On Friday the 25th of May Ireland is set to vote in a referendum on its fiercely debated Eighth Amendment. The amendment 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 referendum, like most referendums, is intensely political, by which I mean it has garnered the attention of world’s media and political bodies. For example, Amnesty International recently refused to return a €137,000 donation from the Open Society Foundation. It is a testament to the passions that arise from this discussion that Amnesty refused, despite Irish law forbidding campaign groups accepting more than 100 euro in donations from foreign sources that could be used for domestic political purposes.
Campaigning points aside, it is important to understand what, if anything, is being discussed? Well, firstly it is necessary to reflect on what ‘abortion’ means in practice. Oxford English dictionary in defining ‘abortion’, goes to ‘abort’ [verb] which is defined as ‘carry out, or undergo the abortion of (a foetus)’. Again, staying with definitions, ‘foetus’ [noun] is defined as ‘An unborn or unhatched offspring of a mammal, in particular an unborn human more than eight weeks after conception’.
Often in discussions surrounding abortion, proponents of abortion argue that what is being aborted is merely a human embryo or foetus (later stage of development from a human embryo), and that it is okay to do so as what is being aborted is not worthy/not morally significant in comparison to the decision of the mother. However, I would like to argue that despite an abortion potentially occurring early on in pregnancy it is still worthy of consideration for the following reason. The reason is that the human embryo is a human being, and thus worthy of consideration.
Embryology tells us the following: in the case of ordinary sexual reproduction the life of an individual human being begins with complete fertilization, which yields a genetically and functionally distinct organism, possessing the resources and active disposition for internally directed development toward human maturity. The aforementioned fact leads to the conclusion that ‘The human embryo, from conception onward, is fully programmed actively to develop himself or herself to the mature stage of a human being, and unless prevented by disease or violence, will actually do so, despite possibly significant variation in environment (in the mother’s womb)’ as Lee and George (2004) argue. Furthermore, to reiterate the fact that the human embryo is not a separate is to point out that the direction of his or her growth is not extrinsically determined, but the embryo is internally directing his or her growth toward full maturity. All of which leads to the following conclusion: ‘So a human embryo (or foetus) is not something distinct from a human being; he or she is not an individual of any non-human or intermediate species. Rather, an embryo (and foetus) is a human being at a certain (early) stage of development – the embryonic (or fetal) stage’.
Due to the nature of the Eighth amendment, it has been reported that Irish women seeking an abortion have had to come over to England. Furthermore, the argument is that on mental health grounds forcing an unwanted pregnancy is cruel. However, this argument is wanting. Dr Calum Miller tells us that in 2015 in England and Wales there were 185,000 abortions. Now one of the clauses permitting abortion in UK law is in emergency situations where the life of the woman is at risk. Out of 185,000? Only 3 abortions were just under this clause. And in the period from 2006-2015, 10 years totalling about 1.8 million abortions, under this clause only 11 abortions were justified. This works out at about 0.0015%. The number expands slightly if we include non-emergency abortions where the risk to the life of the mother is greater than if the pregnancy were continued: then the number is 88. Again, a minute percentage. So what are the legal grounds for the other 185,000? Well, we have this information because doctors are legally obliged to record the grounds for their decision. It turns out that 98% of abortions are carried out on the grounds of mental health, the specific clause being that the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the mental health of the mother. This is the health-based justification for abortion given in almost all cases.
The problem with this is that there exists not a shred of evidence in its favour. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists’ guidance on abortion notes: ‘women with an unintended pregnancy should be informed that the evidence suggests that they are no more or less likely to suffer adverse psychological sequelae whether they have an abortion or continue with the pregnancy and have the baby.’ There is also research by Professor Priscilla Coleman published in the British journal of psychiatry who argues that, “abortion is associated with moderate to highly increased risks of psychological problems subsequent to the procedure. Women who had undergone an abortion experienced an 81 per cent increased risk of mental health problems, and nearly 10 per cent of the incidence of mental health problems were shown to be directly attributable to abortion.”
All in all, there are two sides to this debate, and it is often the case people lose themselves in this debate. My personal hope, is that post this decision from the Irish people, that all options of support are conveyed to women who are pregnant, and that love and support is always offered to them.