Published in 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Feature Article, Issue 3 May/June2013, Letters, Volume 21

Sir,—O.J. Maher is right (HI 21.2, March/April 2013, Letters): the taking of a human life is not a matter of private conscience only. Unconvincing, however, is his facile assumption that anything from a fertilised egg cell onwards is the moral equivalent of a human being. It’s a matter of history that most of the developed world has decided otherwise. Given that there is no undisputed moment at which an embryo becomes a person, most countries see its rights not on a yes/no basis but on a sliding scale. These rights grow over time, which means a concomitant reduction in the rights of the pregnant woman. The rights of the foetus never become inalienable: when both the woman and the foetus are at risk, the rights of the woman prevail in most jurisdictions. That could not be the case if the foetus were the full equivalent of a person.

Those who represent the Roman Catholic position should not do so uninformed; it has in fact varied over time. For Thomas Aquinas, greatest of Church fathers, the moment of ‘ensoulment’ was the quickening (the stage in pregnancy when the mother becomes conscious of the movement of the child). The historically opposite extreme was the assertion of Pope Paul VI that the act of contraception is immoral. Not all Catholics accept that.

It is historically questionable to associate the so-called ‘pro-life’ position with the Church. The Church had no problems with instituting such religious pogroms as the crusade against the Albigensian heresy, or the executions of the Counter-Reformation. In my Catholic school in 1960s Dublin, we were taught that capital punishment was morally justified if certain conditions were fulfilled—as was nuclear warfare!

More broadly, history shows us that the notion of inalienable human rights is traceable to the Enlightenment and not to the Roman Catholic Church. Such historical facts should form the basis for current discussion.—Yours etc.,


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