Sunday, March 30, 2008

Abortion and moral equivalence

The Irish Medicines Board (IMB) has warned women against buying the abortion pill RU486 online. RU486 or Mifepristone is widely available in the UK under strict medical supervision but is not authorised for use in Ireland. However Irish women have now started to illegally purchase the pill online avoiding the need to travel to Britain for an abortion. The IMB and customs officers have been monitoring packages coming into Ireland on a continuous basis.

The drug has been promoted by Rachel’s Vineyard, a group which offers weekend retreats for healing after abortion. The group’s director Bernadette Goulding said the drug is used frequently in Ireland. "I've had young women coming to me who would have taken that drug,” she said. “The women would have taken the tablets themselves and aborted at home.” The strictness of Ireland’s anti-abortion laws means that over 6,000 Irish women travel to Britain every year to terminate their pregnancies. Abortion is proscribed by article 40.3.3 of the Irish Constitution which was amended by referendum in 1983 to read “"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 Ireland is far from being the only country where the abortion debate rages. The UK is examining its first legal change on the subject in twenty years. The Daily Telegraph reports that “hundreds of MPs” are to vote to lower the abortion limit to 20 weeks. Abortion has been legal in Britain (but not Northern Ireland) since 1967 and has allowed abortion under 28 weeks to avoid injury to the mother or existing children. In 1990 the time limit was reduced to 24 weeks for most cases to reflect improving medical technology. Now further advances are driving the push to reduce it again to 20 weeks. Labour pro-lifer Joe Benton said, "I do think many more MPs…will vote for 20 weeks because late abortion seems less acceptable now that the viability of the foetus is much better as a result of advances in medical science."

Despite its reputation as America’s biggest hot button issue, it is pleasing to note that it is not resonating with the southern voters of Virginia despite attempts by Robert G. Marshall to make it the centrepiece of his campaign for the Republican nomination for Senate. Marshall is one of three Republican hopefuls looking to replace retiring Senator John W. Warner. Marshall has tried to exploit the pro-life community telling people they are "not conservative enough" if they support abortion in cases of rape and incest. But a party insider told the Washington Times that if the Republicans focus solely on this issue, they are “going to get our clocks cleaned”.

Here in Australia the abortion debate has been as passionate as anywhere else despite most opinion polls showing overwhelming support for the right of a woman to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. The 2006 decision for the Therapeutic Goods Administration to approve RU486 rather than the Liberal Health Minister Tony Abbott prompted a stormy and emotional parliamentary debate and conscience vote. RU486 is not an abortion drug however, it kills the foetus, though it may have adverse health effects on the mother.

Abbott, a strong Catholic, had publicly criticised the abortion rate in Australia saying in 2004 that 25 percent of all pregnancies end in abortion three quarters of which were funded by Medicare. After that year’s election he announced a desire to limit taxpayer-funded abortion. Abortion is state law in Australia so Abbott could not directly intervene to change abortion law but the federal government could have stopped the Medicare funding. In the end, however Abbott was rebuffed by his boss John Howard who was aware of the potential electoral repercussions. Abbott later said he did not support removing the Medicare safety net and supported abortion that was “safe, legal and rare”.

This is not a view shared by the leaders of Abbott’s Church. Pope John Paul II’s 1995 Evangelium Vitae declared all direct abortion to be a “grave moral disorder”. But the reality is that community views are not so clear cut. As the Jesuit Frank Brennan puts it in his book “Acting on Conscience”, the majority of citizens do not morally equate the “disposing of a beaker full of embryos” with partial-birth abortions on “near viable foetuses”. Problems emerge over the decision of where to draw this line.

Brennan argues that the pro-choice and the pro-life lobbies are actually in agreement in that they both refuse to countenance that there is a moral difference between the two extremes. For the pro-choicers, partial-birth abortion (usually over 20 weeks) is permissible no matter what the tangible and visible effects while the right-to-lifers argue that community revulsion over partial birth procedures should be translated into a blanket ban on all direct abortion. As Brennan says, it becomes a “winner take all argument” where either all is permitted or none.

Brennan also castigated the stance of the American bishops who threatened 2004 Democrat (and Catholic) presidential nominee John Kerry with excommunication for his pro-choice stance. For some US bishops, Kerry’s stance was a greater crime against conscience than non-Catholic George W. Bush’s reluctance to waive executions as governor of Texas or his decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003. These bishops urged Catholics not to vote for Kerry. Brennan pointed out that “singling out voters for Kerry from voters for Bush is so morally selective as to be political, being perceived to be partisan”.

The case against abortion in the US is undermined, says Brennan, by the numbers of Catholics having and performing abortions. Even if Roe v Wade was overturned, it is unlikely that many jurisdictions would recriminalise all abortion from the moment of conception precisely because there is no moral consensus on when a life begins. There is a big difference between the withdrawal of an embryo from the womb and what Brennan emotively calls the “dismembering and killing [of] a near viable foetus who is only days and inches from a life protected by law and respected by society”.


Chade said...

Psst: not John, Tony Abbott...?

Great blog too, by the way. :)

Derek Barry said...

thanks for the typo pick-up, Chade (and the compliment!). I had a Howard/Abbott confusion moment happening!

Chade said...

No worries.

I don't know that they ever had a (public) difference of opinion anyway... ;)