First, some context for the vast international readership of this blog.
On 25 May 2018 Ireland will hold a referendum on abortion. Or, to put it more precisely, a referendum on whether to repeal the 1983 8th Amendment to the Constitution which reads
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.
The Supreme Court has recently made it clear that the unborn have no constitutional rights. Those rights begin at birth. If the 8th is repealed, this leaves the way clear for the Government to introduce proposed abortion legislation.
The new law, if subsequently passed in the Dáil, will include the following:
- Abortion being allowed up to 12 weeks “without specific indication”. Effectively abortion on demand.
- Abortions to be provided on the grounds of risk to the life or ‘serious harm’ to the health of the mother.
- No distinction will be made between physical and mental health risks.
- Abortions legalised in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities, including cases which will lead to the loss of life of the baby shortly after birth
The choice to include mental health on the same footing as physical threat is highly significant. In practice abortions for a physical threat to the mother account for about 0.2% of births. In the UK, 99.8% of abortions are carried out due to threat to the mental health of the mother.
There was some uncertainty about whether the legislation therefore would allow for full-term abortions on the basis of risk to the mental health of the mother. The Government proposals will theoretically prohibit abortion once the foetus is ‘viable’. This is roughly up to six months of gestation. (The bill cannot be formally tabled in the Dáil unless the 8th Amendment is repealed. Obviously, if it is not repealed, general abortion is off the table).
So, as I read it, the Government is effectively proposing abortion on demand up to around 6 months. This represents a dramatic shift from an extremely restrictive approach to abortion to an extremely liberal abortion regime.
How to ‘think Christianly’ about such an issue?
One option is silence, but that’s simply avoiding the issue. Abortion needs to be talked about. Individual Christians and churches need to be speaking and teaching and reflecting self-critically on the ethical and moral challenges posed by abortion and the upcoming Referendum.
WHAT WE ARE NOT GOING TO TALK ABOUT (apart from this post)
Now, at this point one route would be dive into all sorts of observations as well as various arguments against abortion. At the risk of self-contradiction, I’ll talk briefly about some below and then not talk about them any more in posts that follow. An explanation is at the end if you get that far.
Some potential leaping off points are:
(1) The obvious one that the Referendum itself is indicative of huge cultural, political and religious shifts within Ireland since the 1983 Abortion Referendum.
(2) There is the back story of the X case and subsequent 1992 Referendum on the right for a woman to travel overseas for an abortion without fear of prosecution.
(3) There is the fact that Ireland is one of the safest places on earth to give birth. To use fears about the mother’s safety to introduce abortion on demand is wildly disproportionate. Current legislation allows abortion if there is a life-threatening risk to the life of the mother. There could be a debate about legislation specifically to allow abortion for fatal foetal abnormality and / or cases of rape and incest without introducing general abortion on broad grounds.
(4) We could talk about the political reasons behind the campaign to introduce abortion in Ireland. These are not irrational and inconsistent: they make perfect sense within a certain understanding of political reality otherwise abortion would not be widely available globally. They include: a Western narrative of the liberated autonomous individual; freedom from ‘misogynistic law’ that ‘controls’ what women can do with their own bodies; and the belief that maximum choice equals maximum freedom equals the maximum good. In this sense abortion is a regrettable but necessary experience for a pregnant woman who for whatever reason does not want a child at that particular time in her life.
(5) Abortion could be framed as a human rights issue. Evangelical Alliance Ireland has taken this approach “rather than as a matter of religious dogma or of reproductive health.” If the baby is a human being, he or she has a right to life as much as any other human. (This approach does seem to have been dismissed in law by the recent Supreme Court decision mentioned above).
(6) Some talk about the essential ‘sacredness of all human life’ and try to oppose abortion that way. This tends to lead to all sorts of complicated medical discussions about when life begins and is the foetus a person?
(7) We could talk about how damaging abortion is for women; many of whom come deeply to regret past action.
(8) We could go the political activism line and examine where TDs and their parties stand and seek to influence their decision-making.
(9) We could begin by talking about abortion as a form of euthanasia, namely the deliberate eradication of people with disability. For example, in Iceland, there is now a 100% abortion rate for babies with Down Syndrome. This despite Down Syndrome not being an illness and Down Syndrome people being some of the most loving and fun people in existence (not that being loving and fun is required to be able to exist). New technology for non-invasive testing for Down and other disabilities will inevitably lead the UK (and Ireland if abortion is introduced) to follow Iceland’s trend.
(10) We could talk about the impact of introducing a culture of intentional and medically needless death into the Irish health system that was designed and intended to save life.
(11) We could talk about abortion being, far from a victory for feminism, a victory for patriarchy and men acting irresponsibly. Quite simply, men benefit significantly from abortion. Men do not have to bear the pain, trauma and memories of ending a life within their own bodies. Men don’t face the possibility of subsequent long-term complications from an invasive medical procedure; men don’t face the threat, implicit or explicit, that their partner will leave them if they don’t have an abortion. Rather, abortion suits many men because they don’t have to face the long term consequences of their actions – financial, emotional and relational. They remain ‘free’ of such inconvenient ties.
(12) And we could talk of the implications of continually improving technology for earlier and earlier gender identification within pregnancy. If the current Irish legislation leaves open abortion up to viability, it would be naïve not to be aware that a proportion of abortions will be due to the baby having the ‘wrong’ gender. Globally, and ironically, the ‘wrong’ gender is female (think China and India for example).
But we are not going to talk more about any of these issues. Why? Because, quite simply I do not believe that they are the place to begin when thinking ‘Christianly’ and theologically about abortion. We’ll try to do that in the next few posts.