The rights of the foetus

THE ZIKA virus and its implications for pregnant women have set in train further debates about a woman’s right to abortion. The issues are complex and it is possible that there will never be consensus.

It is only common sense that a pregnant woman cannot be placed in a position as existed in Ireland in 2012 when a 31-year-old Indian dentist, Savita Halappanavar, died due to complications of a septic miscarriage and because the hospital staff hesitated to abort the foetus since it might not be legal. According to legal experts in Trinidad and Tobago, common law precedents already provide for abortion where there is a threat to life or the mental health of the mother.

However, the current debate is not about the risk to the woman, though it may be so couched, but rather the right of a foetus with an abnormality. The issue of the rights of that foetus has been minimised in the strident debate about the rights of the woman to abort a foetus because her mental health might suffer.

Arguments centre on isolation and lack of care and support. Take for example the rather reckless statement reportedly made by Diana Mahabir-Wyatt that few fathers would stay around to support the child born with microcephaly.

This shows a less than admirable ignorance of how many men and fathers feel about their children who are born with any impairment.

In the struggle for women’s rights we are still in the business of vilifying men. Many fathers lead the way in providing for their children with disabilities. Painting men in such a light does little to ensure that our men will assume responsibility for their offspring.

This is linked to an idea born of ignorance that people with disabilities cannot have a good life, and by extension that they will make the lives of their parents and siblings miserable. This is a fallacious presumption. It is also opening the door to a number of very problematic arguments centring on the right to life of those who are enfeebled or perceived to be a burden on family or state. The issue therefore centres not so much on a woman’s right to choose, but the right of a person with a disability to a life.

It is true that there are few structures in place for a person born with a significant disability in this country. But using this as an argument to justify abortion is tantamount to saying that those who live in marginalised communities or where people are denied access to social and educational rights could be justifiably exterminated.

After all, they too have little chance of a good life.

This is not a spurious argument nor, to use the words of my colleague, Merle Hodge, an argument ad absurdum. There is nothing absurd about the follow-through of the logic of that argument that says if society does not provide for my welfare then I should not exist. Nor is it absurd to rephrase that premise and say that if society thinks that perfection is the only rationale for existence, and I am born “imperfect”, then I may legitimately be aborted.

Last year a final-year medical student in the UK wrote a report on new diagnostic techniques for Down syndrome (DS) and the effects of UK abortion legislation, which allows and facilitates a woman to abort a foetus if it is abnormal.

This report showed that many women are hurried into abortion of foetuses that manifest with disabilities and later regret this. What is more, the overwhelming response of those who did give birth was that having a sibling or child with DS had a positive impact. Yet under the legislation that many propose for TT the abnormal foetus would be legally aborted.

Who in their right mind would suggest today that a person with DS, given the right facilities and accommodation, couldn’t have a good quality of life? But, it is up to State and religious institutions to provide those structures, thus changing the very basis of the argument.

Who are we to decide what another perceives as a good life simply because that life does not live up to our criteria? Indeed, for many of us, that good life, despite money, success, fame and power, often remains an unattainable dream. Indeed, how many of our children live up to our ideals and expectations? The poet Yeats put it quite nicely wondering: What youthful mother, a shape upon her lap […] Would think her son, did she but see that shape With sixty or more winters on its head, A compensation for the pang of his birth? The fact is that there are many mothers, in particular in a society so riddled with violence, who might wonder whether it was worth it all. What is even more pertinent, the satisfaction of old age may well be singularly founded on that child whose apparent defect some see as a justification for death. Why should a child with any form of impairment have less of a right to life than a child who will grow up to be a rapist or murderer? If only we had prophetic vision! Our moral instinct is to protect the weak. The ethics of a particular society at a given time may well dictate otherwise.

Who are we to judge? Let us not muddle the issues.

CREDIT: Jean Antoinne-Dunne

                 Newsday TT

Published: Monday May 9th 2016

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