Repeal of Eighth would desensitise Ireland’s culture of care

My son’s brief life was a lesson in the value of our constitutional protection

An ultrasound image of a five-month-old foetus.

An ultrasound image of a five-month-old foetus.

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As the Beast from the East met Storm Emma with the resulting extreme weather for many across our country, we all witnessed an unprecedented outpouring of community spirit.

It was heartening to hear stories of farmers ferrying patients and even some medical staff to hospitals, employers – including airlines and RTÉ – putting up key staff in accommodation so that they could avoid unnecessary journeys. Equally heartening was the sight of neighbours brandishing spades and working together to clear driveways and roads in housing estates which the local council would not or could not do.

Irish culture includes an instinctive and strong reputation for generosity and care for others

In those areas worst affected by the weather, people delivered food and fuel to those in need on the margins, while others took time to reach out to their vulnerable neighbours.

But perhaps this spirit, this reaction, was not so unprecedented. Irish culture includes an instinctive and strong reputation for generosity and care for others, particularly in times of crises. Many believe, as I do, that this spirit is borne out of the horrendous experience of our ancestors during an Gorta Mór, the Great Famine.

Plight of unborn

As I reflect on this recent positive response to a critical situation which challenged everyone in Ireland, a parallel issue of great importance facing our society comes to mind. I am thinking of the plight of babies growing towards birth in this country.

In this context there has been much public discussion of late about the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution which provides for the equal right to life of the mother and her unborn baby. But far from being an activist my interest is a personal one as my life has been deeply touched by this issue.

Pro Life Campaign spokeswoman Cora Sherlock said once the implications of amending the current law become clear over the course of a referendum people will change their minds. Photograph: The Irish Times
"If this fundamental right to life is removed it will have a profound and adverse effect on the shape of our society and will, I fear, desensitise the culture of life which exists here in Ireland." File photograph: The Irish Times

On Friday August 13th, 2004, my husband Alan and I were overjoyed at the birth of our third child, Austin, a wonderful brother to his older sisters, Emma and Bláithín. Following Austin’s birth, I required immediate medical attention for a severe post-partum haemorrhage.

Some hours later, an excellent midwife noticed a change in our baby’s breathing pattern. Upon examination, Austin was referred from Portiuncula Hospital, Co Galway, to Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital, Crumlin.

Our little boy was diagnosed with a complicated congenital heart defect, a condition that he had long before his birth and one which limited his life. The term, life-limiting condition, I believe, is a more accurate description of his condition as opposed to the term fatal foetal abnormality, because the former focuses on life instead of fatality. Language is important and, if properly used, signals a respect towards our experience.

We know now that, in the event that the amendment is repealed, such a vote would remove the only constitutional protection that the unborn baby currently enjoys

My husband and I, and our children, were blessed to share 10 precious days of Austin’s life. We experienced outstanding medical and pastoral attention, as our little boy indelibly touched the lives of all those who took care of him.

We treasured each day of Austin’s life during which we experienced passing on our faith to our son as he received the sacraments of baptism and confirmation.

Family support

As we celebrate the international World Meeting of Families in August in Dublin, I recall the commitment of all of Alan’s family, and my own, to the care for Austin, and myself, during that time. In particular, as a mother with a serious medical condition which required me to attend at the Coombe maternity hospital, I greatly appreciated the standard of care extended to both of us.

We know now that, in the event that the amendment is repealed, such a vote would remove the only constitutional protection that the unborn baby currently enjoys. Furthermore, if this fundamental right to life is removed it will have a profound and adverse effect on the shape of our society and will, I fear, desensitise the culture of life which exists here in Ireland.

Every life, be it for a few days, weeks or months in the womb, or if limited after the birth, is very precious and will touch and positively influence the life experience of many others. I should know.

It is because of Austin’s life that I have acquired the personal courage and conviction to speak openly on this the most significant issue to face Irish society in a generation.

Eithne Deane is a wife, mother, solicitor and trainee catechist in the Diocese of Elphin

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