The one question

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Want a shortcut to deciding how to vote? Just get the basics right.

The arguments on abortion are not ones that lend themselves to moderation or compromise. Look at the posters that go up one day and are gone the next, the twitter spats that need to be deleted in the cold light of day, the rallies, the launches, the organisations, the campaigns. We’re a passionate nation I guess, whatever our views. Ireland’s 8th Amendment is being dragged inch by inch closer to the chop. There are arguments on when abortion should be allowed and when it shouldn’t, up to what point, due to what illnesses, how far to take into account the mother’s wishes, physical health or mental state, the scope of choice, bodily autonomy and women’s rights. The arguments are varied and numerous. But here’s the thing, there is really only one argument that matters.

So here it is; is what is inside the mother a human being?

There are only two answers to this. Either it is or it isn’t. We’ll go with the negative first. It’s not human. Well then abortion is no big deal, no more or less than getting a mole removed or an appendix out. However this poses problems. If it’s not human, does birth make it human? But then, babies are being born as early as 21 weeks and surviving; clearly human, clearly alive. Maybe it’s the cut-off point the hospital uses for viability; that’s generally 24 weeks… but that is a creeping figure. In the 70s viability was thought to be from 28 weeks, but babies are surviving from ever earlier weeks, as seen with Amillia Taylor. And anyway, do we rate people’s humanity on their ability to fend for themselves? That knocks out whole sections of society. Not only that but dependence and interdependence are part of what makes society work. That community of varied gifts and needs. To measure people only by what they cost and not by what they offer is a harsh and selfish vision for society.

Let’s drop down a bit further then, down to 12 weeks. That’s often the first scan, that’s the first trimester completed. And of course it’s the cut off point of the proposed legislation by the politicians up to which a woman can opt for abortion for no reason. Why did they pick 12 weeks… maybe they reckon that’s where it goes from a piece of tissue to human. But by then, the heart is pumping blood, the lungs are growing, the liver is producing bile, kidneys are secreting urine, neurological connections are being made, toes are curling, fingers clenching and reflexes are responding to touch. In fact, all the bodily systems are working by 11 weeks and the difference between the 11 week fetus and the 90 year old pensioner is simply time.

Ok, it’s getting difficult, let’s go right back to 6 weeks, when most women realise they’ve missed their period. Maybe at 6 weeks the being becomes human. This should be easy because it’s the size of a kidney bean, surely that couldn’t be human. At 6 weeks though, the heart is beating at 150 beats per minute, the face has the eyes, nostrils and a mouth, buds for legs and arms are there, the foetal pituitary gland is producing hormones, and the DNA is unique. The same eyes, nostrils, mouth, arms, legs and DNA that that 90 year old pensioner will have in time, just young and tiny rather than aged and lined. So it looks a bit tiny and disposable, but everything is there, in miniature. What’s more, can we simply look at this little thing and go ‘well it couldn’t be human, it’s too small and too odd looking’? If the scientific measure you are using are your own unaided eyes, then you may well think it’s not human. But to base your opinion on what you see rather than science assisted by microscopes, ultrasounds and genetic knowledge would be pretty irrational. You wouldn’t eyeball a patient and go ‘you have heart disease’ on a hunch, any more than you would look at an embryo and go ‘you aren’t human’. You use science. And the only difference between the early embryo and the old man is nutrition and age.

Human, unique, alive.

Lets return to that point on the DNA; that it is utterly unique, two sets of 23 chromosomes (usually) from the parents. That one embryo will never be created again. Even the same parents, will never create that particular being again. Each being who meets its end in abortion, will never have a chance. It makes me shake my head when people say ‘the time isn’t right for us now, we’ll have a baby when (insert common reasoning)’. Yes you may well have a baby then, but it will not be the same baby you end now. That baby is gone, its chance at life is over. The baby you have then, will be another baby, a subsequent baby, a baby who suited your timing. The unique individual, is unrepeatable. You, the reader, are unrepeatable. Your genetic blueprint said whether you would have a fuzzy head of hair or be bald at birth, whether you would later be blonde or dark, tall or short, your outline personality, your aptitudes. All that you are by nature was there from when sperm met egg and became a zygote, and will be there till you die. Meanwhile you grow through all the stages of blastocyst, embryo, foetus, baby, toddler, child, teen, adult, elderly, as stages of the human life cycle.

To feel or not to feel

I have twice heard the argument in the last couple of weeks that the point where the embryo becomes human is the point of sentience. Sentience is feeling, either psychological or physical. Some scientists put the point of sentience as early as 8 weeks, others as late as 20. That tells me they haven’t much notion either way, but I’ll tell you what. If we are dealing with the threshold at which beings become human, they had better be very, very sure. And they are not. So to err on the side of caution seems ethically wise. What’s more, to pick sentience as the point of can do or can not in abortion makes no great sense (no pun intended). This confuses harm with hurt. I can be harmed without feeling hurt. Shall we reclassify all the reversibly comatose, the unconscious, the anesthetised, as non human? They can’t feel hurt, why not…? Sentience does not make one human. It makes the human feel, and that is an entirely different thing. The baby can be harmed, killed, with or without the fear and pain or understanding. That’s setting aside the ultrasounds of abortions (which are out there on the web should you need to verify this) which show the baby trying to escape the instruments and reacting violently to them, as one in clear agony.

Where it leaves us

So, did we pick a point where the tissue with potential became human….? That’s right, we didn’t. Because we couldn’t. Because any imposed threshold is just pinning the tail on the donkey. It’s taking a point in time, whilst the human can’t be seen and we can all ignore the process and get away with murky ethics, to decide that yesterday it wasn’t a human but today it is. More than that, it is ignoring science in order to say that this woman is happy to be expecting and she has a baby, but this woman doesn’t want to be pregnant so she has a clump of cells. Welcome to delusion.

In case I appear to be making enormous sweeping statements off my own bat, this quote from William Reville, Professor of Biochemistry at University College Cork, sums it up;

“The zygote is the start of a biological continuum that automatically grows and develops, passing gradually and sequentially through the stages we call foetus, baby, child, adult, old person and ending eventually in death. The full genetic instructions to guide the development of the continuum, in interaction with its environment, are present in the zygote. Every stage along the continuum is biologically human and each point along the continuum has the full human properties appropriate to that point”.

See the full article here, and another along similar professional lines here or his submission to the poorly named Citizen’s Assembly here.All great reading, should you wish to pursue further.

Where science supports ethics

Now let’s look at the other side. We’ll say yes, it is a human. If it’s a human, then the right to life applies throughout its life surely? If the 20 week, or 10 week, or 6 week foetus is human, then what really is the difference between aborting that foetus and deciding that we should have a cooling off period after birth? I don’t know, say the first 2 years, just to pick another arbitrary number? If we aren’t happy with the human being we are given at birth, or it’s causing us inconvenience or our budget is getting a bit tight or we find we miss sleep, an injection will sort that out. What’s the difference? There is no difference. Because human is human.

The tough cases

So if abortion is the killing of another human being, how can we be so accepting? Should the emotional arguments like cases of rape, incest, fatal foetal abnormality, any foetal abnormality; should those cases receive a different attitude than others? In cases of rape, the perpetrator is the rapist, not the baby conceived. Same for incest. We wouldn’t dream of euthanising the disabled, but we will abort them. This is the most skewed moral thinking. What we cannot see, despite its sacrosanct rights, is actually stripped of rights for the sake of the person we can see; the mother. While the most desperate, awful, unspeakable crimes are committed, and some mothers go through horrific ordeals and terrible mental anguish, the answer to her mental and emotional needs simply can not include the taking of an innocent life. If a mother with post-natal depression or post-natal psychosis wished to hurt or kill her child we wouldn’t let it happen. We don’t disbelieve her, we don’t treat her badly, we give her care and help both mental and physical, whilst protecting the child. So if the unborn being is human, how can we do any different? I guess if we can’t see it, it doesn’t count. But basing our moral compass on what we want to see instead of what is real has led over the centuries to all the human rights atrocities that we now look back at in horror. And it starts with ignoring the humanity of a group of people.

“The moral instincts of humans are generally fragile, and if they are not constantly renewed by vigorous use, they wear away until they crumble completely” (Edwin Roberts, National Observer).

The Mother’s Rights

It’s true too that options for mothers who are facing a difficult pregnancy, in terms of specialist medical help, counselling, pre-natal care, post birth support, palliative care for the infant, and ongoing years of support for the baby born with disability, are much fewer and tougher and hard to come by if available at all. This is a huge failing. If we can assess women for their mental state in order to approve an abortion, why can’t we assess them for qualifying for this extra help? The government wants the health service to provide abortions, with all the necessary medical cost. But they aren’t offering this money to try to bolster support for crisis pregnancies as a first effort short of abortion, short of repeal. They’re going to spend it, put taxpayer’s money on the line, but not to tackle the lack in women’s care in pregnancy to which they have a right, but to fund abortion. It makes no sense.

Hearts and Heads

Ultimately, how we feel about abortion is neither here nor there as a measure of it being right or wrong. There are women who use abortion as contraception and say so quite openly and believe it is a brilliant option and should be free and on demand. There are others who feel sick when they hear the word. You know what? That’s not part of the argument. That is no argument. This is an argument of science and truth, not feelings. You cannot legislate for feelings or the individual case, only for truth and the greater good of society. So we need to get this right in order to be right, not in order to feel right. Feeling right while being wrong lends itself to a weird moral schizophrenia. “Since the old ethic (preservation, protection and enhancing of human life) has not been fully displaced, it has been necessary to separate the idea of abortion from the idea of killing which continues to be socially abhorrent. The result has been a curious avoidance of the scientific fact, which everyone really knows, that human life begins at conception… The very considerable semantic gymnastics which are required to rationalise abortion as anything but taking a human life would be ludicrous if they were not often put forth under socially impeccable auspices” (California State Medical Association Journal, Sept 1970). Yes this quote is heading for fifty years old, but it’s still as relevant today as it was then, because we’re having the same debate now that America had then.

Ireland needs to ask itself the fundamental question. The whole world needs to ask itself the fundamental question. Because the answer to this informs every other argument. Is it a living human being? And then if we care about people, if we care about our own nation, if we care about human rights, if we want a caring supportive society for a diverse mix of people, we need to reject abortion. Because a society that kills its offspring is part of a disintegrating civilisation, a society where our very humanity is of no value to ourselves.

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Léan Nic Chomhaill

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Léan is a wife and mother. "There is some good in this world and it's worth fighting for" -- J.R.R. Tolkien
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