Legislation must save life of mother not take life of child


There is at least one issue that pro-choice, pro-life and all shades between can agree on – the need to preserve a mother’s life. Where there is no hope of survival for an unborn baby due to immaturity, and where the infamous “real and substantial risk to the life of the mother” is present, the concern is always to prevent one tragedy turning into two.

That consensus might not stretch much further than that. Pro-choice advocates might believe that a threat of suicide is a valid “real and substantial risk”, while pro-life people might believe that abortion as a “treatment” for suicidal ideation is neither desirable nor helpful.

A letter by eight psychiatrists this week claimed the key point in recent research is that “where a pregnancy is unplanned, the mental health outcome for those women who have an abortion is the same as for those women who go on to have a baby”. But if abortion makes no positive difference, in what sense is it a treatment?

Ironically, the very research to which the psychiatrists provide an internet link suggests outcomes are not all the same: “There were some additional factors associated with an increased risk of mental health problems specifically related to abortion . . . if a woman has a negative attitude towards abortion, shows a negative emotional reaction to the abortion or is experiencing stressful life events, health and social care professionals should consider offering support, and where necessary treatment, because they are more likely than other women who have an abortion to develop mental health problems”.

Careful about claims

Abortion and the care of mothers are such sensitive subjects that we all need to be careful about the claims we make. What matters is not having something passionate to say, but the truthfulness of what we say. Language and distinctions matter. They matter when it comes to life, and they matter when it comes to law.

There is an attempt to blur the distinction between life-saving treatment for a mother and a deliberate attempt to end the life of her baby. Anyone who wishes to maintain that distinction is apparently being dishonest, motivated by a desire to maintain some unrealistic ideal of Holy Catholic Ireland, and unwilling to acknowledge reality.

The belief there is no difference between attempting to save a mother’s life and any other medical procedure where the intention is to end the life of a baby is held by Fintan O’Toole, among others. Fintan is a fine writer, who spends a significant proportion of his professional life examining in forensic detail the nuances of language in drama, and how language serves to illuminate profound human concerns.

If he cannot see the distinction, I despair. He has asked rhetorically, “When is an abortion not an abortion?” I believe a better question is, “When is a termination of pregnancy not an abortion?” The root of the word “abortion”, according to the OED, comes from the mid-16th century Latin word, aboriri, meaning “miscarry”.

Medical personnel are now instructed not to use the word abortion in relation to miscarriage, because it is too upsetting for bereaved parents. Yet it is proposed to use the word abortion for a situation where the only options are one tragedy or two.

All pregnancies are terminated. Most are terminated by birth and a healthy baby. Some are terminated by miscarriage. Some are terminated by life-saving treatment. And some are terminated because of a decision of a mother, where there is no risk to either the life or health of the mother. Yet we are now expected to blur vital distinctions to facilitate the desire of some people to bring about a liberalisation of abortion laws.

Another blurring is the attempt to pretend that we can legislate for X without legalising abortion on demand. But what protection will there be? The signatures of two doctors? Contrary to popular opinion, the British 1967 Act was never intended to legislate for abortion on demand. The signatures of two doctors were required, because abuse was unthinkable. Yet it is now virtually a meaningless ritual, and almost no one is refused an abortion.

The distinction between life-saving treatment and direct abortion is not a fudge. It cannot be dismissed simply because it is associated with an unpopular and sometimes derided faith tradition.

To wish to maintain these distinctions is painted as extreme. But sometimes the middle ground is not the morally superior position. Martin Luther King did not think so, and neither did William Wilberforce. If we cannot say life is valuable no matter the colour, life-stage or gender without being labelled extreme, we have reached a sorry pass indeed. There have been tragedies before Savita Halappanavar: Tania McCabe, and Nigerian Bimbo Onanuga, to name just two. Every death of a mother in pregnancy or childbirth is devastating.

Most pro-life advocates are people who have experienced pregnancy and childbirth. The women did not want to die in the process, and the men didn’t want to sacrifice the women they love for some unknown person, born or unborn.

But they also did not want their child’s life ended at the first sign of trouble. Is that now extreme? We must legislate to save lives, while simultaneously not legislating to permit the deliberate taking of lives. We can make fine distinctions in other areas: it must be possible here.

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