Belfast Telegraph

For Joanna Hayes, Anne Lovett, Savita Halappanavar and all the women of Ireland... I'm voting Yes to repeal the Eighth

If we purport to be a civilised society, then we must act humanely in such tragic and difficult cases, writes Paul Hopkins

Emotional. Divisive. Personal. Three simple words, simple yet powerful in their summation of the long, hard campaign for the repeal of the eighth amendment of the Irish constitution that culminates at the polling booths in the Republic tomorrow. Listening to and reading stories from both sides of the divide these past months, other words come to mind: shocking, sickening, sad, sorrowful, heartbreaking - the latter the most enduring and impactful of all.

I listened to the many, many stories of women who bore and gave birth against all odds, against all that seemed - and very often was deemed - implausible and with harrowing and long-lasting emotional and physical consequences.

As I write, Sinead is on the radio, 37 weeks pregnant, and told at 17 weeks that the foetus would never be a viable human being. The phrase used was: "It is not compatible with life." For the past 20 weeks, Sinead has had to carry what is not compatible with life and, until delivery, in a numbing, nauseating, limbo of sorts, pretending to inquiring strangers that all is well, because she has no choice.

I listened, too, to the stories of wives, girlfriends, daughters, sisters - the woman down the road - who, as they saw it, had no option, no choice, no say in the matter, their matter, but to take the boat to England, furtively, frightened and alone, because Irish society, its politicians, its priest, its puritans saw fit to cast them out as sinners and fornicators. Fallen women.

Others, mere children themselves, sinned against rather than sinning, secreted away in industrial laundries, in mother and baby homes - what a misnomer! - their babies, if lucky to see the light of day, snatched from them and sold off for lucrative sums to strangers in a strange land. Forgotten children of Ireland.

Then, again, other women, women whose various anniversaries have occurred during the drawn-out campaign and who were commented upon and dissected, scandalised and scrutinised, and pored over: the 14-year-old child-woman at the centre of the X Case; Joanna Hayes (25) and the Kerry Babies; Anne Lovett (15), in her garden of Gethsemane at the grotto in Granard; and Savita Halappanavar (31), the first public and pitiful casualty of the intransigence, the unworkability, the moral conundrum, of the current eighth amendment of a constitution that purports to cherish every living man, woman and child equally, but the futility of that fallacy is, alas, for another day's debate.

I am old enough to remember the times when a man with arable land gave a dowry to take a woman for his own; to remember when a woman was not allowed to continue to "work" in state and semi-state bodies after she married; when a woman abused, emotionally and physically, raped repeatedly in the marriage bed, or perhaps just utterly exhausted with too many children to fend for and with no choice to guard against another pregnancy, foolishly perhaps, confided in the confessional, or her GP, only to be told, in so many words, to go home and fulfil her wifely duties.

My only daughter, now a grown woman, would flinch, perhaps laugh, at such notions.

We might like to think we have come a long way since then.

We haven't.

Ask Savita's still-grieving husband, Praveen. Ask Sinead on the radio. Ask countless others.

India and China, for so-called "cultural" reasons, aside, no one, I believe, comes easily to the finality of abortion. Many I know would be against termination for their own moral, ethical and religious reasons, yet will vote Yes - such a decision requires immense courage and conviction - or agree with it in certain (often limited) circumstances.

(One reason why the eventual wording of any new law, if and when it comes to that, needs exact scrutiny and clarity of meaning and execution.)

The debate is not over. There has been a lot of misinformation throughout, some so scurrilous I refuse to entertain here. Tomorrow's poll, if carried, still has a ways to go before any law becomes statute in the Republic; time, if we man up, to honestly amend health minister Simon Harris's draft and get it right for once.

We don't live in a perfect world. We humans are flawed, otherwise we would not be having this conversation. But bad laws, like the eighth amendment, create hard and difficult cases, whatever the exceptions.

If we purport to be a civilised, grown-up society, then we must act civilised and grown-up towards such hard and difficult cases. We must guard against the vagaries of man and nature and of misinformation about what is and is not compatible with life.

The word "life" packs a powerful, poignant punch. That the embryo/foetus has "life" has been the core argument of the No campaign. But agreement on whether there is "life" and when and where it begins, where it is inherent, has been the subject of religious and philosophical debate for as long as man has walked this earth. It is a complex and perplexing matter.

In a letter to his diocese on April 12 last, the Church of Ireland Bishop of Limerick and Killaloe, the Most Rev Kenneth Kearon, wrote: "The Bible certainly speaks of life in the womb before birth (Ps 139. 13-14, Luke 1.41-45, Psalm 22. 9-10 and many other references), but none of these seek to identify the moment when life begins, and do not say that life begins at conception."

He continued: "When we look to the traditional teachers of the Church, St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas, for example, we find speculation about the beginning of life, often equating it with ensoulment (when the soul enters the body), or with the time when the mother first 'feels life', or movement, all of which are stages long after conception has taken place."

Modern biology recognises that very many conceptions do not continue on through the various stages of development to be born, but are "lost", with up to 55% of eggs fertilised miscarried soon afterwards.

For most of its 2,000-year history until 1869, the Catholic Church taught that no "murder" was involved if abortion took place before the foetus was infused with a soul. Some of the greatest theologians in the Christian tradition held this view.

Even Augustine and Aquinas and other learned people prior to 1869 did not believe that a collection of biochemical elements with potential, such as found in the fertilised ovum, was a person - what bioethicists and philosophers today hold true when they use the term "consciousness".

To conclude, let me simply say this: I trust the women, wives, daughters and sisters I know - instinctively good, caring, nurturing people. I trust them implicitly to allow them their choice in their matters, in their lives.

I am voting Yes to repeal the eighth amendment.

Paul Hopkins is a Dublin-based journalist and commentator

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