What kind of response is abortion to the illness of a dearly wished-for child?
Published 29/01/2016 | 02:30
The heartbreak of parents who discover that their beloved child has a fatal and life-limiting condition is something intimate and personal. Others - such as family members and friends - might share the grief. There is, however, something incommunicable in the grief the parents carry. They are unique and the fact is that their lives are unrepeatable.
Our shared humanity gives us the capacity for empathy, which opens up for us a picture of how someone else is suffering and offers us some insight into how to help them at a particular moment in their lives. Various people - parents of children who faced life-limiting conditions, but also public representatives and doctors - have recently lifted the veil on this suffering.
The recent calls by Dr Rhona Mahony and Professor Fergal Malone for the consideration of abortion in cases of life-limiting conditions reveal how some view this challenge.
We must ask ourselves, why abortion? What kind of response is this to the illness of a dearly wished-for child?
Perhaps the insights of the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor can help.
Taylor has identified the avoidance of pain as a significant part of our moral perspective.
There is a tendency to identify good with pleasure and evil with pain. Given this context, the absence of good health and the prospect of a very brief life for a baby is a significant burden for parents.
It seems that abortion is a way in which this pain can be relieved and some of the burden for parents lifted, and at the earliest possible moment.
The motivation for ending the lives of the children concerned is clear enough.
This is, it would seem, because of the belief that in all probability the life of the child will be difficult and short.
The burden this places on the mother and the father of the child is considerable.
Whatever the probability of a life-limiting condition - and there may often be a degree of uncertainty - there is a common assumption that the prospect of a child's life being short and painful is adequate grounds for abortion.
The question of the moral permissibility of abortion is not explored in any depth. This is not to say that the decision is not painful and anguished. However, the response of abortion is thought appropriate, however regrettable.
Our society is capable of empathy. It is precisely this empathy which opens our capacity to understand that the grief of the parents is not the only consideration.
As well as seeing the distress of parents, we can see that there are other considerations at stake. I would like to mention two in particular.
The first is the uniqueness and inviolability which attaches to the unborn child.
His or her condition, whatever the precise condition might be, and whatever the prognosis, does not diminish his or her human dignity or his or her right to be protected from attack.
The child is a gift to his or her mother and father, just as is the act by which children are conceived. The Australian philosopher John Finnis once characterised this as "gift supervening upon gift".
That is the character of the act, which has its own orientation to the possibility of new life, a new life which is not that of either mother or father.
The life of the child is unique. And whatever the condition, the gift of the child remains. Parents receive a boy or a girl, but his or her precise characteristics, abilities, capacities are a surprise.
In my view the risk of judging someone to be beneath the threshold of the law's protection because of serious health difficulties raises the perils of a eugenics mentality. It would be naïve to ignore this risk.
The assumption that abortion is an appropriate response ignores the fact that human dignity and inviolability is not dependent on full functioning or good health. To think otherwise is to risk objectifying children and to fail to see them as a gift.
Doctors are not simply technicians but practitioners of a noble profession with a tradition of respecting all human life and never acting against the life of a patient. Abortion clearly risks this inheritance.
This brings me to my second point. A reason for the failure to see this gift dimension is the dominance of what might be called 'scientism'. It shows itself in the suggestion that abortion is an appropriate and even the best response given, for instance, a life-limiting condition.
Walker Percy, the American novelist, suggested that the prevalence of science over other branches of knowledge and wisdom is a kind of folly.
If only one kind of truth prevails - the technical and abstract truth of science - then "nothing stands in the way of the demeaning of and destruction of human life for what appear to some to be reasonable short-term goals".
The curious result of this scientism, built on a particular view of instrumental reason, is that our health services might be employed to destroy lives rather than protect them.