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Tag Archives: abortion

Most of the debate on repealing the eighth amendment accepts the pro-life position. The difference between the two sides is this:

Pro-life – There is a person present from conception with a person’s right to life for however long that might be and regardless of the circumstances of conception, i.e. there are no exceptions.

Repeal – The circumstances of rape and fatal foetal abnormality are exceptional.

The two positions are engaged in debate over exceptions and are not essentially different. This is because the repeal side refuses to engage with the core pro-life argument, that a person is present from conception, and the media on whom public discourse depends are content to let this happen.

The pro-life argument is meta-physical but shouldn’t be dismissed for that. It is easily dealt with because it is a poor argument. Now, at least some of those who make the argument are used to being treated with an inordinate amount of respect because it is assumed that arguing metaphysics requires great expertise and is hard work. This is a carefully cultivated impression. It is also uniquely accepted, while every other branch of philosophy is expected when necessary to engage with citizens who have no particular expertise.

Once we address and consider the argument that a person is present from conception, and assuming we find it implausible (There won’t be universal agreement that it is.) we can begin to examine abortion from a moral perspective.

Here are two facts:

i) No one wants to permit abortion right up to birth.

ii) No one strives officiously to find and protect the lives of all fertilised human eggs (zygots).

The moral decision lies between i and ii. It involves both banning and allowing abortion in the public interest. It is a hard decision because it necessarily means a time limit. It is a debate that can and should go on and on as we struggle to do right, to fix a time limit that, all things considered, is moral.

There is no escaping this awful decision; it is part of the human condition. Well, there is one way of escaping: accept the pro-life argument. This is not to say that those who accept the argument are evading responsibility but it is to say that acceptance rules out having to consider what should be done about unwanted pregnancies.

Addressing the pro-life (ensoulment) argument moves pregnancy by rape and viability down the public agenda. It removes much of the heat from public discourse, and there are many – not all of them working in the media – who thrive on heat.

If activists and media are unwilling or if they feel themselves incompetent to debate metaphysics, let us hope that those who will make up the forthcoming citizen assembly are treated as thinking adults capable of going to the core of the issue.

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A news report in Saturday’s Irish Times has prompted me to return to the question of schools having a religious ethos *. While of course this applies to all religious schools in Ireland, the campaign in favour of fostering ethos ** is led by the Catholic Church.

The difficulty with addressing “ethos” is that it is never clear what is meant. If it means that any doctrine can be taught to children as long as it is said to be a feature of a religion, then ethos must be rejected. No responsible citizen would approve a rule saying that anything can be taught to a child as long as it is cloaked in religion. That would be a parody of religious tolerance.

In the short newspaper report a number of features of ethos – or more accurately Catholic ethos – appear. It is surprising, however, that no doctrines which appear regularly in public controversy are mentioned.

This news report suggests i) that teaching the existence of God and life after death is now threatened, ii) that if religious education is removed from the “public sphere” it could develop “in a more fundamentalist way”, and iii) that religious education is a part of the humanities and like other “creative subjects” is threatened by vocational/professional training as opposed to education.

Looking at these in order, it should be said at the outset that while there are those who oppose teaching about God and an afterlife to children – and they offer cogent argument against it – it doesn’t cause anything like the concern about teaching contentious opinion as fact. Ireland is a free and open society in which anyone may argue. However, teaching young children and arguing one’s case are entirely separate activities. All Irish children should be protected from noxious opinion presented as truth to be learned. To be blunt, any Catholic can and should argue the Church’s position on homosexuality, gay marriage, contraception, abortion etc. but all children must be protected from being taught those arguments as fact. It hardly needs to be added that this applies to all other religions which might want to teach in such a way.***

On the second point, it is accepted that there are many religious people who fear that their ordinary decency is threatened by extremists who wish to portray a particular understanding as the real or only interpretation. However, the fears of decent people for the future of their religion cannot be relieved at the expense of children.

The third point wants to pitch religious teaching in the camp of creative thought. It is true that religion and religious thinkers have contributed to the development, spread and maintenance of humane, decent values but to go on then to suggest that teaching a fixed doctrine to children is compatible with open debate and creative thinking is self-serving.

We want children to emerge into adulthood as thoughtful, iconoclastic and creative. We certainly don’t want them lumbered with cruel, divisive opinions held as doctrine. On the contrary, we want citizens ready and eager to debate the future of the republic. Whenever ethos is mentioned in relation to teaching children, the package must be opened and if necessary the bearer told that some of its contents relate to adult debate and not to children.
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* http://www.irishtimes.com/news/education/catholic-schools-should-remain-true-to-ethos-despite-challenges-1.1708941

** I tried to find a plural for “ethos” and discovered a controversy. I was attracted to the view that it is a word that doesn’t have/need a plural but you might like to anglicise and use “ethoses”, “ethosses” or stick with the Greek and use “ethe” but if you opt for “ethoi”, it would appear that Greek scholars will be annoyed.

*** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2010/08/12/faith-schools-and-the-teaching-of-values/

While there are no details as yet as to the motivations of the murderers of the English soldier at Woolwich, the web is already alive with opponents and defenders of Islam. More significantly for those of us who value public discourse, many thoughtful and tolerant people are taking the position that Islam – and by extension all religion – is not a problem. Paradoxically it is this kind of blanket tolerance that can lead to trouble.

For as long as religion is “respected” in public discourse, particular religions will be attacked because of the actions and statements of their most extreme adherents.

When we discuss values and matters concerning values, religion has to be ignored and certainly cannot be allowed become a trump card. For example, debates about abortion cannot be side-tracked by stuff about respect for catholic beliefs and nastiness to gays cannot be permitted because the speaker believes in Islam. When a society takes seriously claims that something should be or not be because God or a prophet said so, it encourages belief as opposed to argument. Every single cruel, divisive and – yes! – inegalitarian belief should be hauled out from under religious cloaks and tackled.

When that has been established, we can say with some confidence that an act of barbarity had nothing to do with religion.

Dr. Katherine Astbury, a consultant obstetrician to Savita Halappanavar, told the inquest into Ms. Halappanvar’s death, “The law in Ireland does not permit termination even if there is no prospect of viability [for the foetus]. That would be my understanding of the legal position based on the legal judgement in the X-case and the Medical Council guidelines.” http://www.irishtimes.com/news/health/midwife-manager-regrets-using-catholic-country-remark-to-savita-halappanavar-1.1355895?page=1

That is my understanding too. If we continue to give a foetus a right to life until the mother’s life is threatened, this will be the situation and no amount of clarification will change it.

The position in Ireland is that abortion is not a permissible part of the treatment/management of miscarriage. Now, I’ve no information on how often abortion might be considered in the treatment of miscarriage but it does seem to be an issue for Catholic hospitals outside Ireland.

“The experiences of physicians in our study indicate that uterine evacuation may not be approved during miscarriage by the hospital ethics committee if foetal heart tones are present and the pregnant woman is not yet ill, in effect delaying care until foetal heart tones cease, the pregnant woman becomes ill, or the patient is transported to a non–Catholic-owned facility for the procedure.” Freedman, L.R. et al “When There’s a Heartbeat: Miscarriage Management in Catholic-Owned Hospitals” in American Journal of Public Health. 2008 October; 98(10): 1774–1778. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2636458/

In day to day conversations and on Facebook I’ve been avoiding speculation and talking instead about a range of possibilities as to what could have gone so wrong in Galway University hospital which has an excellent record. It is however time now to speculate for a very good reason.

Speculation on the events leading to the death of Savita Halappanavar has for some time now been fuelling arguments for and against the enactment of legislation – as recommended by the Supreme Court a full two decades ago – to regulate and clarify the Irish constitutional position: that an abortion is permissible to protect the life of the mother. It needs to be emphasised that the only circumstance in which this young woman’s death has relevance to the debate on the need to move on such legislation is if there is any scenario in which the medical staff weighed the baby’s life against the mother’s and favoured the baby.

The reason I am about to speculate is that the most likely happenings in Galway are being ignored in favour of accounts which can be used to engage in the current debate. However, the most likely account has enormous significance for the abortion debate beyond the rare cases of risk to a mother’s life but a long way short of anything that could be described as liberal abortion law, never mind abortion on demand.

Incidentally, while I’m attracted in principle to the view that there should be no speculation and therefore no debate until an enquiry has established the facts of what happened, in practice holding such a line was never possible and is completely irrelevant now after weeks of comment.

The following is most likely what happened. I can only assume that it is ignored by media because it is irrelevant to the current spectacular row over the need for legislation to protect the life of a mother.

The death of Mrs. Halappanavar was the first maternal death at Galway University Hospital in 17 years. [i] We are not, therefore, talking about a hospital with a poor record. Moreover, despite all the allegations about “Catholic country” comments and missing notes – both of which need thorough investigation – it doesn’t seem remotely likely that the hospital staff were unaware of the legal or Catholic church position but for some unexplained reason decided to favour the baby’s life over the mother’s life. On the contrary it is, I think, safe to assume that the staff involved were caring, experienced and familiar with law and Catholic doctrine.

It is virtually certain that if at any moment from her first entering the hospital, it became clear that Mrs. Halappanavar’s life was in danger, these staff would have performed an abortion. So what happened? Here is the most likely explanation.

Mrs. Halappanavar was miscarrying, i.e. the baby at that age was doomed to die. However, Mrs. Halappanavar was not yet in mortal danger and there were no indications that she might die. Because, Catholic teaching and Irish law give an equal right to life to mother and to baby until the mother’s life is threatened, an unfortunate baby with just a short time to live would be monitored and allowed to die naturally. A mother’s distress, discomfort or illness would be irrelevant. Threat to life is the sole criterion for legal abortion in Ireland.

The truth that Irish media have been neglecting is that Mrs. Halappanavar’s treatment and death have very likely got nothing whatsoever to do with clarifying a mother’s superior right to life when her life is threatened but a great deal to do with the treatment/management of miscarriage. The position in Ireland is that abortion is not a permissible part of that treatment/management.

I’ve no information on how often abortion might be considered in the treatment of miscarriage but it does seem to be an issue for Catholic hospitals outside Ireland.

“The experiences of physicians in our study indicate that uterine evacuation may not be approved during miscarriage by the hospital ethics committee if foetal heart tones are present and the pregnant woman is not yet ill, in effect delaying care until foetal heart tones cease, the pregnant woman becomes ill, or the patient is transported to a non–Catholic-owned facility for the procedure.”[ii]

If in Ireland we are using the death of a young woman to inform or fuel an important public controversy, it is vital that the full controversy be aired or that the relevant controversy be aired or at the very least that the relevant controversy not be ignored.


[ii] Freedman, L.R. et al “When There’s a Heartbeat: Miscarriage Management in Catholic-Owned Hospitals” in American Journal of Public Health. 2008 October; 98(10): 1774–1778. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2636458/

Regardless of the number of seats won, coalition will mean negotiation.

By definition, a precondition would not strengthen Labour’s hand in negotiation as it would have to be conceded before negotiations could begin. Indeed, it might – if one were not skillful – weaken the negotiating position in that something would already have been given and one’s antagonists/future partners would try constantly to bend negotiations in their favour by referring to it.

I’m not arguing for preconditions as such; I’m arguing for a tiny number – even one – of socialist preconditions. (My suggestion can be found here: https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2011/01/04/labour-in-government-a-radical-but-modest-proposal-to-reduce-inequality/ )

There are a number of reasons for going down this path. Here are a few and in NO sense are they in order of importance:

i) The lie that the Labour Party is the same as every party or at least not particularly different to a humane liberal party, or – as even some of our own members allege – is not socialist at all, needs to be addressed. This can be done by laying down one or two fundamental demands/preconditions which a liberal party by virtue of its principles or ideology cannot concede without doing itself damage.

ii) It gives voters who are serious about changing the very direction of Irish development something for which to vote.

 iii) It puts a leftist demand right at the heart of public controversy in the run up to the election. (Without this the media will of necessity be attracted to liberal controversies like, say, abortion law.) 

iv) It delivers a basic return for coalition no matter how bad circumstances are or become.

v) It steals a march on the fantasists who need to injure Labour as the voice of Socialism. They know that they must undermine socialism as a contemporary hope and ambition so that their “religion” can be THE left. Their “project” necessarily is about defining socialism in terms of the unachievable or – similar, really – the 19th century.