Much of the current debate surrounding the eighth amendment to the Irish Constitution, in which the Irish State “acknowledges the right to life of the unborn,” has focused on the question of the right to procure a safe and legal medical termination in the case of fatal foetal abnormalities. Such is where the child has been diagnosed with a terminal condition which will result in death during or shortly after pregnancy. People who have never been given such a diagnosis during pregnancy, or who have never suffered the loss of a child, can only imagine the agony that parents who have must experience. Pregnant mothers and their spouses who have been given such devastating news must be treated with compassion, and the entire matter of their pregnancy must be handled with the greatest sensitivity, care, and understanding.


According to the Irish Family Planning Association abortion is not legal in Ireland in cases of rape, incest or foetal anomalies, and broadly speaking this is true, but not entirely. In Irish law abortion is permitted only when an intervention is required to save the life of the mother; acting on the principle of double-effect. This, of course, does not provide for abortion on the grounds of rape or incest, but, as has been pointed out by the European Court of Human Rights, there is a case to be made that in the eventuality of a fatal abnormality the foetus may be considered not an “unborn” for the purposes of the eighth amendment, or that if considered an “unborn” then its right to life may be presumed unengaged as it has no real prospect of life outside the womb. Clare Daly TD has explored this in detail.

As it is not the purpose of this short discussion to examine the very real difficulties suffered by women who are survivors of rape or incest we will suspend these for the time being. Reflecting solely on the question of termination due to fatal foetal abnormality, there is no reason why the eighth amendment should be repealed in order legislate for the termination of pregnancy in such circumstances.

Repealing the eighth amendment, removing the recognition of the right to life of all unborn children in the state, in order to make possible the termination of non-viable pregnancies, would open the way for a wider use of abortion than with which Ireland may be comfortable. Regardless of the many women and men who are in favour of the right to abortion the democratic majority in the country remain overwhelmingly at least nominally Christian and informed by an ethic that recognises the value of human life from conception to death. Arguments to the effect that this religious morality is the result of indoctrination, much like the argument that society simply does not trust women with their own bodies, presume that the majority lack the ability to think for themselves. While there is a case to be made, it need not require the repeal of the eighth amendment or a contradiction of Christian values.


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