The Fundamental Right to Life
The Second World War, which touched every continent in the world, ended just seventy years ago. While it lasted, the principal focus for many ordinary people was simply to survive. Within months of the ending of the war, however, people had begun to reflect in a more organised way on the many crimes against humanity – and particularly against non-combatants – which had not just happened during the war, but which in many cases were part of the ideology behind the war. While the finger of blame was pointed for the most part in the direction of Hitler’s Germany, the reality is that the racist and anti-semitic ideology which was so central to the Nazi war effort was also present in many other countries, on both sides of the conflict. Almost immediately, the case was made for the development of a Charter of Human Rights. Three years later, in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, drafted by representatives with different legal and cultural backgrounds from all regions of the world, was solemnly proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris. One of the first articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is that “everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”. That right to life is the basis for the exercise of any other right.
In the Middle Ages and, even right up to the nineteenth century, there were huge gaps in our understanding of fertilisation and pregnancy. Developments in biology and embryology over the last hundred years have provided us with scientific proof of what women always new instinctively, namely that, during pregnancy, a new human being is present, whose distinct identity is already complete once fertilisation has taken place. What happens during those nine months of pregnancy is of vital importance, just like what happens in the pre-school years and in the years of primary school. There is a continuous development from fertilisation to birth, from birth to adult life and from there to natural death. It is sad and terribly inconsistent that, in a world which places such a huge emphasis on equality, organisations such as the United Nations and Amnesty International, which have done so much to promote human rights, should actively seek to set aside the right to life of the unborn child.
The reality is that, even now, almost seventy years after the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, human rights are often recognised when it suits us, and set aside when it doesn’t. There is of course a right to choose but, if I may use the word Trump, in this polite gathering, the right to life trumps the right to choose. As the United Nations Declaration itself makes clear, the law has to ensure that the rights and freedoms of the individual are not exercised in such a way that they undermine the rights and freedoms of others.
Life is a Gift
I want to take you with me for a few moments back to ancient Greece in the time of the great philosophers like, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. This was a mere two thousand five hundred years ago and the world was already very old. People like Aristotle were very focussed on the meaning of the world. As far they were concerned, human beings had to be understood in terms of their place in the cosmos. The gods were powerful, mysterious and for the most part to be mistrusted.
The arrival of Christianity in Europe changed the focus. If God was a loving creator, then the universe and everything in it had a purpose. The meaning of everything, including the life of every human being, is to be found in the intention of God. In his recent letter of encouragement on the Joy of Love, Pope Francis refers to this, in terms of the gift of life. He says:
The gift of a new child, entrusted by the Lord to a father and a mother, begins with acceptance, continues with lifelong protection and has as its final goal the joy of eternal life. By serenely contemplating the ultimate fulfilment of each human person, parents will be even more aware of the precious gift entrusted to them. For God allows parents to choose the name by which he himself will call their child for all eternity”
In other words, when we look to eternity for the meaning of human life, then we don’t get bogged down in the question about whether or not someone is useful to, or a burden on society.
About five hundred years ago, modern science began to make itself felt and the world was explored in a way that it was never explored before. People like Galileo, Leonardo da Vinci and Christopher Columbus were among the great names associated with this new age of discovery. People began to have great confidence in the human capacity to achieve great things through the use of reason.
Now there are two ways of looking at this. One is that the gift of reason was given to us by God to help us to be what he has called us to be and to help us to exercise our responsibility for the universe. The other way of looking at it is that man is the centre of the universe. We are the source of our own meaning. We are our own creators. This point of view has gradually become a significant influence in Western society, especially in modern times.
People of all faiths and of none are committed to human rights. But faith gives us a particular perspective on the meaning of human life and helps us to see life as a gift that we have received from God. This begins, I think, with understanding that our own life is a gift from God, rather than just some kind of random occurrence. If we can understand our own lives in that way, then I think it is easier to see other people, including the elderly, the unborn, the poor and people with disability as gifts from God, irrespective of what they can contribute to society or what they can achieve in their lives.
Unfortunately, if we buy into the idea that everything turns around how we feel and what we want, then children who come at the wrong time or who don’t measure up to our expectations, are selected out. Pope Francis has this to say:
A child is a human being of immense worth and may never be used for one’s own benefit. So it matters little whether this new life is convenient for you, whether it has features that please you, or whether it fits into your plans and aspirations. For “children are a gift. Each one is unique and irreplaceable… We love our children because they are children, not because they are beautiful, or look or think as we do, or embody our dreams. We love them because they are children.” (Amoris Laetitia, 170)
Children with Life-Limiting Conditions
I want to focus a little on children with life-limiting conditions. They are being used, shamelessly, by certain activists in the media and by some politicians as a pretext for liberalising the law on abortion.
Tests during pregnancy sometimes show that a baby in the womb is seriously ill and doctors believe that the baby’s chances of survival are very limited. Two examples of such situations are “anencephaly”, in which there is a failure of the brain and the top of the skull to form properly and bilateral renal agenesis (in which neither of the baby’s kidneys has formed).
The use of words like “fatal” or “lethal” imply that there is some clarity about the outcome and that death is imminent and inevitable. The reality is that every case is different and that, some babies will die before birth, and others will live for just a few hours, while some will live for significantly longer.
While it is obviously very distressing for a woman to know that the baby she is carrying is very seriously ill, foetal abnormalities do not of themselves constitute a threat to the life or health of the mother. By contrast, many parents of children born with life-threatening conditions speak of how important it was for them to have the chance to care for their child until death naturally occurred. As it happens, I had the privilege just this evening to spend some time with a family whose five year old child is in the final stages of such an illness. Needless to say, they are very sad, but deeply grateful for the gift of their little child, who has been such a focus of love in their lives. Can I ask you to pause with me in quietness for a few moments, to remember them in prayer.
Others have spoken about their joy in discovering after birth that, while the child had serious health issues, the prognosis was actually better than they had originally been given to understand. The best thing I can suggest is that you listen to their own stories and you can do so on the web-site “www.onedaymore.ie”. To journey with another person who is seriously ill, can be both a very painful experience and a great privilege, whatever their age or condition.
From an ethical point of view, the situation of a child with a life-threatening illness is quite similar to that of an adult in the advanced stages of motor-neurone disease. If abortion were to be considered acceptable in the case of unborn children with life-limiting conditions, then we would have to accept, logically, that euthanasia would also be the norm for any person in the advanced stages of Motor-Neurone disease, Parkinson’s, or indeed cancer. By contrast, the response of a civilised society is to offer palliative care which includes, warmth, tenderness, nutrition and hydration, as well as the appropriate management of pain.
There is an interesting, but chilling pamphlet that was published in Germany in 1920 and which contains the arguments of Karl Binding (a lawer) and Alfred Hoche (a medical doctor) in favour of euthanasia, based largely on the idea that people with intellectual disability had no contribution to make to society and no particular desire to live. This was simply the thin end of the edge.
Needless to say, once a person administers a lethal injection once or twice, it becomes easier and people become less particular about who they kill. The views of Binding and Hoche formed the ideological basis for the mass murder of hundreds of thousands of so-called “undesirables” in places like Hadamer Mental Hospital. Now people will laugh and tell you that there is no comparison at all between this and abortion in the case of life-threatening illness, but the comparison is perfectly clear. It is the acceptance of the principle that there is such a thing as a human life without value.
Every human life has meaning and value, because every person is created by God for eternal life. In the meantime, one of the particular challenges facing parents of unborn children with life-limiting conditions is that there is only one neo-natal hospice in the whole of Ireland to respond to their needs. The promotion of a culture of life would include a greater provision of neonatal-hospice services, to support parents in caring for their sick children until natural death. This is something towards which we can and should all work and I would call on the Government to take action on this without delay.
The Pro-Life Amendment:
In 1983, many people in Ireland began to realise that, if neighbouring democratic societies, which were otherwise considered to be civilised, had nonetheless legislated for abortion, this could just as easily happen in Ireland. This realisation was what led to the proposal to include a pro-life amendment in the Irish Constitution. I became involved in that campaign, because I believe that the right to life is the most fundamental of all human rights and I believe that every life is a gift from God.
The intention was to ensure that the Oireachtas could not legislate to introduce abortion in Ireland. The pro-life amendment would also have the benefit of including a clear statement of principle in the primary legal document of the Republic. This proposal went hand in hand with a growth in understanding and compassion and in the provision of voluntary services for women in crisis pregnancy.
The two main political parties agreed on the principle of having a pro-life amendment. The main point of disagreement was on what form it should take. The referendum, when it took place was passed by a very substantial majority. It inserted into the constitution, under the heading of personal rights, a new Article 40.3.3. The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right. [vi]
It was described by some commentators as a “divisive” referendum. That was something of a tautology because, by definition, any referendum divides those who vote “Yes” from those who vote “No”. The alternative was to do nothing and allow events to take their course. I personally believe that change should not just be something that happens to us; we must be proactive in forming the future. I had no doubt that those who wanted to legalise abortion would not be waiting around for things to happen.
Looking back now, I have no hesitation in saying that we got it right. I am convinced that thousands of lives have been saved and, notwithstanding the large numbers who travelled to England over the years, a great number of women were culturally supported in not choosing abortion.
There are, of course, pregnancies which present significant difficulties for all sorts of reasons, emotional, medical and economic, but “hard cases do not make good law”.
The X Case
People of my generation will remember that the X case concerned a young teenage girl whose parents contacted the Irish authorities from Britain to ask what would be the legal consequences if they brought their daughter for an abortion in England. This was in 1992. The High Court, rather surprisingly in my view, concluded that this would be illegal. They were, after all, in England, where the Irish Courts had no jurisdiction.
Amid a media storm, the case was referred to the Supreme Court. The Court, in my view, allowed itself to be bounced by media pressure into making a judgement which was logically flawed in many respects and which completely misinterprets the 8th Amendment.
People who are too young to remember 1992, will remember how public opinion, formed by inaccurate reports in the media, got it badly wrong, in the tragic case of Savita Halappanaver who died during pregnancy in 2012. In that case, if you remember, it eventually became clear that the unfortunate young woman did not die because she was refused an abortion, but because of a “failure to provide the most basic elements of care in her case”. Many opportunities were missed which might have changed the outcome for her. By the time the report was published in September 2014, however, the idea that the 8th Amendment was the problem, had almost become part of Irish Folk-history.
The people of Ireland, in the eighth amendment, acknowledged the right to life of the unborn, and the equal right to life of the mother”. By contrast, the Supreme Court, in effect, argues that the right to life of the unborn child is not really equal to the right to life of the mother. It is worth spending a few moments on some of the actual judgements delivered by the five judges.
- Justice Finlay maintained that the threat to the life of the mother carried greater weight than the threat to the life of the unborn. This is hard to understand, given that there was at most a possible risk to the life of the mother, whereas the child would definitely die. The implication is that the life of the mother is useful, whereas the life of the child is not.
- Justice McCarthy acknowledged that the magnitude of risk applying to the mother would always be less than that applying to the child to be aborted. He still maintained, however, that abortion is envisaged by the eighth amendment, and he uses the expression “with due regard” as if it in some sense cancelled out the expression “equal right to life”.
- Justice Egan interpreted the terms “with due regard for the equal right to life of the mother” and “as far as practicable” to mean that an abortion will not in every possible circumstance be unlawful. His conclusion does not follow logically from the premises. In reality, these phrases simply acknowledge that, despite the best efforts of the state to carry out its responsibility, the unborn will sometimes die, whether naturally, through medical complications, or through some human agency which is beyond the reasonable control of the state. To acknowledge that the unborn may die, and that the state may be helpless in the face of this death, is fundamentally different to suggesting that it may ever be lawful for the unborn to be killed. The key issue is that of intention.
The Supreme Court, instead of interpreting the Constitution, seems to have gone beyond it and changed its meaning, which it is not the competence of the Court to do. The Court should have respected the stated intention of the vast majority of the Irish people, and might usefully have made reference to the principle of double-effect, which allows for all necessary medical treatment for the mother.
The basis for the decisions in both the X Case, and subsequently the C case, would seem to be the very strong public sympathy for the young women concerned who were pregnant. The ground-swell of compassion was perfectly valid and understandable in both cases, but what is not understandable is that judges of the Supreme Court should allow the emotionally charged atmosphere to obscure one of the essential facts, namely that the unborn child also has rights, both under natural law and under the Constitution.
Given that, in both cases, the state seemed disposed to believe that the mother was subject to grave pressure, and likely to commit suicide, the question arises as to how else the state might have carried out its responsibility of care, other than by consenting to and, in the C case, formally participating in an abortion.
The Campaign to Repeal the Pro-Life Amendment
Nobody could be unaware of the fact that there is a campaign underway to repeal the Pro-Life Amendment. The technical name of the amendment is, of course, the Eight Amendment to the Constitution, but I prefer to call it the Pro-Life amendment, because that reminds us what it is actually about.
There is a story told about a teenage girl who was behaving a bit strangely at home. Her mother was a bit suspicious as to what was going on and asked straight out if she were pregnant. The girl replied “just a little bit”. There is, of course, no such thing as being just a little bit pregnant and, in much the same way, there is no such thing as a little abortion. Every abortion is the taking of an innocent human life. The proposal to repeal the Pro-Life amendment is about widening the grounds for abortion. No matter what alternative form of wording may be proposed, the intention will be that more babies die.
The Government has proposed the establishment of a citizens’ convention to make recommendations on what should be done about the pro-life amendment. In my personal view, this is nothing more than a smokescreen, by means of which the Government wants to distance itself from the political consequences, by pointing the finger towards some other group, in much the same way Adam is reputed to have pointed at Eve. A government is elected to take responsibility for the common good and that includes the good of each and of all. Any government which seeks to legalise the taking of innocent human life betrays its sacred trust and is guilty of a crime against humanity.
So What do We Do?
Past experience would suggest that people often wait to see what will happen. People hope that the bishops will do something – and of course we will, but the bishops only have influence as leaders of a faith community if it is clear that the faith community is also actively committed. People hope that Family and Life or one of the other pro-life groups will do something – and of course they will. I believe, however, that the most important thing of all is for pro-life people to arm themselves with the facts and to talk to their neighbours, just as you would about the All Ireland or the weather. This is not a time to be shy and retiring.
I must follow that by saying that all our pro-life activities must be respectful of the people who disagree with us. To be respectful means that we engage with their arguments rather than seeking to undermine them as people. To respect people, of course, does not mean that we have to agree with them just for the sake of being nice.
- Bishop Kevin Doran is Bishop of Elphin.
- This address was delivered on Tuesday 19 July at an event organised by Family and Life in the Athlone Springs Hotel, Athlone, Co Westmeath.