Both Lives Matter

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My name is Anne mc Closkey, and I’m here today, along with Anne Brolly, representing a new all Ireland group called “Cherish all the Children Equally”, a phrase which many will recognise as being one of the most quotable from the proclamation of the Irish Republic, posted on the GPO in Dublin over 100 years ago. We are an all Ireland secular, non party-political human-rights organisation whose aim is to defend the right to life of the unborn child throughout the island, and to maintain the laws which currently pertain in both jurisdictions to protect this right.

As a medical professional, I’m aware of the legacy of expertise and care given by obstetricians across this island, and their deserved reputation as providing exemplary care for women and their babies. Ireland is one of the safest countries anywhere to have a baby, and our obstetric and perinatal mortality figures are comparable to the best worldwide.

Now in 2017, 50 years on from the introduction of legal abortion in the British parliament, I see the very real threat in this country that we learn nothing from the failed model across the water.

We know that in England, abortion was introduced to be used only in very limited circumstances, with the intention of helping only the rare and difficult cases such as dominate public discourse here in Ireland today. But the reality is that now 1 in 3 pregnancies ends in abortion, the deliberate ending of the pre-born baby’s life. We know also that 98% of abortions are done for mainly social and economic reasons, and that to be disabled, or even have minor imperfections such as clefts or treatable cardiac defects is sufficient to render your life not worth living. Abortion in the case of disability is legal and is carried out up till the moment of birth. 95% of children with Down’s syndrome are aborted, and the “hope” is that this will increase! Worldwide, the commonest indication for termination of a pregnancy is to have that terrible “FFA” of being female. It’s estimated that in India today, there are 45 million women “missing” because of sex-selective foeticide.

Surely we can do better for our people here, rather than blindly following the failed example of most of the rest of the world. In other countries, citizens are waking up and trying to push back against the legalised killing of infants up till birth. We don’t have to make these mistakes. Indeed Ireland can, indeed does offer a progressive example of how to better care for all her citizens, with legal protections in cases where the preservation of both lives is not possible.

I qualified in medicine a long time ago, and trained as a paediatrician. I suppose like many of my age, I gave scant attention to the philosophical questions, of life, autonomy, human dignity, what does choice mean etc.

It was during my time working in peri-natal paediatrics in the SCBU of the RMH that I first started to think about the origins of life, and the heavy questions of what makes us human, what gives us rights, what makes us valuable etc. In the long watches of the night I used to look at those wee scraps of humanity fighting for breath, willing themselves to live, and hating me for hurting them sticking tubes down their throats, putting up drips and injecting antibiotics, and be sure that these were fully paid up members of the human family.

Also in that setting, it was sometimes my duty to care for children born alive, but whose life expectancy was very limited due to genetic problems. We weren’t good at it in those days, although thanks prenatal diagnosis, and to groups such as Tracey’s Every Life Counts, advocating for perinatal Hospice care, things have improved. Back in those days Prof Jim Dornan was a colleague of mine, and he posed the question recently on live TV –who is to say that a life of five minutes is less valuable than a life of seventy years?

Now when technological advances such as 3d US scans give us a window into the womb-when we know that the heart starts beating sometimes before the woman even realises she’s pregnant, that preborn infants smile, suck their thumbs, respond to music and so on, when the whole development of the baby in his or her mammy’s womb can be googled and watched, ignorance is no longer an excuse. We can see that human life is a continuum from conception to the grave.

Advances in sub cellular biology now allow us to see clearly the process whereby at fertilisation the genetic material from both parents is combined, randomly to create a human person who never ever existed before, and never ever can exist again.

1967, they could plead a degree of ignorance. We cannot.

I know I speak for many in my profession, and indeed it is the stated position of the RCOG in the North that we do not want to follow the failed model of our neighbours and extend the 1967 act to the north.

I gave up on hospital paediatrics, and moved to the field of community paeds, and there was involved in dealing with babies and children, often with very complex and challenging disabilities. We were tasked with supporting their parents and families in caring for them, and enabling them to maximise their potential.

Again, the complicated questions kept coming up. Is my human dignity and worth predicated on my economic activity? On my intellect? On my athleticism or beauty. Or is it just because I am.

And are these children born into the homes of saints, or do they make saints of the people whose lives they touch. This is in no way to glamorise or trivialise he very real problems that can arise but some of the happiest individuals and families I know don’t have much in the way of things our materialistic society regards as important. I find it bizarre that people can ooh and aah over the achievements of disabled athletes during the special Olympics, to salute their courage and tenacity, and yet argue that their lives are worthless.

I’ve spent the past 20 odd years working in an inner city GP practice in Derry, serving an urban community with high rates of socio-economic deprivation, and 60% child poverty, according to DCCs website. Our treatment room, serving 9000 patients is the size of a suburban kitchen.

It can be hectic, but it’s never boring.

When you’re as old/experienced as I am, one sees the effects of decisions and interventions not only as they happen, but also over years, lifetimes even, and often across generations.

In my daily work, I try to help people not only with hardcore medical problems, but to deal with the day to day issues that life throws at them-poverty, unwagedness, drug and alcohol addiction, marital discord the effects of austerity and benefit , housing problems and so on. It’s difficult to make healthy or pro-life choices when the socio-economic situations of so many are so desperate.

I help patients to control their fertility, as well as supporting and arranging treatment for those who are involuntarily infertile. I support women and their partners who have suffered the trauma of miscarriage, and I offer similar support to women who have had induced abortions. Very often their grief is the same.

It has been estimated that over 100,000 people in Ireland are alive today because of our laws protecting the dignity of human life. How many of these are our friends, colleagues, family members, partners or perhaps people present in this room today?

I’ve very personal experience of this. My youngest daughter had a crisis pregnancy, and her beautiful daughter Fionnuala lives with us and is the light of all our lives. Since she arrived almost two years ago, the house is full of laughter and joy, and we old wans haven’t time to nag at one another.

I believe we need to reclaim the language used by those seeking to change our laws. It is we pro-life people who are the progressive voices, we who want good, life affirming choices for women, who care about how individuals and society regard those with disabilities.

This article was first published on Both Lives Matter in 2017

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Anne McCloskey

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Dr Anne McCloskey is a GP based in Derry. "If we have an idea that we need to 'cherish all the children of the nation equally' then that is what it should actually mean."
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