Harris must explain his volte face on abortion

The Minister’s legislation requires doctors to involve themselves actively in ending the baby’s life

Minister for Health Simon Harris’s response to the proposed amendments to his Bill on abortion should make us reflect on the kind of political leadership we are being given. The unborn child has become unworthy of mention, without rights, whose very existence can scarcely be acknowledged. The fact that abortion consists of the intentional taking of the life of the unborn child is left unsaid, as though to give words to that reality would violate some profound rule of decency.

Yet facts remain facts, even when censored from polite discussion. The Government’s Bill provides for the intentional taking of the life of an unborn child, for any reason up to 12 weeks and for a range of reasons extending well beyond the protection of the mother’s life right up to birth. The Minister says the Bill does not provide for late abortion. The facts are otherwise.

The Bill is not concerned with cases of early delivery of viable babies. Its focus is the intentional termination of the child's life. The Minister stated unequivocally in the Dáil on November 7th: "Abortion is not allowed in Ireland where a pregnancy has reached viability." His own Bill directly contradicts this assertion for the future, prescribed by the legislation he has produced.

Complex language games

Harris says abortions for disability will not take place. Yet the fact is that, under his Bill, it is likely that some abortions will take place based on a 99 per cent accuracy of testing within the 12-week period. Harris plays complex language games directed at people of good faith who do not endorse abortions where the baby has a disability. He argues that, in contrast to English law, his Bill does not contain a ground for abortion based on disability. But what he persists in denying is the fact that, under his Bill, some abortions are likely to take place, completely in accordance with the provisions of the Bill. Further, the fact is that the Bill obliges a general practitioner who is told by the mother that this is why the abortion is being sought to ensure that the abortion is facilitated. Far from excluding the possibility of abortions being carried out because the baby has a disability, Mr Harris’s legislation actually requires doctors to involve themselves actively in ending the baby’s life.


We used to accept that the killing of innocent human beings is wrong

The Minister opposes provisions ensuring that the baby should at least not suffer pain. The fact is that many babies do. No doctor, even the strongest enthusiast for Harris’s Bill, can deny the fact that the Bill legalises abortions of babies well capable of suffering pain. Harris prefers to leave the matter to the discretion of doctors carrying out the abortion. When asked whether he personally supported pain relief being provided to individuals in an operation that causes pain, he said he was “not in the personal opinion space”. He must know that pain relief is not generally provided in countries where abortion is widely practised. He has the power and responsibility to ensure that in Irish hospitals, babies whose lives are being terminated do not suffer this extra indignity. Yet he chooses to stand idly by.

Ethical abyss

Our society has been founded on principles so familiar to us that we scarcely recognise them, but take them away and we truly face an ethical abyss. We used to accept that the killing of innocent human beings is wrong. We used to accept that causing unnecessary pain to any animate creature was unjustified. We used to accept that the continuity of a human being’s rights is not subject to the choice of another human being to end them. Harris used to represent himself as subscribing to this humane set of values. The onus is surely now on him as a Minister to provide a coherent normative justification for his volte face in relation to the rights of children before birth. Slogans are not enough. Rhetoric may confuse, but it does not still the human unease at the regime he now proposes.

Beyond argument

Harris cannot deny the fact that his Bill legalises abortions where there is no question of any medical necessity. If abortions can take place for no stated reason, this fact is beyond argument. Yet Harris is proposing that general practitioners who are sufficiently troubled by this injustice must be implicated in the process by requiring them to take steps to ensure that the baby’s life is indeed terminated by the intervention of another general practitioner. This is a profound corruption of medical ethics and a violation of freedom of conscience. Harris’s insistence on forcing humane doctors to be tarnished by such active involvement is puzzling, as he can achieve by a range of other means the goal of making abortion available in every locality, if this is his desire.

Intentionally taking the lives of human beings, even very small, defenceless and dependent ones, is not right

Up to now, Harris has proceeded by soundbite. His underlying strategy suggests a coherent and consistent philosophy, but one that, when probed, contradicts the humane principles on which our society has been founded. Intentionally taking the lives of human beings, even very small, defenceless and dependent ones, is not right. It is not necessary. It causes injustice and pain. A Minister for Health in Ireland today can do better than this.

William Binchy, barrister-at-law, adjunct professor of law, Trinity College Dublin; legal adviser to the Pro Life Campaign.