Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Aspects of national debate on abortion, from the archives

Isn’t it strange, sometimes, how one comes across an old newspaper cutting/news item and how resonant to what is happening today that item appears to be. I recently found three letters that were published in an Irish newspaper over twenty years ago. Dr. Noel Browne earned quite a reputation for himself in the decades leading up to the 1980s, and credit must be given to him for his success in eradicating TB (tuberculosis) from the Irish population when he was a young doctor and politician. However, his proposal to introduce his ‘Mother and Child Scheme’ met with strong opposition from both the Catholic Church and his fellow politicians resulting in his resignation from the then Irish Government. This scheme would have provided free medical care for mothers, and children up to the age of sixteen. Those opposed to it, however, feared that it would usurp the right of every parent to provide health care of their own choice for their children, and that it could pave the way for the introduction of abortion and birth control. Some doctors opposed the scheme because it could entail a loss of income for them.

In the first of the letters that emerged from history (my archives, that is!), an article from Irish Times Dec 9th 1989), Dr Browne in a very outspoken and clearly inaccurate outburst attempted to make a case for abortion however this was very ably rejected in the two responses that follow: Dr Browne commenced the exchange with the following letter
‘What a squalid victory for obscurantism over innocence by our clerical educators that, exceptionally, in all the advanced countries of the world, our elite secondary school students, now in university, marionettes as ever, should obediently “toe the party line”. In this instance on the censorship of information about abortion to a woman in need of it.
‘Do these young misguided sado-masochists know that Rome also aborts the living foetus, when it suits her to do so? I quote from a document received, as a consultant physician, from the palace of the then Roman Catholic Archbishop of Dublin. In “An Ethical Code for Hospitals”, … the archbishop states: “Operations and treatments necessary for the cure of pathological conditions of the mother, which cannot be postponed until the foetus is viable, is permitted even though the death of the foetus results”.
‘If the students do know, would they not agree it is indefensible under the law of the Republic that Rome may safely abort a living foetus when she chooses to do so, while the minority Protestant Churches were bluntly refused three exceptions of their choice by our then Taoiseach? … These are when a woman is pregnant following rape, when a woman or child is pregnant following incestuous assault and rape, and where a woman is told she is to give birth to an imbecile anencephalic monster, and is herself in all cases unwilling to “go to term”.
‘While it is true that the Irish Republic is a shamelessly male macho society, what has baffled me is that behind every Irish male chauvinist cleric or lawmaker pig there is an Irish mother who by her silence condones such obscene laws against her unfortunate sisters, or even herself. …’
[In 1983 a pro-life Amendment, known as Article 40.3.3., had been added to the Constitution of Ireland and, subsequently, many efforts were made by pro-abortion groups to have the provision of information on abortion legalised.]

In a reply to the above letter, J.A. Barnwell said:
‘Noel Browne’s commendable concern for the welfare of womankind … might sound even more compelling if it also covered the claims of unborn children, half of whom, after all, are female. The legitimate interests of both mother and child are compatible.
‘In this regard, Noel Browne’s citation of an exception allowed by the Catholic Church appears somewhat disingenuous, ignoring as he does the apt “double effect” principle which permits indirect or unintended death only under certain specific conditions.
‘Finally, concerning “The censorship of information about abortion”, major matters are at stake. There is a natural hierarchy of human rights. Some rights are more important than others. The right to life is the most basic of all, for without it all other rights are rendered redundant. This seems self-evident.’

Dr. E. A. Currie, of University College, Galway, is the author of the third letter that emerged from the past. He wrote:
‘…How odd … to find Noel Browne … at this inopportune time, gratuitously insulting Irish university students by calling them obscurantist because, in exercising their freedom to vote against their [student] unions lending support to abortion, they dared express a view contrary to his own.
‘I think that what really baffles Noel Browne is the realisation that, despite his infallible diagnosis of the ills of Irish society and the secularist medicines he has prescribed, most Irish people have no faith in what they regard as ideological quackery and refuse to toe his party line.’

The battle continues.