Tuesday 22 January 2019

Doctors need to join in the embryo debate

Arguments about when life begins is all too often hijacked by extremes from both sides, writes John Crown

Needless to say, when I heard that both the Minister of Health Mary Harney and her predecessor had received death threats and bullets in their post, my first reaction was to check that I had a verifiable alibi.

The perpetrators, subsequently identified as the "Irish Citizen's Defence Army", anonymous cowards who also threatened the staff of fertility clinics, claimed they were acting in defence of human embryos.

My relief at my own rapid exculpation was tinged by sadness, and by wonder at the level of misguided fanaticism that drives such "social terrorists" (as Dr Tony Walsh, one of the targeted fertility doctors, labelled them) to issue death threats to people who treat infertility, one of the saddest and most life-disrupting of medical afflictions.

Like the seemingly intractable arguments about abortion, it is all about the definition of when human life begins and the rights of the unborn child. If we knew when life began, arguments would end. Most of us in Ireland have been raised to believe that life begins at conception, and that the unborn child assumes the full rights of an independent human at that moment. Thus, most Irish people state that they believe that abortion is murder.

It is obvious that while many, and probably most, Irish people pay lip service to this idea, we, as individuals, as a community and as a legal entity, clearly behave as if we believe something else entirely. After all, if we really believe that every two or four-cell embryo is in fact a human infant, then how do we tolerate the appalling situation in which intra-uterine contraceptive devices kill them, in-vitro fertilisers freeze them until needed or indefinitely if they're not?

How can we stand idly by while their mothers fly to England to slaughter them in abortion clinics?

How did we vote in a national referendum to facilitate the dispensation of information on how to commit infanticide abroad?

If we as a nation really believed that what was happening was full blown infanticide, who among us wouldn't physically intervene to defend the most defenceless of all? What father wouldn't physically restrain his pregnant partner by force, if he really thought that she was about to kill his child? Wouldn't our border police interrogate those whom they suspected were travelling abroad for abortions?

No, no matter how we protest to the contrary, it is clear that we believe that abortion, much as we may dislike it, is something else, something other than child killing.

We are hypocrites who prefer an ignored, exported problem.

The abortion debate tends to be hijacked by extremists on both sides. Militant pro-abortionists tend to sidestep the issue of whether the foetus is a human or not by advancing peripheral arguments (eg "women have the right to choose", "criminalisation of abortion would drive it underground, leading to maternal deaths", "the non-viable foetus has no rights").

These arguments are false. No one has the right to choose to kill someone else. If the foetus is a person, no such right exists, and people who do it illegally should be caught and prosecuted, not legalised.

Nor is the viability argument sustainable. The mere fact that an infant could not survive without it's mother does not deprive it of the right to life. Women have an absolute right to choose not to get pregnant, but when they do consensually, they (and their partner) acquire responsibilities.

No, the only pro-abortion argument that would make sense would be that the aborted foetus is not human. It is obvious that many foetuses that are aborted in countries where abortion is legal are in fact real, formed, small premature babies. Such was the inhumanity of the American abortion movement that they championed "partial birth abortions", a practice of breath-taking brutality. Shame.

While we need to confront pro-abortion extremists who would deny the rights and humanity of what is clearly a small unborn child -- one with a nervous system, one who moves, responds to sound and who feels pain -- we should confront the position that a fertilised egg, or an early embryo -- which has no nervous system, no consciousness and no awareness -- is a as full a human being as is a new-born babe, or for that matter a fully formed, second trimester foetus. This position, while it deserves respect, is theological, not medical. It is, as such, possibly a sound basis for canon law, or for religiously defined moral guidance, but not for civil legislation.

One group are in a unique position to provide guidance concerning the time when life begins, it is the same group that we routinely rely on to decide when it ends -- doctors. In Ireland, however, my profession has tended to abandon this debate, fearful of being labelled as either illiberal or pro-abortion.

It is time for the medical profession to risk unpopularity from right and left, and to give society the best advice that we can on the issue of when an embryo becomes a person.

Professor John Crown is a consultant oncologist

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