Abortion continues to be a highly emotive topic in Irish politics and public life. The campaign to repeal the eighth amendment to the Irish Constitution has brought the question of abortion in the state back to the centre of public debate, and, as is to be expected, tempers on both sides of the discussion are heating up. Without adding fuel to the fire, the purpose of this brief article is to make some general observations on the abortion issue and some particular comments on the campaign to abolish the aforementioned amendment. Anger and fanatical positions on either side of the debate add little to the real discussion, and so before this blog decides to weigh in it is important that we first clarify some of the key points.
It is true that the termination of a pregnancy in the Republic of Ireland is illegal, and that the life of the unborn is constitutionally protected and given parity with that of the mother. Yet this does not mean that abortion is absolutely forbidden. The medical ethical rule of double-effect permits abortion in Irish hospitals when the purpose of the intervention is to save the life of the pregnant mother. Any therapeutic intervention where ending the life of the foetus is the primary objective is forbidden under Irish law. Such is the current state of abortion law in Ireland, and the lack of clarity in when it can be legally acted upon is less than perfect.
As of 2013 any pregnancy deemed to be a risk to the life of the mother, including the risk of suicide, can legally be ended, but still there are complaints from within the medical profession that further clarification on this law’s application is required. What remains outstanding, in the opinion of many, are laws in Ireland that permit the targeting of the life of the child on the grounds of the mother’s choice, the abnormality of the developing child in utero, and the viability of the child’s life. Naturally there are objections within wider Irish society to these concerns, and it is from here the current debate stems.
Ireland’s Constitution and the majority Catholic faith of Ireland recognise the life of the child as a human life separate from yet dependant on the pregnant mother. Such recognition has both legal and moral consequences, namely that the unborn has human rights equal to that of any other person including the right to the legal protection of life. The counter position to this is that the unborn is not alive and therefore not a human being. This position poses perhaps the most difficult moral and ethical set of questions in the entire debate: When does life begin, and when does that life merit the protection of society? Few who advocate individual choice on these questions are prepared, without recourse to un-nuanced slogans, to offer a reasoned defence on the vitality problem.