The unborn is a human being and worthy of protection

Thu, Aug 30, 2012, 01:00

OPINION:FINTAN O’TOOLE’S analysis of the abortion debate is impressive, for reasons he surely did not intend. For it forces us to reflect on the most important question underlying the debate, rarely mentioned by advocates such as himself of “the right to choose”.

Using emotive language, he identifies the implications of recognising the equal worth and dignity of every human being: “Over the last decade, the equivalent of the entire population of Limerick city has been murdered. If you believe this, it dwarfs every other question in modern Ireland – the Northern Ireland conflict...; the economic crisis; any and every abuse of human rights by the State.”

Of course, the premise which he is inviting the reader to accept is that the termination of the lives of unborn children should not be the source of serious concern because unborn children, on account of their immaturity, are less worthy of respect and protection.

We are also prodded to agree that a fertilised ovum is not “a human being in exactly the same sense as Nelson Mandela or Lady Gaga or the pope” is.

No one has any difficulty in perceiving the obvious factual differences between human beings attributable to their age, economic power, beauty, health and moral strength.

Yet the central human rights value – the equal worth and dignity of every human being – is rejected by Fintan’s analysis. Human beings in the early stages of their life, when they are at risk of abortion on a “right to choose” test, are in his eyes not human beings “in exactly the same sense” as Mandela.

Mandela was indeed a human being when he was in his mother’s womb. His adult life of profound commitment, courage and generous forgiveness still lay ahead of him. Yet, in his humanity, in the first days of his life, he was not some different, lesser, human being.

If human rights, and in particular the right to life, can depend on the exact “sense” in which we are human, the universal solidarity between all human beings is fractured. We have no difficulty in recognising this fracturing when we examine how blind powerful people were to the full humanity of others in the past, including the sorry chapters of Irish history. It may be less comfortable to interrogate contemporary culture.

It is not good enough to invite acceptance of a philosophy based on an inequality of rights without articulating and defending one’s premises.

Fintan’s philosophy denies human rights to an unborn human being on account of the child’s immaturity. We have yet to hear from him a principled basis for determining the point at which “the right to choose” to terminate that life gives way to the obligation to respect it.

Fintan takes the easy way out by ascribing an “overwhelmingly” religious motivation to the proponents of protection for the unborn based on a philosophy of equal dignity. He knows that, over the 20 years since it began, the Pro Life Campaign has advocated a human rights argument without reference to religion and that the same was true of the earlier Pro Life Amendment Campaign.

There is, however, a larger issue on which, as a committed intellectual, Fintan could with benefit engage the attention of his readers. This concerns the normative foundations of human rights. Are they “nonsense on stilts” as Bentham said of natural rights? How is it ever possible to move credibly from the language of “is” to that of “ought”?

Must religious language, including such notions as the infinite power of love, be consigned to oblivion so far as public discourse is concerned or can it be translated meaningfully into secular terms? The advocates of protection for the unborn, far from being isolated from the real world, insistently point to the empirical facts of medicine in support of their argument.

Irish doctors and hospitals, treating mothers and their unborn children with full respect, make sure that mothers receive all necessary medical care. The result makes Ireland one of the very safest countries in the world for pregnant mothers and their children. In the twenty years since the Supreme Court decision, studies carried out largely by researchers with a “right to choose” normative position, have found significant evidence of an association between abortion and increased suicidal ideation.

Fintan’s article, for all its philosophical incoherence, has done an important service in reminding us that the issue is important, that it goes to the core of our humanity and that it calls for our most serious engagement, for the good of our society.


William Binchy is Regius Professor of Laws at Trinity College Dublin and legal adviser to the Pro Life Campaign

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