The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) have been asked to present at the Citizens’ Assembly. They are the only presenting group that claims to represent the interests of students in Irish third-level institutions, and will be advocating for repeal of the Eighth Amendment. It’s important to remember that many students in Ireland want to see Ireland continue to value the life of the unborn child as equal to that of the person carrying it, and feel hugely alienated by the positions taken by Student Unions on the abortion question. The very existence of Students for Life, Life Society UCD, NUIG Life Society, DCU LifeSoc and our own (unfortunately) unofficial group in Trinity affirm this. Our previous post was a copy of our submission, as Trinity students, to the Citizens’ Assembly explaining our reasons for being pro-life. This one is a submission from current students and recent graduates of multiple universities in Ireland (names have been omitted here for privacy). It’s a fantastic explanation of why, ethically, secularly, philosophically, it makes the most sense to afford the unborn child with the same constitutional right to life as those of us who have been fortunate enough to already have been born. Please read, and remember: while the USI and other SUs may claim to speak for all of us, the voices of pro-life students deserve to be heard too.
We are Irish students or recent graduates of universities across Ireland and around the world who have studied ethics from a variety of perspectives. We don’t claim to be experts in the field, and we want to restrict ourselves to doing two things: first, making one fairly limited and basic point that we’re confident any professional or academic philosopher would agree with us on, and second, applying that point to the question of the Eighth Amendment and the right to life of the unborn.
We’re writing in response to the submission on ethical decision-making from Dr Mark Sheehan of Oxford. We mostly agree with him about ethical deliberation being an essentially public process of reason-giving. But we’d like to add something: in finding reasons and justifications for an individual action or a piece of policy, you not only have to give reasons that satisfy yourself, and reasons that would satisfy other “people who are similarly interested in finding out what ought to be done”(1): you also have to give reasons that you’re are happy to apply consistently in relevantly similar situations.
This might seem like a very mundane point. But it’s also, we think, a crucial one, especially when discussing any question about who does and does not have human rights. In considering modifying or repealing the 8th amendment, as you are, you’re not just making judgements about the right thing to do or the right policy to put in place, but about who should count and how much they should count in those judgements. The state currently recognises the right to life of a certain class of human being – the fetus or preborn child. Repealing the 8th would remove that recognition: there would be no hard limit on what future governments could decide about what can be done to this sort of being, in the way that there are hard limits on what can be done to a 40-year-old woman or a baby boy. Constitutional protection and equality will be removed from all beings of this sort, not just some of them.
The crucial question in our view, then is not really “what is the best policy to deal with cases where fetuses / preborn children have terminal illnesses diagnosed in utero” or anything similar. It’s more like “should fetuses / preborn children have the same constitutional protection as born children?” After all, we do not think that it’s compassionate or even vaguely acceptable to end the lives of born children with terminal illnesses, either for their own sake or that of their parents.
And any answer to that question, positive or negative, is going to have to involve giving reasons that are consistent with the reasons we give for recognising the right to life for other human beings.
“Reduction to the absurd” is a pretty standard tool in ethical decision-making. If you’ve adopted a set of principles or standards that when consistently applied lead to absurd or horrible consequences, that’s usually a sign that the standards were wrong in the first place, even if they seemed to work well for the situation in which you first adopted them.
To give a really obvious example: say you meet Joe, a white man, and want to come up with a principle that justifies his right to life. You could adopt one like the following “people have the right to life by virtue of being caucasian males”, which would sort out Joe fine, but face a big problem in justifying the right to life of Jill, a black woman. You don’t want to come up with two separate principles for Joe and Jill: you recognise that the thing that justifies their right to life is something that they have in common. It’s there in the way that we talk about human rights: there’s a “Universal Declaration” not a “Bunch of Particular Declarations”.
We, the undersigned, hold to a principle about human rights and dignity that’s extremely common and very simple. We believe that every human is equal in dignity simply by virtue of being human: being an organism that is a member of the species homo sapiens. We happen to think that this principle has a number of very obvious advantages, including the following:
* It validates our everyday understanding and language (human rights), in the most obvious way possible.
* It is progressive, ruling out many oppressive bases given for human equality in the past (race, sex, property ownership, sexual orientation) and acting as a high standard against which to mea- sure future law and policy that attempts to justify unequal treatment.
* Most importantly, unlike competing principles like “humans possess full dignity and equality if they are conscious”, or “humans possess full dignity and equality if they have the capacity for consciousness”, or “humans possess full dignity and equality if they have the potential to mentally de- velop to the level of a normal human adult”, or “humans possess full dignity and equality if they can have desires and preferences about the future” our principle runs no risk whatsoever of calling into question the equal humanity and dignity of coma patients, brain-damaged individuals, very young (born) infants, or people with severe intellectual disabilities.
In fact, the only “dubious consequence” of our view is that it implies that preborn humans are also equal in dignity at all stages of development: which, of course, is not a problem at all. We won’t deal here with “bodily rights” arguments, as in our experience very few people are willing to hold both of the following positions at the same time:
a. that the preborn have equal rights or moral status to the born
b. it should be permissible to kill them because of bodily rights arguments
And we hope that you won’t either.
It’s possible, of course, that there’s another principle which would do all the work one might want it to (safeguarding the absolute equality of coma patients, people with severe learning disabilities, and newborn babies) while allowing abortion. We will simply note that many of the leading ethicists who write about this area do not think there is such a principle – even if they don’t agree with us about the implications of that for abortion law.
Prof. Jeff McMahan, an Oxford colleague of Dr Sheehan’s who also serves with him on the editori- al board of the Journal of Medical ethics, writes in ‘Infanticide and Moral Consistency’ that “If, as virtually all moral theorists agree, moral status is a function of intrinsic properties only, there can be no difference in moral status between a viable fetus and a premature infant of the same age.”(2)
After advancing various reasons why abortion might be morally worse than infanticide in many circumstances, he concludes: “This is not, however, the conclusion that most people want, which is that there is a virtually exceptionless prohibition of infanticide grounded in the moral status that infants share with adult persons. But that conclusion is inconsistent with beliefs about the killing of animals and fetuses that are widespread and theoretically defensible”. (3)
Peter Singer, one of the most notable ethicists in this field who does not believe that there the pre-born have a right to life, is worth quoting at length:
“There remains one major objection to the argument I have advanced in favour of abortion. We have already seen that the strength of the conservative position lies in the difficulty liberals have in pointing to a morally significant line of demarcation between an embryo and a newborn baby. The standard liberal position needs to be able to point to some such line, because liberals usually hold that it is permissible to kill an embryo or fetus but not a baby. I have argued that the life of a fetus (and even more plainly, of an embryo) is of no greater value than the life of a nonhuman animal at a similar level of rationality, self-awareness, capacity to feel and so on, and that because no fetus is a person, no fetus has the same claim to life as a person. Now we have to face the fact that these arguments apply to the newborn baby as much as to the fetus. A week-old baby is not a rational and self- aware being, and there are many non-human animals whose rationality, self-awareness, capacity to feel and so on, exceed that of a human baby a week or a month old. If, for the reasons I have given, the fetus does not have the same claim to life as a person, it appears that the newborn baby does not either. [Emphasis ours]”(4)
We have the utmost respect for thinkers like McMahan and Singer, and it’s precisely because they are principled and consistent in their thought that we hope their words will set off red flags for you. If it’s the case, as we have argued, that consistency is critical when reasoning about rights; and if thinkers like these have needed to water down their opposition to infanticide (in McMahan’s case) or throw their support behind the idea that “the life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee”(5) (in Singer’s words) in order to consistently support a right to abortion, then that in itself should be a reason to give a principle like the “Equal human rights for all humans” one a second look – and to support constitutional provisions like the 8th Amendment that enshrine it.
In conclusion: consistency matters to moral decision-making, and a consistent basis must be found for recognising people as bearers of rights. We hold that any basis other than “human rights for all humans” leads to the exclusion of some group of born humans, and that the adoption of our common-sense principle leads directly to the idea that the preborn child is a fully equal rights-bearer – in other words, is one of us.
(1) Dr Mark Sheehan 2016, ‘Thinking About Ethics’ p. 5 (Presentation to the Citizens Assembly)
(2) J. McMahan, ‘Infanticide and Moral Consistency’, Journal of Medical Ethics 2013; 39: p. 273 3 ibid, p. 280
(3) ibid, p. 280
(4) Singer, Practical Ethics (3rd Edition), Cambridge University Press 2011, p. 151
(5) Singer, Practical Ethics (1st Edition), Cambridge University Press 1979, p. 122–23