15 November

Solidarity with the weakest – ‘they’ are ‘us’

In early October the Northern Ireland Department of Justice Minister, David Ford, announced a consultation on whether Northern Ireland should allow abortion in the case of what is styled ‘lethal foetal abnormality’. Essentially, Northern Ireland, which has hitherto maintained a relatively consistent legislative position that recognises and upholds the inalienable right to life of the human person from conception, is now contemplating deliberate killing before birth of persons suspected of having a disability.

According the latest Department of Health abortion statistics report, published in June 2014, 2,732 abortions (1%) were carried out under Ground E (risk that the child would be born handicapped). The same report notes that the number of registered Ground E abortions is lower than the number reported in other congenital anomaly registers, meaning that the actual number of unborn children aborted because of suspected disability is in fact higher, perhaps much higher. Suspected or confirmed Spina Bifida, anencephaly, cleft lip / cleft palate, and Down’s Syndrome are just some of the many conditions qualifying for Ground E abortions. The report also states that in 2013, a total of 802 mothers traveled form Northern Ireland to England & Wales for an abortion.

Liam Gibson, a leading opponent of abortion in Northern Ireland responded to the news as follows:

Abortion advocates always seek to use so-called hard cases to advance their agenda of abortion on demand. They try to present abortion as a compassionate response for parents who learn their unborn baby is seriously ill. While every case is unique, each one is a tragedy.

Unfortunately, while some women in Northern Ireland receive help and support from their obstetric team, others do not. Some women have been given inadequate or even inaccurate information about their baby’s condition, which can leave them feeling that abortion is their only option. Others have spoken publicly about the pressure placed on them to consent to an abortion.

It cannot, of course, be easy to be told that your child is likely to have a lifelong disability of some sort, perhaps one that will significantly shorten life-expectancy. It is not hard to find news stories about doctors and nursing staff painting a terribly pessimistic outlook, and recommending abortion as the best option in the circumstances. But should not the news of a child on the way, even a potentially disabled child, be a time when family and friends rally round – to celebrate and support? And are we not living in a society that has made significant strides towards better care and support for those with physical and mental disabilities? It looks as if, in law and practice, such fair treatment and support is often wanting before the child is born. Parents are driven to regard the killing of their child as an option, and indeed the better option at that.

From conception to death, no person is independent, in the sense that we always have been and always will be dependent upon others  – to feed us, protect us, drive us to work, pay us, teach us – and always will have others dependent upon us to help them in the same ways, in good times and in times of sickness, injury, old age and imminent death. Alasdair MacIntyre has written in his book, Dependent Rational Animals:

We human beings are vulnerable to many kinds of affliction and most of us are at some time afflicted by serious ills. How we cope is only in small part up to us. It is most often to others that we owe our survival, let alone our flourishing, as we encounter bodily illness and injury, inadequate nutrition, mental defect and disturbance, and human aggression and neglect. This dependence on particular others for protection and sustenance is most obvious in early childhood and in old age. But between these first and last stages our lives are characteristically marked by longer or shorter periods of injury, illness or other disablement, and some among us are disabled for their entire lives.

These two related sets of facts, those concerning our vulnerabilities and afflictions and those concerning the extent of our dependence on particular others are so evidently of singular importance that it might seem that no account of the human condition whose authors hoped to achieve credibility could avoid giving them a central place. Yet the history of Western moral philosophy suggests otherwise. From Plato to Moore and since, there are usually, with some rare exceptions, only passing references to human vulnerability and affliction and to the connections between them and our dependence on others. Some of the facts of human limitation and of our consequent need of cooperation with others are more generally acknowledged, but for the most part only then to be put on one side.

And when the ill, the injured and the otherwise disabled are presented in the pages of moral philosophy books, it is almost always exclusively as possible subjects of benevolence by moral agents who are themselves presented as though they were continuously rational, healthy, and untroubled. So we are invited, when we think of disability, to think of ‘the disabled’ as ‘them,’ as other than ‘us,’ as a separate class, not as ourselves as we have been, sometimes are now, and may well be in the future.


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