The abortion debate

Sat, May 4, 2013, 06:00

Sir, – I agree with Prof William Reville’s point that debates about abortion and related issues should be scientifically informed and based on “a coherent philosophical position” (Science, May 2nd). However, terms such as “personhood,” “essentialism” and “philosophical functionalism” are used here as if there was scholarly consensus about what these terms actually meant. This is not so.

For example, there are at least three different types of essentialism and the concept of personhood is notoriously difficult to define. Philosophy, as applied here, only serves to confuse the issues in question.

Prof Reville contends that personhood, as seen through the lens of essentialism, is present from the zygote onwards. On this basis one can argue against – not only human embryonic stem cell research – but also against birth control devices such as intrauterine devices and medicines that prevent the implantation of early-stage embryos. This is not consistent with the rational analysis that Prof Reville aspires to.

A pre-implantation embryo is not sufficiently developed to have a nervous system. Given the absence of a brain, surely a pre-implantation embryo cannot be regarded as a person?

If this is acknowledged then it seems that the concept of human rights in this context is meaningless. – Yours, etc,




Co Cork.

Sir, – Last November Ireland was elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council. Announcing the election, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore described the council as “the most important international human rights body”.

He added that, as a member of the Council, the focus of the Government would be on a number of issues among which he included “freedom of religion”. The heads of the proposed abortion legislation would suggest the Government has abandoned this focus on freedom of religion, at least in Ireland.

The proposed legislation would require Catholic ethos hospitals to facilitate the performance of abortions in their operating theatres. Not even the ultra-liberal abortion laws in place in the UK place this obligation on Catholic hospitals. This is nothing less than a calculated attack on the freedom of religion of the Irish people. The credibility of the Government’s efforts, through its membership of the UN human Rights Council, to promote freedom of religion and other human rights internationally will be seriously undermined if it persists with this draconian measure. –Yours, etc,


Brackenbush Road,


Co Dublin.

Sir, – In reference to the planned Protection of Life in Pregnancy Bill, Muiris Houston (Home News, May 1st) correctly questions how an expert in obstetrics can offer an opinion on suicide risk when it will be outside of their accepted skills and expertise? Without specific ongoing education and training in the area it will be a personal rather than an expert opinion and will need to be recorded as such.

Competent hospital risk managers will be soon minded to advise their obstetricians to continue to practise only within their established competencies so as to avoid likely legitimate complaint (and litigation) by a patient or family of a patient. This is likely to mean that obstetricians will not, and should not, offer a psychiatric or non-expert opinion on suicide risk. The Medical Council is also likely to have an opinion on any doctor opining outside their area of expertise. The proposed legislation as structured is fundamentally flawed and will need to be changed. – Yours, etc,



Sydney Hill,

Wellington Road,


Sir, – The single voice that has remained silent in the X case legislation debate is that of women who have travelled for abortions due to mental health reasons.

It is not an outlandish assumption, given the numbers who travel from Ireland for abortions each year, that some women do so for these reasons.

Nor is it inconceivable that some women have found themselves suicidal, for whatever reason, on discovering that they were pregnant; that the circumstances of the pregnancy, or of the world into which the child will be born, are such that continuing with the pregnancy is a burden too much to cope with.

It is also possible that women in these circumstances have lived without regret of the decision to have an abortion.

Why do we not hear these voices? We can only guess that they are too afraid to come forward in a country that has such a strong and vocal lobby against abortion, a country which constitutionally does not allow for abortion, with a religious ethos which strongly supports this; in short, a country which disapproves of them, of their choice.

So, in a typically Irish solution to an Irish problem, we continue to export the issue of unwanted pregnancy to farther shores; out of sight, out of mind.

Because the truth is that in Ireland, we do not trust women to be the agents of their own responsibilities. This is clearly illustrated by the anti-choice lobby’s much-voiced stance that non-suicidal women will try to fool the system to obtain an Irish abortion, should the current legislation be passed. It is a shocking and unbelievable position. As if any woman would choose to expose herself to the vagaries, the unknowns, the terrifying possibilities of such a situation, unless she were truly desperate. Let’s not forget that she could potentially face being committed against her will to a mental hospital, should she be deemed not eligible for an abortion, but nonetheless a suicidal threat to herself.

Women will continue to do what they’ve always done – quietly take care of the situation as they see fit, by travelling to obtain an abortion. With all the extra burden that this entails, all the unspoken judgment. She will bear being outcast in her own country to do what she believes is necessary.

I would urge women who have travelled from Ireland to obtain abortions for mental-health reasons to come forward, anonymously, to tell their stories. I would urge media organisations such as your newspaper to give them a safe platform to do this. Their invaluable testimony is essential not alone to this debate but to how we progress as a society in our duty to the health of all women. – Yours, etc,


Munster Street,


Dublin 7.

Sir, – Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has often claimed that the people rejected an effort by Government to roll back the X case judgment, in a referendum in 2002. This view is also shared by the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, and by others in the Oireachtas.

What was presented by the Government to the people in 2002 was a proposal containing two contradictory elements: on the one hand it proposed to take away the threat of suicide as a ground for granting an abortion, while on the other hand it asked the people to remove constitutional protection for the embryo between conception and implantation (See Report of the Expert Group on the judgment in A, B and C v Ireland ). Many on the pro-life side could not accept this disregard for the right to life of the human embryo, since life is a continuum from conception to death and there is no rational basis for attributing a lesser degree of humanity to the embryo before implantation.

Consequently, the referendum proposal was rejected. As it was defeated by only a small majority, it would almost certainly have been carried if it had not been “contaminated” by the simultaneous effort to remove the right to life of the unborn between conception and implantation. – Yours, etc,


Cork Road,


Co Cork.

Sir, – It is now 21 years since the X case, in which a traumatised 14-year-old year old girl was summoned back to Ireland, after she and her parents had decided that she needed an abortion in dealing with the crisis brought about by her rape and subsequent pregnancy.

We finally have the heads of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013. While this means the reality of abortion now has to be faced within the Irish Republic, if only in a specific and narrow set of crisis-pregnancy circumstances, it doesn’t inspire much optimism for ensuring that pregnant women and girls are treated with dignity and that their personal autonomy is respected. Placing trust in women still seems as distant as ever. – Yours, etc,



Lower Glanmire Road,


Sir, – I am in complete agreement with Sr Consilio Fitzgerald (May 3rd). The mother and the foetus both have an equal right to life. If the mother is suicidal, how can that entitle anyone to terminate the life of the foetus?

In spite of psychiatric investigation, there must remain the risk that in some cases a threat of suicide will be feigned in order to obtain an abortion. To include a threat of suicide as a ground for abortion is to allow abortion in by the back door. It should be entirely omitted from the legislation. – Yours, etc,


Nutley Road,

Dublin 4.