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Opinion: In Ireland a pregnancy must continue even if a woman is raped, suicidal or clinically dead

Pregnancy isn’t as black and white as we would like. There are fatal foetal abnormalities, health risks, complications, and pregnancy from rape and incest. In each instance our laws allow one outcome: have the child.

Peter Ferguson

AS SOMEONE WHO is pro-choice I was originally buoyed by Leo Varadkar’s comments on the restrictiveness of Ireland’s abortion laws. However, following the news that a clinically dead woman was being kept on life support against the will of her family in order allow the development of a foetus, his words now seem like a calculated stunt in order to pre-empt the public outcry of more disgraceful treatment of Irish women due to the archaic eight amendment.

The UN Human Rights Committee said our laws treat women as ‘mere vessels’. Such a description was swiftly proven accurate when a raped, migrant woman was denied an abortion, force-fed and the child birthed via a caesarean. Her human rights were denied and then violated. But such treatment is legal under Ireland’s eight amendment which robs women of their right to bodily autonomy and bodily integrity.

And here we are again, a woman is being denied dignity in death and her family’s wishes are being ignored because Irish law states that as soon as a woman is pregnant her rights are demoted to those of a second class citizen. The stripping away of women’s right to bodily autonomy permeates from a dangerous ideology that has become enshrined in the Irish constitution.

The pro-life view that conception is when a baby sprouts into being is a dangerous tenet that pervades the Irish psyche. The journey from fertilisation to a living person is developmental, and this development takes place inside the body of a living, breathing person whose rights we must respect. There is no magic moment where one second a foetus is not a person and the next it is, it happens over time.

But there is one characteristic needed to be deemed alive: sentience. Without sentience, ie an active brain, nothing can be considered to be alive. It is how we measure death. A person could lose all organ function but if the brain is still active then the person is still alive. Conversely, if a person’s brain is inactive and the rest of the body is functional then the person is deemed to be dead. For example, parasitic twins can be born with functional organs but no brain function; there is no moral dilemma in surgically removing the twin, even if it’s just for aesthetic reasons. And so it is with foetuses: brain activity only begins between the 24th and 28th week of gestation.

A potential for personhood is still not personhood

This reveals the horrific and cruel irony of the current case. We see no moral dilemma turning off the life support machine of a woman who is brain-dead but her rights and her family’s wishes are being trampled on in order to use her body as a life support machine for a foetus that does not have an active brain.

Now pro-lifers will argue that left unimpeded the foetus will develop sentience and thus be alive, and this potential for personhood necessarily trumps the rights of the women in whose body it develops. However, it cannot be said that something is alive because it has the potential to be alive any more than one can say I am dead because I have the potential to die. A foetus either is or isn’t alive, and prior to any brain activity it simply cannot be said a foetus is alive and cannot be classed in the same category as a baby.

Pregnancy isn’t as black and white as we would like. There are fatal foetal abnormalities, health risks, complications, and pregnancy from rape and incest. In each instance our laws allow one outcome: have the child. Even if the woman’s long term health will suffer, even if she was raped, even if the foetus is incompatible with life, and now, even if you are clinically dead.

Irish women are being denied agency

The current case is as complex as it can get. Did the woman state her wishes before she became brain-dead? What about the father? What do her next of kin want? But all these questions are academic because the answers bear no influence on the outcome. Our laws are so stringent that even if we had it on record that this woman firmly stated that she did not want to be kept on a life support machine it would not matter. She is pregnant; therefore, her choice and her rights are ignored.

No woman under the age of 50 has been given a voice in this constitutional amendment that so uniquely limits the rights of those with fertile wombs. There is huge demand for a referendum on the eight amendment, with 56% in favour and 19% against the holding of a vote. The government seems unwilling to hold such a referendum despite the public’s demands but until they finally behave as a democratic government and allow the people a vote on the removal of the Eight Amendment, Irish women will be denied agency and remain as mere vessels and incubators in our constitution.

Peter Ferguson is a sceptic and a writer, he is a contributing author in the upcoming book 13 Reasons to Doubt, and he blogs at SkepticInk.com. Twitter @humanisticus

Read: Court proceedings started in case of pregnant woman on life support

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