Abortion: the lives of others

28 Apr 2015 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 6 Jul 2015

David Smyth opposes abortion changes

David Smyth of the Evangelical Alliance, writing exclusively for Scope, challenges those currently calling for changes to Northern Ireland's abortion law

Abortion touches upon deeply sensitive issues of human dignity, identity and relationships. The Evangelical Alliance seeks the wellbeing and flourishing of each woman, her family, unborn child and the wider community. At the outset we refuse to be drawn into a dangerous dichotomy which pits a woman against her unborn child.

We refuse to see the most fundamental relationship in life through the sole lens of one person's ‘reproductive rights. Instead we propose that each woman and her unborn child is accorded dignity and cared for with compassion. We believe the current law in Northern Ireland seeks to protect the lives of women and their unborn children. However there is a long way to go in terms of protecting wellbeing and human dignity and providing pregnancy crisis care and perinatal hospice care. We are in favour of clarifying medical guidelines to include these care-centred measures.

The law in Northern Ireland

The abortion law in Northern Ireland strikes a very difficult and delicate balance between the life and wellbeing of the woman and unborn child. The law here reflects the biological evidence that both lives are intimately linked. In the perfect world there will be no abortion, however we do not yet live in the perfect world. And so currently the law here makes provision for abortion in the circumstances where it is carried out solely for the ‘preservation of the life of the woman. Case law has defined this phrase to mean that the continuation of the pregnancy would adversely affect a woman's physical or mental health in a manner that is ‘real and serious and permanent or long term'. Currently when these criteria are met, the law provides for abortion in Northern Ireland. This has included circumstances in the past where the unborn child has a 'lethal foetal abnormality' and where the woman has been the victim of a sexual crime. The key determinant however is that the abortion must be carried out 'solely to preserve the life of the woman'. The proposed changes in the law around ‘lethal foetal abnormalityand sexual crime would cross a Rubicon. Abortion would no longer be restricted to circumstances which ‘preserve the life of the woman. If the law changes, as proposed, it would shift from permitting only indirect abortion (allowed solely to preserve life of the woman) to direct abortion (allowed on the basis of choice by the woman).


Is choice not a good thing? Of course. We are 'pro-choice' in so many areas of life. The state should never interfere with our lives and particularly our bodies without exceptional reasons. We believe preserving an innocent human life is such a reason. The call for change in Northern Irelands laws is being made through the lens of an individual womans right to choose. But if the principle is 'my body my rights', or ‘no woman should be forced to carry a pregnancy against her will’ as FPA are honest enough to claim, then why stop with these two instances? If choice is the logic for change, why then immediately limit this choice to just the circumstances of ‘lethal foetal abnormalityand sexual crime? We need an honest conversation about this euphemism of 'choice' and the reasoning behind any accepted limits.

Common good

The protection of human life from beginning to end is vital to a flourishing community. There is a common good/community argument which is often lost in a Western culture centred on individual autonomy. The protection of the most vulnerable is core to social justice. This is the why we are passionate about protecting human dignity from the preborn to the woman in a crisis pregnancy, the disabled, the terminally ill, elderly, abused, trafficked, marginalised. We seek to hold a consistent framework of human dignity, relationships and wellbeing. In my mind a human rights only approach which seeks to protect the rights of some people by denying the human dignity of others to the point of death is deeply flawed. Decisions about abortion must have those involved at the centre, of course, but we must never lose sight of the culture we are creating in the process. In Britain, the 1967 Abortion Act was introduced to deal with a small number of circumstances. However, a culture of medical practice developed to the extent where to date around 8 million abortion have taken place since then. That's the population of Northern Ireland and Scotland combined. The abortion rate is one for every four children born. These objective facts should concern everyone no matter what moral view is held on the issue.


Many readers will already have picked up on my use of the words unborn child. Language is important in this debate. As Katie Hopkins comments about ‘cockroachimmigrants show, its very easy to dehumanise the ‘otherwith our language. The ‘womenin this debate are not distant or abstract. They are us. Daughters, sisters, wives, mothers, neighbours and friends, family and community. Its the same with unborn children. They are us. Just because a word like foetus is medically ‘approveddoes not mean it is always the best word to use – think spastic, retard, bastard and lunatic which were all once approved by the medical profession. I could correctly call my mother a female Homo Sapien and maybe its just me, but doesnt quite have the relational ring of ‘mum. Foetus is biologically correct, but a disingenuous differentiation from a born baby, as if it were another species instead of a stage of human development like baby, toddler or teenager, is deeply unhelpful. Phrases like ‘incompatible with lifemight be also be factually better reserved for a stone or piece of metal instead of a pre-born human being who already physically exists and is alive.

Life limiting disability and sexual crime

As stated we approach this issue seeking the life, dignity and wellbeing of women, unborn children and our community at large. We are not convinced that a disability or malformation present in an unborn child is reason enough to remove the dignity and protection of such tiny members of our family and race. Even those lives which challenge our deepest prejudices around disability and conceptions of humanity still hold the potential to be loved and even give new life. http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/my-newborn-baby-will-die-but-i-hope-it-can-save-others-30890819.html

Even in the horrendous circumstances of conception through sexual crime it's difficult to justify ending the life potential of a child for the crime of their biological father. The Rowan Centre does excellent work and it must be resourced to compassionately help women and their families in these nightmare situations. Victims are created everyday though violent crimes and our law does not allow the perpetrators' lives to be taken in the name of compassion or justice for the victim. We dare to believe that justice and healing and even the scandalous potential of a new life from a hateful act, perhaps through adoption can result in love and redemption.

As radical as it sounds we simply dare to believe that the death of an unborn child is not the answer in a pregnancy crisis where the woman's life is not in danger.

Care and support

When our friends or family are violated, abused, hurting or grieving we stand in solidarity beside them. When a relative is severely disabled or dying we care for them and give them the dignity they deserve as a family member. And so this shapes our response in a pregnancy crisis to both woman and unborn child. The argument that abortion is the only compassionate response in such circumstances is simply not true. Women must be offered better care from the moment a pregnancy crisis is identified. A pathway of care should be offered to each woman and tailored to her specific needs and within the existing law in Northern Ireland. In the case of ‘fatal-foetal abnormalitywe want to see a comprehensive system of perinatal hospice care. Mother and family are guided through grief for their terminally ill unborn child and the baby is cared for until it's life ends naturally. We believe that a common ground focus on better support for women and unborn children in a pregnancy crisis provides space for new conversations.

Finally there are obviously theological reasons for our position. Formative beliefs about the universal beginnings, endings and purpose of life here on earth obviously shape the value we ascribe to life on a micro-scale. We do not hide these beliefs and freely accept that many will reject them. Whatever your values we hope you see here a flourishing narrative which moves from death to life, pain to healing, despair to hope - for the wellbeing of individuals and our community for generations to come.

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