The Meaning of Life


With the island’s first clinic offering abortions being opened in Belfast, Cathal Coghlan looks at the moral and social implications of abortion

According to the Feminist Majority Foundation’s 2005 National Clinic Violence Survey, 18.4% of clinics in the US suffered “severe violence” by anti-abortionists including “includes blockades, invasions, arsons, bombings, chemical attacks, stalking, gunfire, physical assaults, and threats of death, bomb, or arson.” One can question the fairness of the label ‘pro-life’ that is given to the aggressors with these statistics in mind, but what is unquestionable is that the abortion debate is still a high profile and pertinent problem in society.

The main Pro-Life argument used is that the unborn foetus has a right to life. “Life begins at conception” is quite a big phrase among them, predominately among certain Christian denominations such as the Catholic Church.

The University Observer spoke to Irish Independent columnist and vocal spokesperson on the topic of abortion, David Quinn on the issue. “It seems to me that it’s unarguable that from the moment of conception you have a human life. Irrespective of what your opinion might be, it’s very hard to see how we’re not dealing with a human life that has, genetically, everything that he will ever have from the moment of conception.”

There are two ways in which the phrase ‘life begins at conception’ can be interpreted: the literal and then the medical interpretation. The literal interpretation is false; life is a continuous process, it has not begun per se in the billions of years so far as we know. The sperm and ovum that form a zygote are alive; life no more begins at conception than when an amoeba asexually reproduces by splitting in two.

If we infer the phrase to mean that the genetic information, for what has the potential to become a fully-grown adult, is fully formed during the process of conception then the statement is true. The question that follows from this is: so what? We have the fully formed genetic information of a human that is so small you can’t even see it. Any given skin cell on your body contains your fully formed genetic information. They die all the time and it’s not considered immoral. This is where the anti-abortionists will appeal to the argument of potentiality. A zygote has the potential to become and live a full human life and this means it should be treated as a human; thus, they argue, to abort it is murder.

Practising consultant in the Royal Free Hospital, Dr Gerard Coghlan, offered a medical and scientific perspective on the matter: “No one can create life as life is a continuous process, that said, it is reasonable to argue that the foetus from the moment of conception meets the criteria of a living entity to a greater extent than a skin cell or single sperm. The absolute dependence of the foetus on its mother means it cannot meet the criteria of an independent living entity, so scientifically one cannot prove that it is a human being, as humans are not dependent on a single host.”

One of the major criticisms of the idea potentiality is that it leads to the conclusion that male masturbation is immoral because sperm have the potential to become human beings if put through the correct processes. In exactly the same way, zygote will only become a human being if put through the correct processes, and masturbation is actively preventing the sperm from being put through the correct processes, as abortion prevents a foetus from being put through the correct processes to bring it to birth.

Even if we do assume a foetus has the right to life, there is further disagreement about the lengths we should go to protect it. This is the question of whether or not someone’s right to life supersedes another’s rights to their own body. Philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson in her essay A Defence of Abortion, which William Parent claims is “the most widely reprinted essay in all of contemporary philosophy”, presents some interesting thought experiments. Here is one of them:

“You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist’s circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. … To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it’s only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.”

Does the violinist have the right to be a parasite off your body for nine months? You did not agree to be hooked up to him; likewise a woman does not consent to a foetus feeding off her body for nine months (tacit consent is not given by the act of sex to a possible result of it, by analogy one does not agree to getting STDs by performing unsafe sex). If the ‘right to life’ and ‘sanctity of life’ arguments are to be taken seriously in respect to foetuses then they must extend to the famous violinist, drawing questions of why the anti-abortionists aren’t fighting for greater personal sacrifice to the health service.

Abortions don’t have to kill the foetus; they can simply allow the foetus to die by taking away what it parasitically depends on to survive. This is where a foetus differs from a newborn child; the former is critically dependent on the mother, the newborn child is not. A newborn child also has the capacity to feel pain; neurobiological research suggests foetuses don’t even have the capacity to feel pain until twenty-nine weeks at earliest. This is after the legal limit of how far into a pregnancy one can get an abortion in places like the UK and the Netherlands. The claim that abortions cause foetal pain is a myth.

It is clear from even the briefest glance at prominent thinkers and countries’ laws that the extent to which the right to life should be brought to is a heavily disputed question. In the US for example, they believe it ends at people who commit abhorrent crimes, so they can execute them; in Ireland, it apparently has no limit whatsoever; in the UK it encompasses a person’s entire life after birth. If Ireland’s understanding of rights is superior, it should lead to superior social results compared with countries with contrary laws, so let us test that by looking at some of the social effects of abortion.

“I would support the present situation whereby we don’t have direct abortion in Ireland but we also have the safest maternal health care system in the world,” says Quinn. “That is, the lowest number of deaths as a result of pregnancy in the world so therefore we have a win-win, both the unborn children win and the mothers win.”

However, is this the best measurement to deduce affects of abortion in society? According to the Department of Health in England and Wales in 2010, a total of 16,460 resident women under the age of 18 had an abortion. One can only wonder how many of these girls were saved from living on benefits, dropping out of education, having to give up their life plans and suffering various psychological problems due quite simply to the abortion they had.

In Ireland, abortion is illegal except in the case where the primary intention is to save the woman’s life, but due to previous government’s floundering on the issue, this is largely ambivalent. The UK’s Department of Health says in the same report that 4,402 residents of the Republic of Ireland travelled to England or Wales in 2010 to have an abortion. The IFPA reports that between January 1980 and December 2011, at least 150,000 women travelled out of the Republic of Ireland to have a safe abortion abroad. It would appear the illegality of such actions within Ireland does not prevent residents from travelling to perform them.

The 1972 Rockefeller Commission on Population and the American Future claimed that the children of women who were denied an abortion “turned out to have been registered more often with psychiatric services, engaged in more antisocial and criminal behaviour, and have been more dependent on public assistance.” This is one of the earlier and best-known examples of this theory and it has encountered a lot of controversy in more recent papers advocating the suggestion.

Supporting this theory is a paper published in 1999 studying the effect of legalisation of abortion in America that found that “the marginal children who were not born as a result of abortion legalisation would have systematically been born into less favourable circumstances if the pregnancies had not been terminated: they would have been 60% more likely to live in a single parent household, 50% more likely to live in poverty, 45% more likely to be in a household collecting welfare, and 40% more likely to die during the first year of life.”

Spokesperson for Pro-Choice Ireland, Sinead Ahern says: “As a statute, banning of abortion doesn’t work. Huge amounts of evidence worldwide suggests that countries that do have a total ban on abortion, do see the women just travelling to different jurisdictions as we see here; or, what’s much more concerning, in countries where women can’t travel for reasons of finances or geography, that women are dying as a result of backstreet abortions.” Women will get abortions, legal or not, immoral or not. It is in their best interests that they be able to access them freely and safely.

So in favour of limiting the ‘sanctity of life’ right, England has decreased harm through underground abortions, arguably decreased social crisis through unwanted babies, and increased happiness for the mother through control of her body. Does sanctity of life hold any advantages?

Some argue that the legalisation of abortions will cause people to care less about using contraceptives. This certainly appears to be true if we compare England and Ireland, with England having over double the rate of pregnancy in women aged 15-19 as Ireland. But if we look at the Netherlands, where abortion is legal, the teenage pregnancy rate is half that of Ireland. Consequently, it is difficult to say whether or not the legality of abortions has any effect on pregnancy numbers as there are so many other factors involved, such as the cultural attitude towards sex.

Arguably, it is likely that the legalisation of abortion affects the individual and society positively; the question of the moral implications, and its many different interpretations, of doing so is the sticking point for the population at large.