Op-ed: Can Ireland reconcile conflicting views in the constitutional debate on abortion?

By David McConnell, 8 February
Posters in Dublin before the referendum on the 25th Amendment in 2002 (photo credit: David Sleator)
Posters in Dublin before the referendum on the 25th Amendment in 2002 (photo credit: David Sleator)

Abortion raises the most difficult moral and ethical dilemmas. Some argue that life begins at conception, that abortion is equivalent to murder, that it is never permissible, that it should be illegal, and that those involved should be punished.

At the other extreme, it is argued that abortion is always permissible and the decision should be a matter for the mother alone. This view is based on the principle of autonomy, and the assertion that a foetus is not a person but an integral part of the body of its mother.

The first view shows little respect for the opinions of many good people who quite simply do not think that abortion is the same as murder. The other view, that abortion should be permitted under all circumstances, does not take account of the growing humanity and developing independence and personhood of the foetus.

How can we find a way that might reconcile these radically different, but sincerely held, beliefs? If people on each side of the argument can agree that those on the other side are thoughtful and moral in the general sense, then perhaps we can see a way forward.

This is what occurred when we voted to tolerate and legalise homosexuality, then same-sex unions, and then same-sex marriage. We moved homosexuality from being a public matter prohibited by law to an essentially private matter. Can we move along a similar path, and recognise in Irish law that there are circumstances in which abortion should be a private matter, while accepting that there are others in which abortion needs to be regulated.

My main concern is to find ways of helping mothers and their families deal with the anguish and suffering that is always involved in abortion. At the same time, the life and health of the developing human foetus should be protected. There are situations where these two objectives are in conflict, and we need to find ways of resolving that dilemma. The problem is how to weigh the interests of the mother, who is the central person, and the foetus, which is becoming a person. I cannot think of a more difficult challenge.

There are no simple answers except the extremes. In many cases there are no perfect answers, just the best that can be done by people who are doing all they can to care for a mother and her baby.

The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution was passed in 1983. This has been interpreted to mean that the right to life of the foetus is equal to the right of the mother. Under the 13th and 14th Amendments of 1992, people have the right to travel abroad for an abortion and to receive information about abortion abroad. As of now, the only factor that can justify an abortion in Ireland is a threat to the life of the mother. No account is taken of the health of the mother or the age or health of the foetus. I would like to focus on three matters that might be taken into account in addressing the question of abortion.

Age of the foetus

The first is the age of the foetus. Consider the earliest possible case where abortion might be considered, that of the fertilised egg. It is human and alive, but no different in these respects from a sperm – which is swimming around and very obviously alive and human – or indeed any other human cell. From a scientific perspective it is impossible to think that a cell, or a small collection of cells, though human and alive, is a person.

We now know that a fertilised human egg cell does not have a different potential from every other kind of cell – we can “grow” mammals from many different kinds of cells. Nor is an egg genetically unique, as one fertilised egg can give rise to twins, and occasionally two fertilised eggs can coalesce to produce one baby.

These biological facts are a reason why I do not have moral concerns, nor do I think that the law should have concerns, for termination of pregnancy at the very early stages of pregnancy, when an embryo is a group of cells with none of the unique biological attributes of a human person.

Dr Victor Griffin, the former dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral, died recently. A brilliant student of philosophy and theology, he was also a man of action who opposed the Eighth Amendment. Writing to me in 2003, he noted wryly that if people believe embryos are human persons and are “therefore deserving of human personal rights, logic and theology would seem to dictate that they should have the benefit of a Christian baptism and Christian burial”. In his collection of essays, Enough Religion to Make us Hate, he wrote that a fertilised egg is a “human life with the potential to become a human being or person, as the acorn, though not an oak, has the potential to become one”.

The life of a foetus was not equal to the life of a mother. He was “utterly opposed to abortion on demand”, but he was deeply suspicious of “rigid legalism and absolutism in dealing with complex moral issues”. He saw every case as different, “to be treated with compassion and Christian concern”.

These and other arguments from a humanist perspective lead me to believe that early terminations should be a private matter, solely a matter for the mother. There should be no legal restrictions on the use of the morning-after pill, or the abortion pill (which I understand is prescribed up to about nine weeks of pregnancy). If we could make the necessary legal changes providing for early abortions, then the majority of women who are considering abortions would be able to obtain medical advice and care in Ireland, thereby relieving a huge amount of anxiety and suffering.

My second hope focuses on the role of the mother. Surely the mother’s feelings must be of the greatest importance. No matter what the circumstances, the mother is taking part in a decision about her baby. A decision to abort, especially at a stage when she is fully aware of the baby, is going against all her instincts to protect her baby. These situations are unimaginably stressful, and each one unique.

I do not think the mother should be the only person involved in making decisions later in pregnancy. She will be in the care of doctors, who will be able to give her the most sensitive and caring advice. She may also have advice and support from her partner, family and friends. I would urge that any law on abortion should take the form of guidelines which leave the decisions on these matters, even for later abortions, to those most closely involved: the mother, her family and her medical advisers. Such an approach would be similar to what happens when doctors, patients and families take decisions on other matters of life and death; for example, how to care for an extremely premature baby.

Sectarian article

My third concern is that abortion is governed by a sectarian article in the Constitution. Victor Griffin was sure that the “Constitution should keep clear of controversial moral issues”. He was appalled by the frank sectarian campaign to introduce the Eighth Amendment and the way in which the whole debate was framed in sectarian terms, as in what would be acceptable to the Catholic Church. When the dust had settled, it was plain that the Constitution reflected the moral teaching of one church, ignoring the opinions of large numbers of thoughtful citizens who did not accept this teaching.

Moreover, a quarter of a century of experience has proven that the Constitution is too rigid an instrument to take account of the variety and complexity of the personal, medical, moral and ethical dilemmas concerning abortion. It has not been able to accommodate the changing moral climate in Ireland. It has not reflected the rapidly changing medical and scientific knowledge of human embryonic development, nor has it paid any attention to the revolution in medical genetics. It makes no allowance for the consequences of rape or incest, nor any for the health of the foetus.

The current legal framework is causing great distress to thousands of mothers, their families and friends, and to members of the medical profession. I hope that the Citizens’ Assembly will advise the government to hold a referendum on whether the discriminatory Eighth Amendment should be removed from the Constitution. It would be helpful if it advised that, before the referendum, the Government should place a Bill before the Oireachtas which would outline regulations for abortion if the Constitution were so amended.

The Bill should recognise that abortion first and foremost affects a mother and should allow the mother to have the greatest possible influence in deciding on an abortion. It should also recognise that mothers have a right to medically supervised early abortions. Great discretion should be allowed to mothers and doctors in deciding on later abortions.

In conclusion, abortion is always regrettable and should be avoided wherever possible. But there are circumstances where many people believe it is morally justified and should be permitted in Ireland. In broad terms, the law should support mothers and their doctors rather than threaten them with punishment.

David McConnell is a pro-chancellor of the University of Dublin and former chairman of the Irish Times Trust

Irish Times


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