Tomorrow (Friday 25 May) Ireland goes to the polls to determine whether their Constitution should continue to grant the fundamental human right to life to unborn children, right up to the point of birth. The key question, as I see it, is whether we recognise an unborn child as a human being, a person, or whether we view them as a thing with the potential to later become a human being.
If you are 100% certain that an unborn child is a thing rather than a person, then it follows that it should not be afforded human rights. In that case abortion is purely a medical procedure.
However, if we allow for the view that the unborn child is a person, a human being, then everything changes.
Even though the majority of abortions carried out are for social reasons, the referendum debate has focussed on the very small percentage of abortions that are carried out in very traumatic circumstances – the victims of rape, or where the baby has a very serious abnormality or disability. These cases are indeed heart-rending, and the Irish government has argued (untruthfully, in my view) that the only way to address such cases is to permit abortion on demand for any reason.
But, once we view the unborn child as a human being, even these ‘hard cases’ look very different. Of course any decent person grieves for rape victims, or for parents who have received a devastating pre-natal diagnosis – but do such situations really justify taking the life of another human being? Is the killing of another innocent human being really an appropriate response to the gross violation that is rape?
So who decides whether an unborn child is a human being in their own right or not? The concept of personhood is philosophical, not scientific. We don’t actually have any scientific criteria that determines when somebody becomes a person. Religions offer dogmatic answers, as do the advocates of abortion, but dogma does not make good law.
I would suggest that we look to how we view unborn children in contexts other than abortion. Think of how new parents gasp in wonder when they see the first ultrasound scan of their child. Think of how we congratulate couples when we learn that they are expecting a child. Do we talk about their ‘foetus’, or do we ask after the health of their ‘baby’? When we suffer the heartache of a miscarriage or a stillbirth, are we mourning the loss of a life that never was? A prospective person? Or are we mourning the death of a tiny person?
The fact of the matter is that most of us, irrespective of whether we are religious or not, instinctively view an unborn child as a human being in all contexts other than when we are trying to rationalise its deliberate destruction. And that is very telling indeed. We are, as human beings, hard-wired to recognise other human beings with a sense of kinship. For me, one of the most effective posters that I have seen in the current referendum campaign has not mentioned abortion at all. It simply portrays an unborn child in the early stages of pregnancy with the caption “One of Us”.
We instinctively recognise unborn children as part of our common humanity. Mothers, in particular, tend to feel this bond much earlier than the rest of us – and we should learn to trust mothers.
Is Ireland really going to vote to amend its Constitution so as to reduce the scope of human rights and exclude a particular group of human beings?