Africa. It is worth noting that a system which was willing to dehumanise a majority of its population somehow convinced itself that the rights of a relatively small collection of cells were somehow inviolable.
I grew up in Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s, and my experience of Catholicism was, in many respects, positive. I was exposed to thoughtful discussions of many areas of life. Listening to the current debate in Ireland on the proposed repeal of the eighth amendment of the constitution, has revived strong memories.
Both of my parents had strong christian faith, but they also both supported the legalisation of abortion. My mother, who is Italian, was a profound believer that a grown woman’s life was not equivalent to the life of recently fertilised eggs. Having witnessed the detrimental consequences of sexism, she knew it when she saw it. She did not take the word of older men at face value.
My father’s motivation was different. He was deeply empathetic, and a scientist. He knew that women who were being exposed to physical and mental risks need help, care, and support, not platitudes. He trusted the advice of caring, principled medics and professionals who faced the reality and consequences of illegal abortions, and the physical and mental risks women in Ireland were being exposed to.
At the same time, I also recall some of the thoughtful, kind people I knew growing up, who felt unsure about the issue of abortion. My belief is that information would likely have changed their perspective. In the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, Irish people knew little about what was happening behind closed doors. Ignorance was a legitimate defence. But there is now widely available public information on the appalling consequences of current laws on the physical and mental well-being of tens of thousands of highly vulnerable Irish women. Information and consequences which were hidden in the past. There is overwhelming evidence of the hypocrisy of a legal and social structure which rations care based on the resources women have to travel safely to neighbouring countries.
The culture I grew up in encouraged me to study moral philosophy. Some of which helps frame some aspects of this discussion. It is clear that the highest order principle in Christian ethics is ‘love you neighbour as yourself’. It is the closest thing to a universal principle which all other principles are subject to. It is not uniquely Christian, indeed it is a variant of the principles underlying all the great schools of moral philosophy – Kant’s categorical imperative, utilitarianism, discourse ethics and Rawls’s Original Position. It may even be a universal principle underlying all ethical systems. The meaning of the question “what is the right thing to do?” is to ask, “what would we do if we could completely empathise with all those affected and weight all their interests equally?”
This is also important because it reveals the possibility that ethics and morality can in fact be universal, without there being some absolute arbiter. For this reason the most plausible conclusion is that all societies have the same underlying fundamental ethical principle – although this does not mean they all apply it consistently, nor that applying it consistently results in the same norms across all societies.
Rights are legal constructs, not moral universals
When we realise that any moral question involves giving equal weight to the interests of all those affected we realise that rights-based argument can only ever be approximations. Rights are often necessary legal short cuts, but they are not absolute principles. Rights typically identify extremely important interests of individuals, but there will always be circumstances where weighting the interests of those affected outweighs a specific right. This is why we weight the life of a grown woman, or a young girl, above that of a fertilised egg.
So there are two key ethically-relevant points. Firstly, the ‘right to life’ is not an absolute moral law. Secondly, a recently fertilised egg, a one week old embryo and a four week old foetus do not carry the same weight as a mother.
The value of human life in our ethical framework is contingent – it depends on the circumstances. What do we do if we confront circumstances where one life could save many, where it is in our own best interests to die, or where it is right for us to give up our life for another? In human history there are many examples of huge individual sacrifice, even of life, to protect the many. That is what ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ mandates. The pilot of a plane being forced to land in dangerous conditions, who is guided by what is right, will sacrifice his life to save as many passengers as he or she can.
Max Krzyzanowski eloquently makes the point that preservation of an individual’s life is not a moral absolute, in a recent post about his uncle, who passed away two years ago at the Mater hospital, after his family elected to maintain his pain medication but withdraw his treatment. “His illness brought him to a point where treatment stood no chance of improving his condition.” Depending on the circumstances it can be ethical to terminate a life when none others are at risk.
Not all forms of human cell structure from fertilisation are equivalent. This is indisputable, and implicitly recognised by all sides in the current debate in Ireland, a point made with great clarity by Jacob Woolf. If all living human cellular structures post-fertilisation were equivalent, it would be inconsistent to consider the duration of the pregnancy to be relevant to the debate. There would be no legal distinction between a morning after pill, which is legal in Ireland, and an abortion pill. And a walking child, a mother, and a ninety-year-old in pain and on life support would be equal to a human egg fertilised in the last second. The fact that no one adheres to this is evidence that there is no inviolable right to life post-fertilisation. Not in Christianity, Catholicism or any other serious ethical framework.
In some species of animal, multiple foetuses are a natural occurrence, and only one survives. Indeed, this also occurs with humans in the case of vanishing twin syndrome. This occurs when a twin or multiple disappears in the uterus during pregnancy as a result of miscarriage. The fetal tissue is absorbed by the other twin. Did nature, or the divine, decide which embryo should survive?
The final ethical question relates to who is best placed to make a decision concerning terminating pregnancy. This is typically framed in terms of a ‘woman’s right to choose’. In ethical terms this can be reframed very clearly. Who is most affected and who has most information? Abortion is an unusual ethical question because only one person is affected – the pregnant woman. She has more information than anyone else, and may in certain circumstances wish to keep information to herself. For these reasons, it absolutely makes sense for the law to grant her full automony in decision-making – at the same time as granting her access to full medical care and expertise.
The case for humane care
Despite these arguments, which make clear that an ethical system will give greater weight to the interests of women over fertilised cells, it remains the case that the current referendum debate in Ireland is not on the ethics of abortion, but on the ethics of its legalisation. The two issues should be considered independently.
Everyone recognises the fact that Irish women are obtaining abortions, either humanely in other countries – which is rationing based on individual resources – or by putting their health and psychological well-being at considerable, unnecessary risk.
The only remaining argument is that somehow by amending Irish law, a culture will emerge where there is ‘abortion on demand’. The morals of the nation will collapse, as if they are only currently supported by a hypocritical legal structure which advocates going to England or risking your life with illegal internet medication.
This perspective is not just an insult to the ability of the people of Ireland, particularly the women of Ireland, to decide what is right for themselves, their families and their children. It is an insult to Irish medical practioners and law makers. But it also reveals considerable ignorance of the lives of young women, and women on low incomes, who are the main victims of the status quo. Irish women in their 20s and older, with resources, have little to worry about. They can obtain high standards of medical care abroad. What about teenage girls experiencing stigma, shame, and fear? Are these double-standards the bedrock of Irish morality?
I would like to thank many friends and family for comments on drafts of this post. I am solely responsible for any opinions or errors.