Pro-choice campaigners like to say that the public must be ‘protected’ against misinformation from the pro-life side. But they themselves are guilty of spreading misinformation, for example the claim that countries such as Ireland, which have restrictive abortion regimes, have rates of abortion higher than countries with liberal regimes.
Last week, the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-abortion organisation, released a long report which repeated this misleading claim. It is misleading for reasons I explained in a previous blog post.
The claim is very important in the context of the Irish abortion rate, because if a more restrictive law really did lead to a higher abortion rate, that would be a strong argument against our present law. But, to repeat, in respect of Western countries at any rate, the claim is false.
Guttmacher are definitively wrong with regard to Europe. No European country which has a permissive abortion law has a rate of abortion that is lower than countries with restrictive laws.
Abortion rates are complex phenomena depending on many factors. The legal status of abortion is only one of these factors and there is absolutely no evidence that liberalisation per se brings rates down.
What happened in England and Wales, for example, is quite typical: after legalisation, rates increased rapidly until a certain point and then have been fluctuating slightly. Current rates are more or less the same as 10 years ago, and are higher than 20, 30 or 40 years ago.
Something similar happened in Scotland, Spain and the Netherlands.
In the Netherlands, there has been a constant increase in the 1990s and since then rates are stable.
Abortion rates are going down worldwide, particularly in countries that are experiencing economic development.
In the Soviet Union and its satellite allies, for instance, abortion was a form of birth control and their rates were much higher than the rest of Europe. Since the collapse of Communism rates have gone down significantly. Nonetheless, the communist legacy is still present and only Poland, where the current law is quite strict, has now rates lower than the rest of Europe.
In their study, The Guttmacher Institute also perpetuate the erroneous claim that there is some causal link between the availability of contraception and lower abortion rates.
The same claim was presented by the Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment in their final report where they said that “the introduction or liberalising of abortion in France, Italy and Turkey had reduced the number of terminations, mainly because of post-abortion contraception”. (3.12)
The official data from the Italian Minister for Health prove the opposite.
It is true that in Italy, after a peak in the 1980s, abortion rates are going down but there is no correlation with the use of contraceptives.
Compared with the rest of Europe, access to contraception in Italy is low. Note how high the UK is in the table below, and also how high its abortion rate is (one pregnancy in every five).
According to a table from the report of the Italian Minister of Health, only 12.5% Italian women used emergency contraception (the morning-after pill), compared to 61% in the UK and 59% in Sweden. If the number of abortions went down since the 1980s is not because of contraception.
If we exclude countries with restrictive abortion laws (Ireland, Poland, Malta), Italy has among the lowest rates in Europe. Lower than the Netherlands, than the UK, significantly lower than the Scandinavian countries that are always presented as models.
So why are the Italian abortion rates significantly lower than those of countries where contraception and contraception information is more accessible?
There are many cultural and sociological factors to be considered but family structure seems to play an important role.
The official report (p. 128) suggests that young people are somehow protected from risky behaviour as they leave their homes later, compared to other countries. Cohabitation, which means more precarious family arrangements, is also less prevalent.
On his radio show last week, Sean O’Rourke hosted two doctors with opposing views on abortion. The debate went right back to medical first principles; what is medicine for?
Dr. John Monaghan, a recently retired obstetrician who delivered more than 10,000 babies over his career, said that everyone in his position had to terminate pregnancies for strictly medical reasons, sometime in their work. This is permitted by the law. The 8th amendment is not an impediment to interventions aimed at saving the life of the mother, even if the inevitable and unintended consequence is the death of her child.
Dr Mark Murphy, a GP representing “Doctors for Choice”, supported the Government’s proposal to allow abortion with no restriction as to reason and claimed that there are hundreds of health care professionals who are willing to facilitate the new regime.
Dr Monaghan replied that “the first rule of medicine is primum non nocere”. (‘First, to do no harm’).
He said: “If a woman requests an abortion which is not medically indicated, then I don’t think the doctors are the people that should be undertaking that. It’s not health care.”
Dr Monaghan believes that doctors should do only what is medically indicated. Their role is not to satisfy a patient’s demands, particularly if there is another patient involved. Terminating a pregnancy, and therefore a life, for non-medical reasons is not medicine and doctors shouldn’t be involved at all.
The discussion moved to the issue of conscientious objection, and whether doctors who don’t agree with abortion should be obliged to refer the woman to a pro-choice practitioner, which is a form of indirect participation.
“What he [Dr Murphy] is talking about is not health care.” Dr Monaghan said, “this is a termination of pregnancy in a healthy woman and a healthy child. The difference between Dr Murphy and myself is that I am allowing rights to the unborn child, as we just found out the only thing that gives child rights is the constitutional amendment that we are talking about removing. But I allow rights to the unborn child and Dr Murphy doesn’t. …. To oblige a doctor to refer a perfectly healthy woman with a normal pregnancy, to another doctor, who would provide her with an abortion, to me is ethically repugnant.”
To this Dr Murphy replied, in effect, that these women are not healthy because they are “in crisis”.
This is a strange definition of health. Is stress really to be counted as an illness? Is performing an abortion an adequate and proportionate response to this? Is it necessary? Is it the only thing possible? It seems that at the core of the abortion debate different conceptions of medicine are opposing to each other.
What we see here is the definition of ‘health’ being stretched beyond breaking point in order to present abortion as a form of ‘healthcare’. But it is a form of ‘healthcare’ that cannot point to an actual diagnosable illness that can be cured in no way other than by abortion, and as such is not healthcare at all. Given that the ‘cure’ is the killing of another human being, it simply cannot be counted as medicine.
Can a Catholic with a well-informed conscience vote in favour of abortion? A question of this kind was put to Bishop Alan McGuckian, on Wednesday on RTE’s Morning Ireland. The short answer is no.
The teaching of the Catholic Church on abortion is clear. Direct abortion is always wrong because, as the Catechism says, “human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception.” (2270)
Abortion is wrong, not simply as a personal choice but also for society and this is why it should not be tolerated. The Catechism unmistakably claims that “the inalienable right to life of every innocent human individual is a constitutive element of a civil society and its legislation”. (2273) Without the right to life there is no proper civilization and no justice.
The teaching of the Church on abortion has been reaffirmed in many documents and contains no ambiguity or room for dissent. The direct and intentional killing of an innocent human being before birth is always wrong and should not be permitted by the law. The Second Vatican Council calls it an abominable crime.
Some Catholics, particularly politicians, support legislation that permits abortion. In some cases, they even support abortion as a right.
Can they do in good conscience? No.
By conscience we mean the sense of right and wrong, but also the obligations that follow from our understanding of what is right and wrong.
The Catholic Church teaches that conscience must be well informed, which means that Catholics (and everyone else) have to do what is possible to educate themselves in order to understand what is just and what is not. It also means that Catholics should search proper guidance, follow good examples and listen to the legitimate authorities.
Nobody should be forced to act against their conscience, the Church teaches, and it is true that a person could carry out a wrongful act with a clear conscience because they have mistakenly concluded that the act is right. But no one with a properly informed conscience could do this because they would know what they were considering is wrong.
Conscience has rights because it has duties, Cardinal Newman famously said, and one of them, for those who claim to be Catholic, is to follow the principles of natural law and of Christian ethics.
A Catholic who is well-formed and has properly understood the doctrine of the Church on abortion can’t appeal to freedom of conscience to dissent from a clearly defined teaching. It is a matter of consistency.