“REPEAL” was spray-painted on my wall. Must I Obey?


Once again my street was vandalised by REPEAL activists. Five times this year this has happened. Abortion is a massive issue and no one is denying that, but we have to think more and act less. Maturity is an active ingredient in a healthy society.

Ethics is important. Ethics is the science of doing the right thing and answering the question why we should do the right thing. Ethics is complicated because there are schools of ethical opinion that are often at odds with one another, and with each school there exists hierarchies of goods. It may be wrong to lie, for example, but it may be considered good to lie in order to protect people’s lives. Theft is considered a bad thing to do, in general, but stealing food to feed starving children is rarely frowned upon. Murder is universally condemned, but most people agree that sometimes killing – as just punishment or in war – is permissible. There are very few absolutes in any school of ethics, and so doing the right thing doesn’t always help one sleep at night.

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Not that the issue ever went away, but recently the question of abortion has again burst onto the stage of public discussion in Ireland. No matter how much some people – on both sides of the debate – would like to reduce this debate to slogans, abortion is an ethical problem, and, of course, there are competing ethical positions. Rather than being two-sided, as much of the public debate tends to be, ethics presents a spectrum of nuanced opinion from the ultra-conservative to the extreme libertarian with every conceivable gradation in between. If anything, the range and content of the present medical and philosophical ethical debates on the issue should remind us all that this is a question we all ought to think more about, rather than leaping on popular bandwagons and relying on our “feelings.”

Few would relish the thought of life in a society where murder and killing was both legal and commonplace. People need security and have always needed the security the ethical and legal protection of life offers. This “right to life” is presupposed by civilisation and so becomes one of the pillars of civilised social existence. Yet every day, here and around the world, legal and ethical decisions are made that result in the actual killing of persons or otherwise lead to their deaths. In the medical profession the decision as to who receives an organ transplant often leads to the death of those who did not. By no means does this make the decision-maker a killer or indeed a murderer. This is simply the law of double effect, where the intervention to save the life of one results in the death of another in a situation where saving both is not possible.

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Yet, even in such decisions the people responsible as decision-makers are under no illusions that they are dealing with the life and death of living human beings. On a number of occasions I have spoken with doctors who have made such decisions, and I am yet to speak with one who is not deeply troubled by their decisions. It is true that they save lives, but with this comes the burden of knowing others in their care must die. This is ethical; it is the right thing to do, but it does not help the helper sleep.

Similarly, when we discuss abortion, we cannot enter the debate refusing to acknowledge that the intervention will and does result in the ending of a human life – that of the child in utero. Here some clarification on language is necessary. Many on the “pro-choice” side of the debate resent the use of humanising vocabulary (“baby” or “child” for instance), preferring a more clinical terminology (“cells” or “foetus” for example). On the other side, “pro-life” activists opt for language that identifies the life in the womb as a human being. Both are perfectly correct. During the early stages of gestation the human embryo is a collection of cells – living human cells. Further along in pregnancy the foetus is an unborn baby and vice versa. The choice of language people choose to adopt is determined by a multitude of factors, and, while we cannot ignore the part ideology and rhetoric frequently play in this choice, people’s choice of vocabulary should be respected.

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However, we cannot ignore the fact that the embryo and the foetus are human. Left to develop – in the case of “normal” pregnancies – it will not mature into anything other than a living, breathing human being. This is not a matter of opinion. Neither is it the case that anyone, under international law, has a human right to end this life. In fact, by United Nations treaty, this life is explicitly protected. This said, neither is it the case that international law or the majority of ethical stances completely forbid therapeutic, medical intervention intended to save the life of the mother when life threatening complications arise during pregnancy. It is here that Roman Catholic teaching and international law are in agreement: Medical intervention directed to the saving of a mother’s life is permissible even when that intervention results in the death of the child. Following the medical ethical principle of primum non nocere – “first, do no harm” – this permission must adhere to the law of double effect where the death of the child is not the intention of the intervention, but the result of saving the life of the mother.

Here in Ireland the law does provide for abortion, but only in cases where the pregnancy endangers the life of the mother. In such cases – although this law requires urgent clarification (as was sadly highlighted in the case of the death of Savita Halappanavar on 28 October 2012) – no amendment of the Constitution is required. In Ireland the Constitution, in an amendment that “acknowledges the right to life of the unborn (the eighth amendment),” prohibits abortion in all other circumstances including cases of rape, incest or foetal anomaly. Calls for the repeal of the eighth amendment then seek a change to the law that would provide for the termination of the life of the foetus to be the primary object of the intervention. This is ethically more problematic, but does have ethical and international law precedents. Yet, it is problematic in that it cannot be argued in public without an explicit acknowledgement that its purpose is to end a life. Whether this is ethically good or bad – in all cases – is the subject of intense debate.

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Whatever the outcome of this debate, we all have an obligation to engage in the discussion – as moral agents – openly and honestly; no matter what “side” we are on. A referendum on the question of the repeal of the eighth amendment is not presently on the agenda of the government, and yet it is clear for all to see that a campaign is already underway. We live in a democracy and, while we have to view the rightness of the opinion of the democratic majority with a hermeneutic of suspicion, we must respect that democracy by engaging in it as mature, intelligent adults. Where it is clear that the “pro-choice” campaign has the more difficult ethical case to make, the campaigning tactics of some of its activists are – quite frankly – an insult to the community and wider Irish society. Certainly there is a case to be made, but the tactic of graffiti sloganism has to stop. Any argument associated with the vandalism of my street is less likely to be received without prejudice by the people who live on my street.

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Is this some form of tyranny?


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