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Fintan O’Toole: Anti-abortion ‘zygopaths’ make a mockery of equality

It is wrong to equate a woman to a group of cells at the moment of conception

We need a new word for the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. It is zygopathic. It implies an outrageous equation: woman equals zygote. From the moment two haploid gametes fuse to form a single diploid cell, that cell has the same moral worth as Marie Curie or St Teresa of Calcutta or Taylor Swift or your granny, your mother, your sister, your lover, your best friend. So long as a cell equals a woman, a woman will never equal to a man.

If we had a clause in the Constitution that equated Enda Kenny or Denis O'Brien or Michael O'Leary or James Joyce or Daniel O'Donnell to a zygote, we wouldn't be setting up a consultative assembly to ponder its possible repeal. We would long since have built a giant ray gun to zap it off the face of the Earth.

It was zygopaths who created the Eighth Amendment. They believe that there is something called Life and that it is an entirely undifferentiated concept. It comes into being at that moment when the female gamete joins up with the male gamete to make a cell that has two sets of chromosomes. And that’s it – morally, spiritually, legally, politically, this “moment of conception” is utterly definitive. It draws a line.

On one side of it is nothing and on the other is everything that will ever be in a woman’s mind and heart and body. This is the philosophical basis for article 40.3.3 of the Constitution. It is not stated explicitly in the text but it is the reason the text exists.

And in a tolerant and pluralist society, we have to try to be respectful of this belief because it is a sincerely held article of religious faith. It complicates matters that most zygopaths insist that their views are not essentially religious, that their absolutist position on abortion merely happens to coincide with the teachings of their church. But there’s no avoiding the reality that this whole way of thinking is possible only if you believe that human bodies are just, in the words of singer- songwriter Stephin Merritt, “crude vessels housing immortal souls”.

Our bodies are emphatically not our selves. Our selves are our souls. And those souls are infused into the zygote at the instant of its formation. This is why the 30-year-old woman whose womb contains a fertilised egg has exactly the same moral status as that enriched ovum inside her – they are both immortal souls. The rest is mere detail.

Religious notions

Many people do believe this and their belief is entirely sincere, but it’s a very particular view, even among those who hold to religious notions of the soul. Jews and Muslims don’t have traditions of the soul entering the body at the moment of conception. Many of the leading Christian thinkers, following classical philosophy, didn’t believe it either: neither St Augustine nor St Thomas Aquinas held that the foetus in the early stages of development has a full human soul. The zygopathic view is overwhelmingly associated with post-Reformation Catholicism.

And it should never come within a mile of a republican constitution. The Constitution is no place for theology, but it’s especially no place for a formulation that belittles half of the citizens. The actual lives of women are not mere details, measly distractions from the timeless essence of the soul. A zygote is a set of instructions for the creation of a person.

We don't confuse a computer or a car with its operating manual – and it is far, far worse to confuse a human being in all her glorious complexity with the biological equivalent of an Ikea assembly guide.

Life is not an essence. It is a process. Our mothers, our sisters, our wives, our lovers, our friends, our fellow citizens are the fabulous accumulations of millions upon millions of moments – moments of physical development and growth, of learning and touching and trying and failing and succeeding, of joy and sorrow and wonder and laughter. Moments that start with the zygote and continue until death and (in memory at least) beyond.

That’s life. To be pro-life is to honour all of that accumulated personhood, not to reduce it to a single, imperceptible instant when two cells fuse into one.

Microscopic cell

The regulation of abortion is a complex legal question. But there’s nothing complex about the basic truth that the word “equal” as it appears in the Eighth Amendment, where the right to life of a woman is placed on the same footing as that of the “unborn”, is a mockery of equality.

The simple reality is that, as a man, I will never be told that everything I am, all that I have experienced and done, all my thoughts and emotions, all my human connections, are equivalent to a microscopic cell. My sons have never been told that either, but if I had daughters, they would see hanging over them a weighing scales in which their souls are perfectly balanced by those of beings that barely yet exist.

This is a savage impertinence to the dignity of Irish women and therefore to the dignity of our republic. If the republic is ever to be real, we must cure ourselves of this zygosis.