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Welfare & Subsidiarity

ABORTION/ Irreconcilable Positions



John Waters


lunedì 19 novembre 2012


The story of Savita Halappapavar, a young woman who died in a hospital in the west of Ireland three weeks ago, has this week gone to every corner of the globe. It has gone accompanied by an ideological interpretation of what occurred: that she died in a dark and forbidding place, in a country obsessed with theological niceties and outmoded understandings.

What facts that have so far become available may seem to support this depiction of events. Savita Halappanavar, 17 weeks pregnant, presented with back pain at Galway University Hospital on October 21st and was found to be miscarrying. A week later, she died of septicaemia. Her husband claimed that she asked several times for her pregnancy to be terminated, but that this request was persistently refused. Mr Halallapaver claimed the medical staff said they could do nothing because there was still a foetal heartbeat. He claims they were told that this was the law in Ireland and that ‘this is a Catholic country’.

My immediate instinct on reading the fulminations of those who depict my country in this way, is that what they describe is not the country I know – and nor is the law as they describe it.  Ireland is probably one of the safest countries in the world for a woman to become pregnant and have her baby in. Yes, it  remains – in a sense – a ‘Catholic country’ – but in practice this has not meant doctors standing idly by as women died. Indeed, the idea of the Irish heath services being today operated according to the tenets of the Catholic Church seems somewhat ludicrous to anyone who understands the ideological drifts of Irish life in recent times.

Knowing my country as I do, I wonder about that phrase ‘this is a Catholic country’. I am not suggesting it wasn’t uttered, but I wonder about the context. Was it the expression of a blanket refusal by a consultant, or the ad hoc analysis of someone on the margins of the process? Was it offered as a rationale for inaction or as a reflection of some more complex position? Perhaps, because Savita Halappanavar is already dead, nobody will be able to say for sure where that phrase came from.

We must, it seems, wait three months for the results of official reports, before we will know anything concrete about what happened to Savita Halappapavar. Perhaps someone lacked the courage to make a decision, and then it became too late.  Perhaps it was not understood that her life was in imminent danger. Perhaps excessive emphasis was placed on the existence of a foetal heartbeat, and insufficient attention paid to Savita’s deteriorating condition.In truth, we do not know. All we know is that a woman is dead and that someone in the vicinity uttered the phrase, ‘This is a Catholic country’.

It is true that Irish law prohibits abortion, but that it the way a majority of Irish citizens want it. It is also true that these laws are broadly influenced by Catholic theology. But Catholic theology allows for intervention to effect a termination when a woman’s life is in danger. It does not hold that the foetal heartbeat must have ceased.  This, more or less, is also the law in Ireland, but in the final analysis the decision in each individual case is made by a doctor, who intervenes on a commonsense basis to bypass the myriad grey areas which can arise across the range of possible cases.

Left-liberalism seeks to present the Irish position on abortion as obscurantist for reasons relating to blind obedience to the Catholic Church. But this fails fundamentally to understand either religion or abhorrence of abortion. Catholics are people who understand reality in a particular way, not people who have been given a list of things they must believe in. The Catholic position on abortion arises from a moral perspective centred on the dignity of the human person. Catholicism is the expression of this perspective, not its motivation. A majority of Irish people continues to hold to a principled opposition to abortion, and would almost certainly do so even if the Catholic Church withdrew its objections, which is unlikely.

Back in 1983, in anticipation of moves towards achieving legalized abortion, it was a number of Catholic lay groups that persuaded politicians to put forward an amendment to the Irish Constitution, which they said would render legal abortion impossible. The resulting Article 40.3.3 reads: ‘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’.

However, this amendment has failed to prove as watertight as it at first appeared, and subsequent Supreme Court interpretations of the phrase ‘the equal right to life of the mother’ have brought us within a whisker of a form of abortion that may embrace cases where health and suicide ideation are deemed to be decisive factors. Left-liberals have for years been looking out for a case with which to tip the balance in their favour.

As elsewhere,  Irish liberals mostly claim not to seek to introduce into Ireland abortion on demand. Instead, they have hidden behind ‘hard cases’ to whip up public sympathy and confound the general opposition in Irish society to the kind of abortion regime that exists in the neighbouring island. Close to 5,000 Irish women are said to travel to the UK every year to procure abortions there, and this is advanced as an argument that Irishwomen’s rights are being  infringed in their own country.

One of the most infamous cases of recent times involved, in 1992, a 14 year-old rape victim who the Supreme Court ruled should be entitled to an abortion. This is known as the ‘X case’ and may hold the key to Ireland eventually either consolidating the intention behind the 1983 amendment or open the door to industrial abortion.

Governments since 1992 have studiously avoided the issue and refused to advance legislation which would inevitably have divided the country. Hence, the implications of the ‘X’ case’ have lain unattended to for 20 years and these complex questions have been left in the hands of the medical profession and the day-to-day circumstances which prevail upon their common sense.

The strength of public emotion on both sides of the abortion issue is the reason politicians have shied away.  But each new ‘hard case’ – like the death of Savita Halappapavar – reopens the question and causes public opinion to vacillate wildly, sowing confusing even among those who abhor the very idea of abortion.  Most Irish people are in somewhere in the middle of the liberal and traditionalist extremes. Most people – whether they are in principle opposed to abortion or in favour of terminations being available on a common-sense basis to protect the lives of mothers – do not want either unborn children or their mothers to die unnecessarily. Most people are simply confused by the contradictions and apparent conflicts of principles that can arise, which is why public feelings tend to waver and dither whenever some unusual case hits the headlines.

The media assiduously uses such cases to promote the case for a liberal abortion regime and ‘pro-choice’ logic has gradually come to dominate Irish public thought processes, rendering the pro-life position increasingly disabled by persistent insinuations of blind fanaticism. To further their case, liberals demolish the ethical subtlety informing the Catholic position, and then accuse their opponents of denying complexities. But there is not, of course, anything inconsistent in the Catholic position that abortion, to begin with, amounts to the killing of a human life, but that this may in certain circumstances be unavoidable and therefore permissible as the lesser of evils.

There is no possibility of reconciling this position with the left-liberal worldview, in Ireland any more than anywhere else –  not because one is obscurantist and the other enlightened, but because Catholicism and left-liberalism see the human condition in two utterly divergent ways.

One sees man as flawed, fragile but redeemable, the other sees a species perfectible by its own endeavors, for which all things are possible through the imposition of individual ‘rights’.

Catholicism seeks to optimize the conditions of the greatest number in the common good, whereas left-liberalism sees only one context at a time and is blind, in each instance, to the wider ecology.

Catholics tend to set out from absolutist core principles that can be mediated in exceptional circumstances on the basis of compassion, necessity, reason, mercy and forgiveness; liberals come from the opposite direction, latching onto exceptions and peripheral case-studies to create a useful confusion, breaking down absolutes by pitting one set of individualized rights against another, a kind of relativist draughts game out of which the most convincing victim emerges triumphant.

Savita Halappapavar has given Irish left-liberals their best instrument and argument for quite a long time. 



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