Head to Head: Abortion

The embryo is a being that is human

Abortion should not be made legal in Ireland. We need to learn from the mistakes made by many other countries across the globe, including our closest neighbours, Britain. The three basic arguments against abortion are that it is not good for the child, it is not good for women and it is not necessary for women.

We can often be told mistruths about the unborn child, such as “the foetus is not a human” or “it’s not a person”. It is important that we stop and think about these statements. The foetus most certainly is human. The science of embryology indicates that individual human life begins at the moment of conception. At conception the embryo has 46 human chromosomes. Nothing new will be added from the time of union of sperm and egg until the death of the old man or woman except for the growth and development of what is already there at the beginning. The embryo is a being that is human. If someone does not acknowledge science on this issue it can only be down to his or her privately held beliefs.
All human beings deserve legal protection. In the first three months, when most abortions occur, the baby’s heart is already beating, his or her unique fingerprints have formed, which will remain the same throughout life. The unborn child is sensitive to touch.

Those who claim that the foetus is not a person should be very careful. The US Supreme Court ruled in 1857 that the black population were not “persons”. Women were not considered persons under Canadian law until the early 20th century. The term “person” is a philosophical one, and the most widely accepted definition of personhood is “an individual substance of a rational nature”, in which case the foetus is a person because his or her nature is to be rational. If this claim is rejected on the grounds that the foetus is not actually rational now, it may be pointed out that it is in my nature to die, yet as far as I am aware of I am not actually dead now.

Abortion not only results in the death of an innocent human being, it has also been shown through various studies to impact negatively on the psychological well-being of the woman. Groups like Silent No More are starting to shed light on the experiences of the many women who regret their abortions. Dr. Alveda King, the niece of Martin Luther King Jr, said of abortion: “We mothers suffer tremendously, and our families suffer”.

Long-term studies of women who have had abortions give a clearer picture of the effects of abortion on women. One such study was published in 2006 in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. This was a twenty-five year longitudinal study. It concluded that “young women reporting abortions had elevated rates of mental health problems when compared with those becoming pregnant without abortion and those not becoming pregnant”.

The main author of the study, Fergusson, stated, “I remain pro-choice… The findings did surprise me, but the results appear to be very robust because they persist across a series of disorders and a series of ages. . . . Abortion is a traumatic life event; that is, it involves loss, it involves grief, it involves difficulties. And the trauma may, in fact, predispose people to having mental illness.”

This study and more caused the Royal College of Psychiatrists to state that “women may be at risk of mental health breakdowns if they have abortions”.

Lastly, it is extremely important to stress that Ireland ranks among the safest countries in the world in which to be pregnant, and as the latest global Maternal Mortality figures show, Ireland’s maternal mortality rate is number one in the world. It is true to say that abortion is not needed to save the life of a woman.

Also concerning abortions needed in the case of suicidal women, it is important for us to look at the recently much publicised Gissler study from Finland, which shows that women are much more likely to commit suicide following abortion.
The study examined data from 1987-2000 and highlighted the fact that the suicide rate was almost seven times higher in women who had abortions compared to those who gave birth.

Seamus Connor is the spokesperson for the proposed TCD Pro-Life Society

A culture of silence and hypocrisy

Abortion was legalised in Britain in 1967. Every year since then, thousands of Irish women have travelled to clinics in Liverpool and London to obtain abortions denied to them here. We have the most restrictive law in Europe. Abortion is a criminal offence in Ireland under 1861 legislation, carrying a penalty of life imprisonment. In 1983, the Constitution was amended to make the right to life of “the unborn” equal to that of “the mother”. A pregnancy may only be terminated legally in order to save the life of the pregnant woman. There is no right to abortion in any other circumstance, not even where a woman or girl has been raped or abused.

Despite this extreme law, abortion is a reality in Ireland. Around 6,000 women make the journey to Britain for abortion each year. More than 100,000 Irish women have had abortions over the last thirty years. This number might include you, your sister, or your mother.

Yet these women’s stories are never told. We never hear publicly about the trauma of trying to get through a family Christmas without revealing a crisis pregnancy, or about the difficulty in trying to arrange a secret journey to London. In contrast to Britain, where amendments to the 1967 Act were being debated just this month in the House of Commons, a culture of silence about abortion prevails here. This is not surprising, since our rigid brand of indigenous Catholicism has led to a peculiarly repressive attitude to women’s sexuality.

Cultural sex taboos and patriarchal attitudes have been strengthened by the intimidatory tactics of the anti-choice activists. Abortion represents their last line of defence, since contraception and divorce were legalised in the 1990s. These conservative lobbyists have brought disproportionate influence to bear on fearful politicians. We have had five constitutional referendums on the subject of abortion since 1983 because TDs are afraid to confront their responsibility as legislators.

But the tide is turning. At least now it is legal to provide women with information on how to obtain abortions in Britain. This was not always so. In 1989, I was President of Trinity’s Students’ Union, which had voted in favour of freedom of information. In carrying out Union policy by helping women with crisis pregnancies, we were threatened with prison in a marathon court case. We eventually won many years later, after a change was made in the law to allow information on abortion.

This change resulted from the 1992 X case, when a 14 year-old pregnant rape victim wanted to travel to England with her parents to terminate her pregnancy. The State tried to prevent her travelling abroad in order to stop her having the abortion. People were understandably horrified at this inhumane attitude to the girl’s crisis. In the public outcry that followed, the Supreme Court ruled that because X was suicidal, the pregnancy posed a real and substantial risk to her life, so her pregnancy could lawfully be terminated.

Two referendums were passed later in 1992. The first allowed freedom of information and enabled us, finally, to win our case. The second allowed the right to travel for women seeking abortions. A referendum seeking to overturn the X case by ruling out suicide risk was defeated. In 2002, following more pressure from anti-abortion groups, yet another referendum was held to try and rule out suicide risk as a ground for abortion – but again this was, thankfully, defeated.

Since then, the law has remained stagnant, and women have continued to travel to Britain in their thousands. To try and bring about change, we have recently established in Ireland the Safe and Legal Abortion Rights Campaign (SLI), with the aim of legalising abortion. As Irish society has changed and liberalised, most people have become more compassionate towards women with crisis pregnancies. The only thing that has not changed is the lack of courage and leadership demonstrated by successive Governments in failing to deal with abortion in a realistic and rational way. It is now time for us to challenge the culture of silence and hypocrisy. We must press legislators to confront the reality of crisis pregnancy, and to meet the real health needs of Irish women by legalising abortion in Ireland.

Ivana Bacik is a Senator in the Trinity constituency and a pro-choice campaigner