Moral certainty is not sufficient to shape legislation

Opinion: We could base abortion ethics on the moral experience of women

The current debate about abortion is fundamentally an ethical disagreement and, second, a political disagreement about how a State should legislate when citizens hold diametrically opposite views about when a termination of pregnancy is morally permissible.

That suggests that those who are absolutely certain about their ethical views – which are evidently not shared by many others – should reflect on the source and certainty of their convictions.

Religious dogma
Archbishop Eamon Martin spoke recently about Catholics "putting faith into practice" and not leaving "our faith 'outside the room'" when they discuss legislation. No one can argue with faith. The history of religions shows that sects have held the most irrational and misogynistic beliefs, and have attributed them to a god.

Of course, non-religious people have held equally implausible beliefs, but they cannot protect them from examination by appealing to faith. Thus the distinctive feature of a religious ethics is that its source is claimed to be divine and therefore not open to debate or rational examination. As Bishop Martin said, “no individual, no majority and no state can ever create, modify or destroy” what he believes is a natural right.


But, as John Locke argued in his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), it is impossible to certify the divine origin of religious ethics without circularity; religious people believe that their teaching is inspired, and then believe that teaching because they believe it was inspired.

When confronted by religious diversity, citizens have to fall back on common human values. Luckily, most human beings agree about what is valuable to them. For example, we value our health, our continued living (with qualifications), our friendships, and various kinds of liberty.

Although there is no guarantee in advance, as Isaiah Berlin argued, that all our values will fit together neatly, philosophical ethics is an attempt to provide a systematic and coherent account of human values that are widely shared. It's almost inevitable, however, that some of our moral convictions clash with others; when that happens, we are not certain what to do. But uncertainty is not a sign of error here. It's more like the opposite. It also suggests that we should be open to changing our minds in the light of experience or new technologies, and that what may look like a principled approach is possibly dogma masquerading as divine truth.

For example, there was something truly bizarre, three decades ago, about celibate male clergy discussing the details of women's menstrual cycles and urging a parliament to criminalise some kinds of family planning as "unnatural", thereby supporting the enactment of the Health (Family Planning) Act, 1979. In retrospect, most people regard the Catholic Church's views in Humanae Vitae as (at best) mistaken. The church that taught "the direct interruption of the generative process" is intrinsically evil exposes once again the unreliability of its moral teaching.

Human life
Those who are opposed to any termination of a pregnancy, no matter what the circumstances, speak about taking a "human life" and thereby equate a termination with taking the life of another person. The Constitution similarly speaks vaguely about "the right to life of the unborn" (in Irish: ceart na mbeo gan breith), as if "the unborn" were already a person who just happened not to be born. There are familiar reasons, however, for not accepting that every human life is that of a person from the moment of conception, and that the rights and moral entitlements attributed to persons apply to human life from conception.

We can address ethical disagreement by consulting the faith of citizens, as Archbishop Martin recommends. Alternatively, we could rely on the moral experience of women as the primary source on which to base an ethics of family planning or abortion. If male clergy do not share women’s experience or moral insights, they might at least refrain from demanding that women be criminalised, on the basis of uncertain religious convictions that depend on faith. Otherwise, they are using the law to enforce their own religious beliefs on others who do not share their faith.

In a republic, politicians should not enforce the religious beliefs of some citizens on others, nor should they respond to threats of excommunication that exceed the provisions of Canon Law. Ideally, Irish citizens should be offered an opportunity to remove article 40.3.3º from the Constitution, so that a democratically elected Oireachtas can legislate for those limited circumstances in which a termination of pregnancy is ethically permissible.

Desmond M Clarke is emeritus professor of philosophy at UCC and a member of the Royal Irish Academy