Opinion Comment

Thursday 17 January 2019

Eighth Amendment: the last protection for the unborn

The fate of the unborn child lies in the hands of the Irish people, for now and probably for the last time, writes Myra Hayes

Protest: Pro-life advocates at the March for Life in Washington DC in January. Photo: Jonah_McKeown
Protest: Pro-life advocates at the March for Life in Washington DC in January. Photo: Jonah_McKeown

Myra Hayes

"The Roman Catholic Church takes the view that there can be no trifling with the life of the unborn, and that the concept 'unborn child' is not a propaganda concept, but a meaningful one, a real one, a true one, and that it deserves protection and tenderness. As it happens, I agree with this view for materialist reasons. It seems to me obvious from the discoveries of biology and embryology that the concept unborn child is a real one…and it has to be granted to the Church that it has made this a centrepiece of its ethic and its morality."

This statement from the late Christopher Hitchens, who was no friend of the Catholic Church or indeed of any religious affiliation, is notable for two reasons. Firstly, it underlines the important role that protection of the unborn child has had historically in Catholic moral teaching.

However, it also demonstrates that the issue of abortion is not an exclusively Catholic issue. Hitchens, as well as many other prominent atheists and humanists, recognised the importance of the protection of the unborn child as a human rights issue.

This places it outside all religious or ideological boundaries, and within the framework of one of the most important social justice issues of our time. In Ireland in May, we are holding a referendum that will have enormous consequences for future generations of Irish people. The stakes could not be higher, and consequently it is of utmost importance that as a nation we consider the issue very carefully. If the concept of the unborn child is a real, true, meaningful one, it certainly deserves our protection and tenderness. This is what the Eighth Amendment has done up to this point.

Much misinformation and euphemistic language is being used to cloud the issue, but Hitchens is correct. Science and technology leave us in no doubt as to the humanity of the unborn child, as anyone who has seen a 4D ultrasound can attest.

Another argument that needs to be dismantled is the "trust women" argument, recently voiced by Mary Lou McDonald on The Late Late Show, to muted applause from the audience.

The testimony of Catherine Adair, a former worker with Planned Parenthood of Massachusetts, the largest abortion clinic in New England, quickly put paid to this argument when she stated: "I discovered there was nothing pro-woman about abortion…we were told not to say the words abortion, foetus, baby or embryo. We told the woman the doctor would gently extract the contents of her uterus." Surely the statement "trust women" is completely meaningless if even the language used is sugar-coated to avoid the reality of what is actually happening. Can women not be trusted to handle the information relevant to this important decision?

It is also worth noting social media operates a "repeal shield" that can be utilised to block all pro-life accounts so the user never has to encounter a contrary opinion.

This suggests a fear of viewpoint diversity that hardly constitutes trust in the discernment of women. Just as the issue of abortion is not an exclusively Catholic issue, neither is it exclusively a woman's issue as some would have us believe. If we accept the humanity of the unborn, we have to accept that there are two lives involved, and that therefore the most important qualification for voicing an opinion on this issue is membership of the human race.

The March for Life which took place in Washington DC in January provided a good indicator of the direction that protection for the unborn is taking internationally. It showed that pro-life groups, such as Feminists for Life (FFL), are flourishing in the United States, where, unfortunately, abortion has been part of life since 1973.

Women in the US are waking up to the fact abortion hurts and targets women, particularly within the African-American community. An entire generation of women have grown up in the shadow of abortion availability, and they are questioning its impact on the lives of Americans, with more than 60 million Americans having been aborted since Roe v Wade. The executive director of Feminists for Life, Serrin Foster, has declared that pro-life feminism is more important than ever as women deserve better than abortion. She heads an advocacy group that involves college outreach for students in crisis pregnancy and provides material resources and support.

That protection of the life of the unborn crosses all ideological barriers is evidenced also by philosophers such as Don Marquis, who considered abortion to be a denial of their future of value to the unborn, and Arif Ahmed of the University of Cambridge, who views abortion as "highly questionable" in spite of his self-declared atheism. The fact that abortion was forbidden by the pre-Christian Hippocratic oath serves as a reminder that protection of the life of the unborn was part of the ethical foundation for medical practice.

In the final analysis, the fate of the unborn child lies in the hands of the Irish people, for now and probably for the last time. The recent Supreme Court judgment has highlighted the fact that the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution provides the only protection that Ireland has to offer to its future unborn citizens.

Dr Myra Hayes is a lecturer in Theology at Mary Immaculate College, Limerick

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