Aborted unborn feeling pain is an inconvenient truth

Rite&Reason: Ignoring sentient nature of unborn beings keeps door closed on their humanity

What God was doing in a certain irregular and unexpected pregnancy is at the very heart and foundation of Christian faith – not to mention the heart of Advent and Christmas.

In a sense, at least on the register of imagination and affectivity, Christians at this time of year are accompanying an unborn child through the last days of his life in the womb and the first days after his birth.

It’s little wonder, then, that the issue of abortion is so fraught, so neuralgic, for so many Christians. The wrongfulness of abortion is a “public truth”, rather than one that depends on religious insight or revelation.

That the unborn child is a human being deserving of rights including the rightto life is not some arcane religious truth. That said, the fact that the birth of the as-yet-unborn Christ is anticipated each year through the season of Advent, then celebrated at Christmas, gives thoughtful Christians a particular sensibility regarding abortion.


It’s ironic – at least from a Christian perspective – that the crucial developments regarding abortion legislation should be occurring while the unborn Christ is far into his third trimester.

Here, once again, I speak for what Christians experience on the register of imagination and affectivity. It’s not, of course, that the Christ child is actually in utero again.

Pain relief

On Thursday, November 29th, there was a Dáil vote on a legislative amendment that would, if passed, have made it mandatory to administer pain relief to the unborn during a late-term abortion.

The first thing to note is how far – and how terribly, terribly quietly – we’ve moved in the past few months. On May 25th last, two-thirds of those who voted in the referendum agreed to the proposition that: “Provision may be made by law for the regulation of termination of pregnancies.”

The electorate did not specify anything more than that. The amendment did not include any checks or balances. Yes, it was hemmed in and hedged about by a good deal of rhetoric, some of which was transparent fudge, some of which was doubtless sincere.

But the fact is that the change made on May 25th last offered carte blanche to our legislators.

If this sounds like a crude overstatement, then a little thought experiment may help. Imagine, last May, in the weeks before the referendum, hearing a debate in the Oireachtas on whether or not pain-relief for the unborn should be mandatory when late-term abortions were being carried out.

Would such frankness have helped the cause? Would it have encouraged people to vote for repeal of the constitutional protection of the unborn? Of course not. And if anyone had suggested that such a debate could occur, they would have been dismissed as a deluded alarmist.

Capable of agony

To be clear, the 61 TDs who voted against making the administration of pain-relief mandatory (against 22 who voted in favour) were not voting against pain-relief for the unborn in the throes of an abortion. What they were saying was that they did not feel it should be obligatory. Why not?

What could possibly be lost by insisting on pain-relief for a sentient creature, demonstrably capable of agony (witness Dr Bernard Nathanson’s film The Silent Scream)? What could possibly motivate leaving this to the whim or preference of the person carrying out the abortion?

What could possibly be lost by insisting on pain-relief for a sentient creature demonstrably capable of agony?

A vet putting down a horse will do all in his or her power to ensure that the animal is comfortable, unstressed and pain-free. What might be the problem with extending the same “humaneness” to an unborn human?

Even if our ideology would have us omit the word “human” here, nobody is arguing that the unborn is not sentient, or that dismemberment or poisoning do not cause it agony. So again, why not make pain-relief mandatory, in law?

The answer is as simple as it is sinister. Give any recognition, anywhere in the legal apparatus, of the sentient nature of the unborn, and you open a door towards a recognition of humanity.

Open that door, and you might open another – and another. We can’t deny the reality of an unborn creature writhing in agony inside its human mother while the abortionist’s tools take hold.

This has been recorded on ultrasound. We can’t deny it, but we must not recognise it either. It is an inconvenient truth.

Rev Dr Chris Hayden is a priest of the diocese of Ferns and editor of Intercom magazine