It is only 13 months since Ireland’s new abortion law was passed, and ever since, activists and other have been seeking to expand the grounds for abortion even further, even though the law is already permissive by the standard of most European countries. A new paper by three academics at University College Cork worries that the law as it stands does not allow enough unborn children to be brought under the so-called ‘fatal foetal abnormality’ ground.
In Ireland, the current legislation allows an abortion at any stage of the pregnancy, even at forty weeks, if “there is present a condition affecting the foetus that is likely to lead to the death of the foetus either before, or within 28 days of birth”. (Section 11).
The legislation does not include a list of conditions, as there is no agreed definition within the medical community of a fatal abnormality. Any condition that, in the opinion of two medical practitioners, is likely to be fatal within 28 days would qualify as a ground for an abortion in Irish law.
These conditions are often called “fatal foetal abnormalities” (FFA) but scientists and affected families have asked for a more respectful language, such as “life limiting conditions”, as those born with severe abnormalities like Edwards Syndrome can live long past 28 days.
Dr Peter McParland, who is the Director of Fetal Maternal Medicine at the National Maternity Hospital, said at the Citizens’ Assembly: “We do not tend to use the words fatal or lethal in our daily practice. … I don’t know what fatal is. Is it minutes? Is it fatal if the baby will die at a certain time? I don’t think that any of us know that.”
The abovementioned paper by the medical researchers at UCC seems to want doctors to be allowed to abort babies where several conditions, rather than just one, would lead to the death of the baby within 28 days of birth.
The study found that from 2011 to 2016, 36% of the total 2,638 perinatal deaths in Ireland (occurring at least 24 weeks gestation and within 7 days from birth) was due to one or more congenital anomaly. They wonder how many of these the present law would permit to lead to an abortion.
Dr Keelin O’Donoghue, in an interview with the Irish Daily Mail, said “There are some babies who might have multiple problems, issues may progress during the pregnancy, they may indeed have a syndrome but not easily definable as having something that is fatal and fits our legislative criteria. … Sometimes it is really hard to know what is going to happen and combinations of anomalies can have different outcomes than each single problem itself.”
The three authors are not clear on how they want the law changed. However, they do provide a list of conditions that can be fatal and seem to think this list should become part of Ireland’s abortion system. This would undoubtedly lead to more terminations.
What we seem to have here in another example of the slippery slope in action. Initially, abortion campaigners wanted abortion for pregnancies that are likely to end tragically before birth. Then, “shortly after birth” became the rule in the first draft of the legislation. Subsequently, in the final version of the legislation, the time limit was moved up to 28 days after birth and now these researchers want to ensure an expanded list of conditions can be used to justify an abortion under Section 11 of our abortion law.