Alban Maginness: Why abortion is no answer to the heartbreaking questions posed by fatal foetal abnormality
A working party report claims to be value-free, but takes sides on issue of right to life of unborn. By Alban Maginness
The report of a working party set up by two previous justice and health ministers at Stormont into the issue of so-called fatal foetal abnormality was suddenly and surprisingly released last month, despite the absence of any working Assembly to consider it.
It should be remembered that this was not an expert group, merely a group of Government officials, without expertise in any of the relevant medical disciplines, such as obstetrics.
They sought and received opinions from the Royal Colleges, but did not reach out beyond those bodies to learn from practitioners actually working in this area.
The report was greeted with warm approval by the pro-abortion lobby in Northern Ireland, because it concluded that there should be a change in the law on abortion to allow abortion for unborn babies, who are deemed to have fatal foetal abnormality.
Such a radical proposal was made without any consideration of the ethical aspects of abortion, nor was there any serious discussion of the human rights aspects of this proposal, nor indeed the legal implications that will arise should this be put into law.
The document adopted a false neutrality, claiming to be expressly value-free on the fundamental issue of the right to life of the unborn, while actually taking a stance in practice.
Its pro-abortion proposals are couched in modest and restrictive language.
But the reality is that the enactment of legislation based on the hard case of fatal foetal abnormality in isolation is a Trojan horse to subtly establish the principle of abortion, with the very real danger of further - and much wider - legislation coming down the track.
This is, of course, a clever move, because it introduces for the first time the concept of abortion outside the legal exception for preserving the life of the mother.
We also know very well that such hard cases make bad law.
Central to this report is the mistaken and confusing use of the term fatal foetal abnormality. It is impossible to conclusively define on clinical grounds that so-called term.
The reason is because there is no such clinical term, as any search of the medical literature will make plain. Fatal foetal abnormality is an imprecise, emotive, journalistic term to identify a condition that does not conform to clinical reality.
In practical terms, even if it were desirable, it is impossible to take a group of conditions and say that they are fatal foetal abnormality.
An unborn baby having any serious, or severe, disability of any type is potentially life-limited. No doctor can precisely predict the life expectancy of any such baby about to be born.
This shallow report does not acknowledge that fact. Why do these civil servants distinguish fatal foetal abnormality in isolation from foetal abnormalities generally? It just does not make clinical sense.
The legal implications of this report are profound for the unborn disabled baby and any specific legislation founded on this proposal may well be contrary to international law.
The UK, including Northern Ireland, is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Disabled. That convention is designed to prohibit discrimination against disabled persons.
This international convention has been incorporated into our domestic law and any legislation passed by the Assembly must conform to the Convention, or be deemed incompatible with it and could well be declared unlawful.
Laws which explicitly allow for abortion on the grounds of disability, or impairment, as the Convention would call it, potentially violate the Convention.
Even if the condition is considered fatal, an abortion carried out in those circumstances is still regarded as being made on the basis of impairment. The Convention's monitoring committee has stated that often it cannot be said if an impairment is fatal or not.
The treatment of mothers of unborn babies with any sort of foetal abnormality should be a matter of great concern for all.
News of this sort for any mother is deeply troubling and mentally damaging.
She must receive the best medical and counselling support from her medical team. Her mental health, in particular, should be a top priority.
But solving her problems by proposing abortion is no solution.
Implicit in this report is the assumption (without any evidence) that abortion in such circumstances is the preferred solution for the mother.
The notion is that the baby is going to die very soon after birth, anyway, so it would be better removing the baby at an earlier stage.
No questions are asked about the impact that this type of abortion (often beyond 20 weeks) will have on the mother's physical, or mental, health. This is studiously ignored in this document.
It is as if abortion in all such circumstances could have no mental, or physical, impact on the aborted baby's mother's health.
What is required is not abortion, but a well-resourced regional perinatal care strategy (presently absent in Northern Ireland) to provide the care and support that is required for the mother and her seriously disabled baby.
This is not prioritised in this skewed report.