Oxford Students for Life

Promoting a culture of life in the University and beyond

Month: October, 2015

Amnesty International is wrong about the Eighth Amendment

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Liam Neeson recently recorded a voiceover for an Amnesty International video calling for abortion to be legalised in Ireland. As the camera pans over the ruins of a Catholic church, Neeson talks about a “ghost of the last century” that still “haunts this land”, bringing “suffering and even death to the women it touches.” That ghost is the Eighth Amendment to Ireland’s constitution, in which the state recognises the right to life of the unborn, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother.

Neeson is one of Ireland’s great actors, but this isn’t his finest piece. As a piece of pro-choice advocacy, the video fails. (It’s been viewed over 90,000 times on Youtube, but has a thumbs-down to thumbs-up ratio of more than 3 to 1 – my impression is that most pro-choice people in Ireland are vaguely embarrassed by it). But its existence makes perfect sense. Those who want the Eighth Amendment repealed are committed to the story it tells: that the Eighth is a part of old, bad, Catholic Ireland, a place where women’s health is put at risk in the name of dogma, and we’ll only be a truly modern, progressive country when we get rid of it.

That story is so important to tell because the truth could hardly be more different. The reason campaigners for repeal are trying to make the debate about “ghosts of the last century” is that Ireland proves that it’s more than possible to be a modern, egalitarian democracy with world-leading maternal healthcare, all without abortion. It’s the embodied contradiction to the horror stories told by pro-choice campaigners around the world about what a country with pro-life laws would actually be like.

Ireland passed the Eighth Amendment in 1983, which ensured that abortion remained effectively illegal in Ireland until 2013. After a 1992 Supreme Court ruling interpreting the Eighth’s “due regard” clause to allow abortion when a woman is judged to be at risk of suicide, the Irish Medical Council cited the lack of medical evidence that abortion ever reduced suicide risk, and continued to define direct abortion in all cases as medical malpractice while making it clear that withholding necessary medical treatment from a pregnant woman would also get a doctor struck off the medical register. Did this policy lead to disaster for women’s health?

It lead to Ireland achieving one of the lowest maternal death rates in the world in 2010. That rate has recently increased to the same level as France’s, but it’s still lower than the UK’s. Every preventable death is a tragedy, but the idea that the Eighth Amendment is bringing “suffering and even death” to women just isn’t true.

The debate over the 2013 legislation that legalised abortion on the grounds of suicide gained a lot of its momentum from a cynical exploitation of the tragic death of an Indian woman named Savita Halappanavar in an Irish hospital.

Three separate inquiries have since concluded Savita Halappanavar died of sepsis mismanagement, a problem that’s on the rise in hospitals in both Ireland and the UK  (there’s no space here to get into the details of the case: but Wikipedia’s page is unusually good), but that didn’t stop most of the Irish media running with a story about repressive Irish abortion laws leading to the death of a young woman (the story was leaked to pro-choice groups a few days before it as first published in the Irish Times.

Nor did the fact that her death had nothing to do with suicide make a difference: in the end, what mattered was the narrative – the same narrative that features in the Amnesty video calling for constitutional change.

Those who want to repeal the Eighth amendment are focusing our attention on the hard cases – and they are hard: because there are some situations in which there is no way to avoid suffering and heartbreak. When a baby won’t live long outside the womb, there’s nothing that can take away that grief.

But I know some of these hard cases: cases like that of Baby Liam Óg, who lived for nine weeks, three days and forty minutes after birth, and during that period received so much love from his parents Anne and Liam, his older sister Eileen, and the wider network of family and friends whose lives he touched.

Ireland’s abortion law wasn’t needed to save baby Liam’s life – but it did something else, something crucial. It recognised his dignity and his equality: it stood as a testament to the fact that this child’s nine weeks, three days and forty minutes outside his mother’s womb, as well as the 9 months he lived before he was born, were every bit as worth living, every bit as valuable, as the life of any other person.

Making Liam Óg’s short life shorter would not have helped him – and it would not have helped his parents Anne and Liam. When I speak to families who have continued with pregnancies where there child has a terminal condition, I hear about healing, about closure, about peace. The pain and grief doesn’t go away: of course it doesn’t. But it is not the whole story.

Orla O’Connell is a midwife working in Cork University Hospital who specialises in caring for families suffering going through pregnancy loss. Some of the things families have told her about having their babies:

“It was unbelievably painful but the most healing experience imaginable”.

“Having Timothy has made me a better person, he gave me the gift of understanding what life is about, what I am about and living in the present.”

““The media campaign for termination of pregnancy made me feel like I had something to hide”.

“If abortions had been legal in Ireland I would have done it so I am glad it wasn’t.”

People who want to relieve the suffering of families in this situation by legalising abortion are motivated by genuine compassion. But their solution is the wrong one. There is a better path. There are as many better paths as there are children.

Opening those paths for women and families who feel that every way is closed off is the most important work of the pro-life movement in Ireland. We are not defending the status quo – far from it. The Eighth amendment was only ever a first step: necessary but not sufficient. We, like Amnesty International, think that the more than 4000 terrible journeys that Irish women make to the UK every year to have abortions are a disgrace. The difference is is that we want to address the reasons that women feel they have to make the journeys.

Amnesty would seem to be satisfied with making the journeys shorter, and bringing the clinics where so many women talk about being treated coldly and inhumanly to Ireland.

The Irish pro-choice movement used to be interested in reducing abortion: a conference in the 1998, 5000 Too Many, brought together some of the leading figures in pro-life and pro-choice movements who wanted to co-operate to bring that number down. Since that time, the Irish abortion rate, then the lowest in Europe, has decreased even further.

But now the movement to repeal the Eighth is lead by people like Senator Ivana Bacik, who stood up at that conference to protest its existence, saying that there was no right or wrong number of abortions. Presumably, the more than 16,000 abortions a year that would happen if Ireland’s abortion rate matched the UK’s would be, to her, no loss.

As pressure builds for repeal, the Irish pro-life movement will need to pursue a two-part strategy: a strong defence of the equal right to life that the Eighth Amendment recognises, and a big, broad, progressive campaign against all the things that prevent that right being vindicated. Sexism and family-unfriendly workplace policies; stigma and lack of support for student parents; prejudice against people with disabilities and economic injustice. All these are obstacles to the true abolition of abortion in Ireland, and while they still exist pro-lifers will always have a mission.

But it’s a mission that our constitution and our laws still recognise as a good one, and a mission that is both inspired and aided by the Eighth Amendment’s clear and unambiguous affirmation that all human beings are truly equal. I’m hardly the world’s most patriotic person, but the existence of the Eighth amendment has always made me quietly proud of my country.

Ben Conroy is studying PPE at St John’s College. He’s worked as a freelance journalist and has been published in newspapers such as The Irish Times and The Irish Catholic. He also blogs for Patheos.

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5 things we learned from Philippa Taylor’s talk on foetal disability

This Monday Philippa Taylor addressed OSFL in its first event of the term on ‘Should foetal disability be a ground for abortion?’ Philippa addressed different aspects of the current UK law on abortion and disability, as well as looking at what society can do to improve the experiences of those who learn that the child in their womb may have a serious disability. She engaged us all in a vital conversation we otherwise might not have considered and here are 5 things we learned:

  1. The law is ambiguous

-Ground D of the Abortion Act 1967 permits abortion up until birth in such situations where ‘there is a substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped.’ The law however is no more specific over what “substantial risk” or “seriously handicapped” actually mean, leaving room for dangerous ambiguity. Doctors widely disagree on the specifics, largely because pre-natal diagnoses are often extremely unreliable. As Philippa pointed out, it has led to cases of abortion being justified for a cleft lip or clubfoot.

  1. The question over disability is similar to sex-selective abortion

-Philippa pointed out the fact that allowing abortion up until birth for disability can logically be compared to making abortion legal on the grounds of sex-selection (which is of course illegal in this country). At the heart of both situations is the question over whether some lives are more worth living, and rightly our society attempts to legislate against this sort of discrimination. However, since it would be natural to oppose a clause allowing for abortion on the grounds of sex as discriminatory, surely the same is also true of the current law allowing for abortion on the grounds of disability. Whilst it’s important to recognise that the two are practically very different, it is an interesting comparison worth considering.

  1. Whatever the law, numerous difficult issues will always arise

-An important point to realise when discussing a sensitive issue of this sort is that, whatever the law, disability will always exist inside and outside of the womb, and the law can’t legislate suffering away. Philippa reminded us to focus on what sort of society we want to create. Her answer:

  1. Society should treat those it can, and care for those it can’t

-Whilst making this point, Philippa acknowledged that there still remains the very difficult instance of rare cases, where children are diagnosed with a really terrible illness, especially one that is potentially fatal. Recognising that there is no easy answer to these situations, Philippa told two very powerful stories. One of them was about a child named Benedict, who died 4 hours after his birth. His mother knew of the fatal illness but had decided to carry him to term, and when asked whether it was worth it, she replied: “Oh yes, for the chance to hold him, see him, and love him before letting go, and for the chance for our other children to see that we would never stop loving them regardless of their imperfections.”

  1. Peri-natal hospices can provide the support needed

-Most in the room hadn’t heard of these hospices, and Philippa said that from her experience most expectant mothers carrying a child with a disability hadn’t heard of them either. They do incredible work giving care, love, and support for mothers and families who know that their child will likely die shortly before or after birth. One example is Zoe’s Place Trust (there are three in the UK), but sadly hospices of this sort lack funding and aren’t numerous in the UK.

Event Preview: Philippa Taylor on Abortion and Disability

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On Monday night, we’ll be joining Philippa Taylor, head of public policy at the CMF, for a talk on ‘Should foetal disability be a ground for abortion?’. So, why is this a pertinent topic for discussion, and why should you come along?

Ground D of the 1967 Abortion Act, as amended by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, allows abortion up to birth in circumstances where it is discovered ‘that there is a substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped.’ In almost all other circumstances, abortion is legal up to 24 weeks’ gestation. The question is, is this discrimination against the disabled, if indeed discrimination before birth is such a thing?

Statistics for 2013  show that 2,732 abortions were carried out because of foetal abnormality – 22% because Down’s Syndrome was detected. We’ve discussed the sadness of this fact before. Despite the wording of the law determining that the signs would need to point to the child being ‘seriously handicapped’, there have been claims that abortions have been carried out for such things as cleft lip and club foot – things which routine surgery can easily treat. But then, there are cases of much more serious disability where the child might not survive birth, or the child will live a life that is fraught with suffering. We must address the very acute problems and pains that such diagnoses can cause.

These are all very sensitive issues whose impact touches, or indeed overwhelms the lives of many. My Grandma was paralysed from the waist down for 10 years. My best friend’s dad was born with one arm. The boy I looked after on my year abroad had Down’s Syndrome. As individuals, we all know people with disabilities and we all know that some are lived with in relative ease whilst others render life unbelievably challenging. As a society, we are becoming much more aware of the lives of people with disabilities and the obstacles that they and their families face, as dramas such as BBC’s ‘Don’t Take My Baby’ help demonstrate. We too need to become more aware of whether the current abortion law is in line with the changing ways we are looking at disability or if it flies in the face of such progress.

Email us at studentsforlife.oxford@gmail.com to reserve a place for Monday’s talk – details here

Jo Jackson is co-President of Oxford Students for Life

What we’re looking forward to this year…

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The year ahead is an incredibly exciting one for OSFL. With a number of great events planned, and many more ideas still in the pipeline, we can’t wait to get started. As before, our work is going to focus on two main areas. Firstly we will be organizing events directed towards fostering discussion of life issues, and secondly we are committed to improving the lives of student parents on campus.

At the start of September the House of Commons emphatically voted against the Marris Bill, proposing the legalization of assisted suicide. In all likelihood the question won’t return to a commons vote until the next parliament at least, but given its prominence in the news we thought it appropriate to focus on this question for Michaelmas. For our main event of the term we have invited Dr Kevin Yuill, author of ‘Assisted Suicide: The Liberal, Humanist Case against Legalization’ and Dr Peter Saunders, campaign director for the Care Not Killing Alliance and formerly a general surgeon. They will be proposing the motion ‘This House opposes the legalization of assisted suicide’, against two representatives from Dignity in Dying, the leading campaign group in the UK supporting legalization.

At the end of the term, in the next installment of Life Chats, we are very excited to have Greg Jackson, former OSFL member and Student Support Officer for the Alliance of Pro-Life Students, presenting a session on assisted suicide apologetics. He will be tackling some of the thornier issues surrounding autonomy, suffering, and legalization.

Our first event of the term, however, is on a different topic. Philippa Taylor, Head of Public Policy at CMF, will be addressing us on the very delicate issue of foetal disability. In UK law abortion is only legal up until 24 weeks, unless the foetus displays “physical or mental abnormalities”, in which case abortion is legal up until birth. This poses numerous complex and sensitive questions, including potential discrimination towards disabled people, and we look forward to hearing Philippa’s talk on the matter.

With regard to student parents, there is a huge amount of work to be done and lots to build on from the excellent start made by the student parents sub-committee last year. Over the summer we had a very productive meeting with the newly elected Student Parents and Carers rep at OUSU, and look forward to working together as much as possible. Our initial focus is going to be on passing motions in the different college MCRs and JCRs, so that nappy changing tables are installed and high chairs are available in halls. Whilst doing this, we hope to raise awareness about the difficulties faced by student parents, by handing out information leaflets and running another student parent week, similar to the one held at the start of Trinity last year.

It is sure to be an eventful year, and one which we hope will make an actively positive contribution to student life at Oxford, whether that is through campaign work for student parents or by offering new perspectives on complex issues that affect each and every one of us. We always want to hear from you, and have been really encouraged by messages people have sent suggesting events. If ever you want to help out in any way, do not hesitate to get in touch!

For more information on events, including dates, timings, and venues, please visit our website or Facebook page.

Johnny Church is co-President of Oxford Students for Life