So the election’s over and we’re going to have a new and very different Dáil. How exactly any new government will handle human rights issues remains to be seen, but one thing which it will to have to face is the review of the abortion legislation in 2021. Chief among the issues that will be revisited in that review are the provisions for conscientious objection for doctors and nurses.
One of the more controversial aspects of Ireland’s new abortion regime has been that of conscientious objection. Under our abortion legislation, a doctor or midwife who has a genuine conscientious objection to facilitating abortion has the right to refuse to participate in the provision of abortion, but they are legally obliged to immediately refer the woman to someone who will. This is sort of like saying no one has to participate in administering lethal injections to prisoners who have been condemned to death, but you have to immediately find someone else who will do so in your place. Most criticism of the lack of proper conscientious objection has focused on the rights of healthcare professionals to have no involvement with something they genuinely believe is truly wrong. While this perspective is very important, there’s also a reason why pregnant women, not just their doctors, have a huge stake in this debate.
There is a real fear that without proper conscientious objection, we will drive pro-life doctors and midwives out of their practices altogether. Pro-life doctors will opt for specialties other than obstetrics or general practice and pro-life nurses will opt for specialties other than midwifery. This may not seem like an issue at all from a pro-choice perspective – after all, pro-choice people completely support women whatever their choices, and there is no need for a pro-life woman to be in any way uneasy about having a pro-choice doctor or midwife care for her and her baby during pregnancy and delivery. However, pro-life people feel quite differently. To demonstrate why, allow me to make an analogy by way of a real-life story.
In February 2018, right in the middle of the big snow, my four week old baby started vomiting severely and I wound up in Crumlin hospital with him. What I thought was a simple bug was suddenly looking far more sinister, and after a very stressful night I found myself being asked to sign consent forms for abdominal surgery. All that was left was an ultrasound to confirm the diagnosis before I would be handing my son over to be put under general anaesthetic by a doctor I had met five minutes previously. Perhaps it was because I was so sleep deprived having spent all night in the Emergency Department (there were no beds available), perhaps it was because I was understandably emotional, perhaps it was because the Repeal campaign was in full swing, but as I watched the pediatrician examine my tiny baby, my brain went down a horribly twisted route. I suddenly found myself imagining, what if I were to say “You know what? This was a mistake. I can’t go through with this. Instead of taking him for surgery, I want you to euthanise him instead” – and for one horrible moment I imagined what it would be like if the doctor had readily complied.
I know my brain went to a very weird and creepy place that morning. I do not think doctors like that actually exist. However, if such a doctor did exist, I would not let him or her within ten miles of my children. I wouldn’t care if they were the most skilled doctor in the world, I would never feel comfortable with my children under their care. And it would in no way reassure me if I knew, with complete certainty, that the doctor would never ever dream of killing my baby unless that was my choice. I still wouldn’t want my child treated by such a doctor.
It’s very important to clarify something here. I am not saying that pro-choice doctors or midwives think performing abortions is just like killing newborn babies – they clearly don’t, because otherwise they wouldn’t do it. And I’m not saying that pro-choice healthcare professionals in general will provide anything other than excellent materniity care to women and their babies (although we can’t rule out the possibility that they may subconciously steer a vulnerable woman towards abortion). However, from a pro-life person’s perspective, abortion is just as bad as killing a newborn baby. Many of us don’t feel comfortable being cared for by a doctor or midwife who thinks our babies are only valuable because we value our babies. We want our maternity care providers to value our babies because our babies are valuable in their own right. We want them to understand how we feel about our babies and we want them to share our perspective. Pregnancy and childbirth can be incredibly difficult, physically, mentally and emotionally. You need to be able to trust your healthcare providers completely. And some pro-life people just can’t fully trust pro-choice healthcare professionals.
This is one reason why we need pro-life healthcare professionals. Pro-life women have just as much right to be comfortable and confident in their maternity care providers as pro-choice women do. And in order to have pro-life doctors and midwives, we need to provide proper conscientious objection, sending them a clear message that we want them on the front lines, caring for mothers and babies as they begin their lives together.