One thorny issue that never ceases to invoke outright zealous resistance among religious is that of abortion. The subject was again bought to the fore, last month, with a motion in the Irish parliament to introduce long overdue legislation on the infamous X Case, and only this week, with the opening of the Marie Stopes family planning clinic in Belfast. The centre will allow limited abortion up to 9 weeks. The furore is unfolding by the minute, with new as well as old pro-life groups clamouring to fight what they see as one of the biggest threats to humankind.
The language used by religious organisations such as the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child and Youth Defence, is highly emotive, yet grossly scientifically inaccurate. There is a fine line between outright fanatical delusion and deliberate lack of regard for facts. The boundary between the two becoming so blurred that it is often difficult to distinguish. Pro-choice groups are accused of seeking legislation that would allow the murder of babies and children. One of the contenders of the last Irish presidential election, Gay Mitchell, even went so far as to compare abortion to the Nazi holocaust. As someone who visited the concentration camps of Auschwitz, this rhetoric was more than disturbing. It was never my intention to get involved in pro-choice debate, but it almost seems an inevitable consequence of being a rationalist, that one is automatically drawn into this emotive quagmire. As with the subject of religion, the offer of evidence and facts do not offer a lifeline to any form of unanimous consensus. The religious right position themselves, as being on a god given mission to save human souls from what they perceive as the grave evils posed by modern day family planning clinics. Sam Harris pointed out the absurdity of the Catholic Church’s position on this by citing one of many speeches made by Mother Teresa on the issue.
“ But I feel that the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion, because it is a war against the child – a direct killing of the innocent child – murder by the mother herself. And if we accept that a mother can kill even her own child, how can we tell other people not to kill one another? How do we persuade a woman not to have an abortion? As always, we must persuade her with love, and we remind ourselves that love means to be willing to give until it hurts. Jesus gave even his life to love us. So the mother who is thinking of abortion, should be helped to love – that is, to give until it hurts her plans, or her free time, to respect the life of her child. The father of that child, whoever he is, must also give until it hurts. By abortion, the mother does not learn to love, but kills even her own child to solve her problems. And by abortion, the father is told that he does not have to take any responsibility at all for the child he has brought into the world. That father is likely to put other women into the same trouble. So abortion just leads to more abortion. Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching the people to love, but to use any violence to get what they want. That is why the greatest destroyer of love and peace is abortion. ”
Everyone of my generation and those before will remember the heated debates that took place over the last 20 years. I can even remember the rhetoric surrounding the abortion referendum of 1983, although it was passed a few weeks before my 9th birthday. Just like Gerry Adam’s infamous description of the IRA, it seems the thorny issue has never gone away in the intervening third of a century. The length at which the religious pro-life movement was prepared to go to stop women receiving abortions abroad was laid bare in the aftermath of the X case. A 14 year old girl became pregnant as a result of statutory rape. She tried to seek an abortion in the UK, only to be stopped by the Irish police on the basis of the 1983 amendment. The Supreme Court overturned this original order and she would have subsequently been allowed to travel. This gave rise to three further referenda. The twelfth amendment proposed that suicide would not be considered grounds for abortion. The thirteenth amendment proposed that the ban on abortion would not infringe on the right of the individual to seek services that are legal abroad. The fourteenth amendment proposed the right to distribute information about abortion. The twelfth amendment was rejected by the 65% of Irish people and the latter two amendments (the right to travel and the right to information) were also passed by a significant margin. Another referendum on the issue of suicide and abortion, put forward by the Fianna Fail/ Progressive Democrat coalition government in 2002 was also defeated, albeit by a narrower margin than the original X case referendum. I am at a loss to understand as to why significantly more people voted in favour of this referendum than its predecessor, as it was even more draconian in its intent than the original, (one of its propositions was a maximum of 12 years in prison for anyone offering abortion services).
The abortion question is essentially one of many clashes between religious tradition and the scientific method. It is one based on traditions first established among desert dwellers, ignorant of their place in this world and dating back 3500 years, versus a revolutionary method that was in its infancy only 250 years ago. Needless to say mankind has prospered more in the latter 2 centuries than we have since the first recognisable homo sapien walked the planes of the African savannah some 50,000 years ago. Despite these obvious facts, if put to a vote, the majority of people on earth would still see religious opinion as a superior source of wisdom. There are many psychological, evolutionary and social reasons for this that is beyond the remit of this blog, but it is sufficient to say that these same impulses drive the pro-life movement. Once” tradition” can give rise to the same cognitive properties as empirical evidence (and 21st century neuropsychology shows it does), evolution has left us with a reasoning problem. If our innate neural hardware can make us believe that on the basis of culture,( for example, to use a Hindu analogy of the elephant god Ganesh, that one day a boy fashioned by clay and the perspiration of its mother was beheaded by the destroyer Shiva, and who, in remorse, moulded the head of a baby elephant to the boy’s body and bringing him back to life), with the same vigour and ferocity as we believe that antibiotics can kill susceptible bacteria, then it follows from this that if figures of religious authority proclaim a foetus to be human, then to the believer that is exactly what it is.
Once the pro-choice side see this anomaly, it is somewhat easier to understand the degree of enthusiasm that is on the so called pro-life side. After all no one is in favour of killing defenceless babies or children, in fact nothing could be more abhorrent. The most sincere and fervent belief that a fertilised zygote is in fact a living human being, that has human rights similar to an adult is an immediate conversation stopper. It is an unwinnable clash of a very large degree of evidence versus an equally large degree of non-evidence based belief. The casualties of this struggle are facts, evidence and most importantly female emancipation.
The reason why most civilised countries allow abortion is based on strong medical evidence that a fertilised human egg is no more magical or human than the set of genes prior to fertilisation. Both the fertilised egg and the millions of sperm and unfertilised egg that preceded it all have the potential to develop into human life. The Catholic Church’s absurd view that even contraception is evil is based on the bizarre belief that even sperm and egg are sacred. The sperm and the egg that will fuse have exactly the same genetic makeup before and after fertilisation. This step on the road to becoming human is only one of several stages. Whether the fertilised egg is successful or not will depend on multiple factors such as the environment, the genetic makeup of the mother and that of the newly developing embryo, as well as the actions of the mother. All of the above are subject to arbitrary luck and random chance. The first stage of random genetics is the fact that the egg is exposed to the chance of being fertilised by any of 250 million individual sperm. The process is not driven by god, who wishes to bring John or Mary into the world, but by a genetic lottery with odds against anyone sperm getting fertilised greater than any lotto draw we play. The potential for a game loss isn’t over there. The fertilised egg now only has a 33% chance of making it to becoming a live baby. Over the 6 days following fertilisation many will be ejected by the mother and not make it to implantation. It seems like god has yet again to go back to the drawing board to bring little John or Mary into the world. Even after implantation of the embryo into the uterus wall, there is a 25% chance of miscarriage. So it seems that god is an indecisive creature and is the biggest abortion provider of all.
It is for these reasons that medical science has the difficult task of defining when a developing foetus should be considered an independent entity of itself and most obstetricians put this at approximately 24 weeks. This is the late stage in foetal development when, with the best medical intervention, the foetus maybe viable outside the womb. Most would argue that abortion should be carried out as far before this time as is practically possible, but 24 weeks is set as an absolute limit. This limit is supported by a wealth of studies. A 2006 study in the US shows that only 1.5% of all abortions happen after 21 weeks and that nearly 80% are carried out before 10 weeks of pregnancy. These are broadly similar to abortion figures in the UK. These facts all too often get lost in religious vitriol.
These hard statistics cannot be refuted as they are backed up by several studies. While abortion is never an easy option, and society should do everything in its power to prevent women getting into this situation in the first place, by dealing with issues such as sex education, access to contraception and overcoming poverty traps. Ultimately human development is not one magic act at fertilisation, overlooked by a cosmic sky lord, but a step of natural processes, if all conditions allow, will result in childbirth. These conditions as mentioned before, include genetics of the mother and foetus, environmental factors, but most important of all should be the will of a sentient human to bring another into the world.