A Response to Jude Collins’ Five Questions

Jude Collins wrote a blog piece which asked five questions about abortion, referring to the upcoming referendum in the Irish Republic on the 8th Amendment to the Constitution. This gives ‘equal rights’ to the mother and the unborn, and effectively bars abortion. His piece is here. Here are some answers to the points he makes, in the same order.

1. When does life begin? He suggests that life begins at conception. Conception or fertilisation is not a moment, it is a process. The idea that life begins then is theological; it was first announced in these terms in a Papal document in 1869. This followed work in sea urchins showing the process of fertilisation. Previously, there was an idea that ‘life’ began at ensoulment.

However, you must distinguish between ‘life’, ‘living’ and ‘being alive’. These are not synonymous, and they are terms that need to be properly explored. A person may be on a ventilator but is nonetheless ‘alive’; does that person, in that condition, have a ‘life’? Is ‘living’ more than being not-dead? A blastocyst may be ‘alive’ and ‘living’, it certainly contains the instructions to build a foetus, a new human; but is this really ‘life’?

He suggests that ‘viable’ might be a response, and that humans need others for survival.

Viable, in a limited, technical sense means essentially that the foetus is capable of ‘life’ outside the womb, specifically that it can breathe adequately by itself and maintain its oxygenation. That also means that its lungs are sufficiently mature to allow gaseous exchange, and that its muscles are powerful enough. In this sense, the foetus is first viable at around 23 — 24 weeks gestation, though it will need considerable support at this age.

A human could live an entirely independent life from early adulthood, when it doesn’t need others to supply it with food, but can and hunt and forage for itself. This isn’t very practicable for most of us today, but it can be done.

2. What to do with unwanted pregnancies? His answer is to say that abortion should be avoided; it is not that Ireland exporting the problem that is important, rather it is what is done in an abortion. This is a diversion; closing your eyes to the problem won’t make it go away.

This neatly gets round the problem of abortion; and other than not permitting abortion he doesn’t offer a solution at this point.

3. Is it wrong to show photos of aborted foetuses?

Showing such photos is a resort to emotional blackmail. Such photos and associated presentations revel in the ghoulish details of late abortion. There may be pictures of a ‘perforator’ or a ‘cranioclast’ or ‘craniotribe’. Such presentations never explain how these instruments came into use. A couple of centuries ago there was no ante-natal care; the man-midwife would be presented with a woman in labour. Disproportion is when the bony pelvis of the mother is deformed or contracted, usually by rickets, and is too small to allow the foetal head to pass. Then, caesarean section wasn’t available. To prevent the death of the mother, the foetus was destroyed with these implements.

4. What about rape, incest or ‘fatal foetal abnormality’? Again, he asks if abortion is taking ‘life’, is it wrong to take it in such circumstances. He refers to the ‘sin’ of the father.

As above, the concept of what ‘life’ is needs to be explained. Rape and incest are forms of assault; men and women can be raped, but only women can get pregnant. There is no male equivalent of pregnancy; the nearest I can think of, and it’s by no means perfect, is to ask: if a man is raped and through this contracts HIV, would the law require him to wait for 9 months before treatment became available?

There are those among the religious who say that a woman cannot get pregnant after rape. This is complete rubbish. The idea behind this is (literally) mediaeval, when it was felt that a woman’s orgasm was necessary for pregnancy. If she had an orgasm during rape, then clearly she consented, so it wasn’t rape. Likewise, this is rubbish.

After rape or incest the foetus is certainly ‘innocent’ theologically and legally. ‘Sin’ is an entirely Biblical or theological construct. But it is not a ‘sin’ to demand and require that the woman continue with the pregnancy.

There is a greater risk of foetal abnormalities when the mother and father are close blood relations. This is clearly seen in cousin marriages.

Fatal foetal abnormality is a quasi legal term; it covers a range of conditions where the foetus either will die in the womb, or soon after birth. Why is it ‘better’ that the woman continue with the pregnancy? There is at least one condition, Edward’s syndrome with a transverse lie, where if the pregnancy continues to term, the woman’s life will be put in danger; that is, the pregnancy will kill her. (We have already seen where, in the case of Savita Halappanvar, the presence of a universal prohibitory law without exceptions can result in the unnecessary death of the mother.) There are very, very few cases where a foetus with a fatal abnormality has existed for a prolonged time after birth.

5. The woman’s right to choose is a misnomer.

Rights’ are very tricky things, there is a variety of them. There is no ‘right’ to choose in any part of Ireland. The law is based on theological constructs; the law is made by men, and for men; it is not made by women.

If there is such a thing as ‘free will’ then the law and theologians deny it to a pregnant woman, they deny the ‘right to choose’. ‘ Here, the ‘right to life’ of the foetus is a ‘demand right’, for it cannot exist outside the womb (before it is viable).

Society celebrates the ‘birth’ of a child but not its conception. It is as if society has defined what ‘life’ begins, and that is at birth; there is a reason why people talk of ‘new life’ at this event. Murder and infanticide require, in law, a ‘living’ individual, that is one that is breathing, one that has been born.

Abortion is as old as written history; it is in the Code of Hammurabi, around 1750 BC. The ‘demand’ for abortion is not altered by making it illegal.

Where abortion is illegal, such as in Ireland, we see the ‘side-effects’ of such prohibitions; Magdalene Laundries, Mother and Baby Homes, symphysiotomy, infanticide, and the hypocrisy of exporting the problem elsewhere, so we may say ‘our hands are clean’.

Your dislike of abortion, Mr Collins, is almost palpable. I’m not sure if I have altered this. However, the point is surely, not whether you like or disapprove of abortion, but whether you have the ‘right’ or authority to deny to others what you are incapable of having, whether your dislike is sufficiently strong and proper that abortion must be illegal.

And just as an aside, it was St Brigid’s day recently. She is Ireland’s first known abortionist.

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