‘If we believe that we are deserving of a right to life, how can we deny it to others?’

‘If we believe that we are deserving of a right to life, how can we deny it to others?’
Barry Walsh
Striping the right to life from terminally ill children would be a truly shocking development, writes Barry Walsh

The use of language matters in any debate, since words have the capacity to cause extreme hurt, particularly when they seek to unfairly marginalise or devalue vulnerable members of society. It is unfortunate then that a most offensive and inaccurate use of language has recently entered the Irish political and media lexicon.

This has occurred thanks to a campaign which is gathering steam to amend our Constitution to introduce abortion in the case of what are described as fatal foetal abnormalities.

Most people would presume, not unreasonably, that what are being referred to here are conditions which render life outside the womb impossible for the child, with death being instantaneous at birth. Abortion in such circumstances is presented as uncontroversial and almost a humane response to the suffering of parents and babies alike. But is this correct?

In 2012, the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology (BJOG) published a study titled Fatally Flawed? A Review and Ethical Analysis of Lethal Congenital Malformations. Its authors included British and Australian experts in this area, including Australia’s foremost expert on prenatal testing.

The study was comprised of a comprehensive review of the medical literature in this area, reviewing 75 separate studies. In doing so the authors compiled a definitive list of 26 distinct disorders which can be diagnosed in the womb and which are described as being “fatal” or “lethal” in common parlance.

However, in their conclusions, they found that “none of the malformations that are commonly described as being ‘lethal’ are in fact lethal in the strict sense. Prolonged survival has been described in all of the conditions listed.”

They also found that in their short lives, babies born with several of these so-called “fatal” conditions have gone on to “experience awareness of those around them, hear and respond to sound, and to learn and remember”.


A separate study published in the US in 2015 reviewed almost 2,000 cases of Trisomy 13 and 18, two of these “fatal” conditions. It found that when clinicians pursue aggressive treatment after birth, 12% of children diagnosed with these conditions live to beyond their fifth birthday.

Just last month, Tracey Harkin wrote in the Irish Independent about her beautiful daughter, Kathleen Rose. She was diagnosed with Trisomy 13 in the womb, and yet she recently celebrated her ninth birthday.

So why are these conditions routinely referred to as being “fatal”? The damning conclusion of the BJOG study is that, apart from cases of misdiagnosis, such terminology is often used “to make it easier for women to come to terms with termination of the pregnancy” and, shockingly, where “practitioners are aware that death is not inevitable, but believe that survivors will not have a life that is worth living”.

In other words, a condition is referred to as ‘fatal’ in order to make the option of abortion more palatable to parents who are faced with such a diagnosis. The authors stress the importance of terminology in these situations, saying that “in counselling, language can corrupt both the inner logic of the clinician’s decision-making process and the counselling of families facing difficult decisions”.

This research was not produced by or on behalf of any religious or pro-life group. It was conducted by widely renowned experts and published in the internationally respected Journal of the Royal College of Obsetricians and Gynaecologists in London.

And that brings us to the use of the word “abnormalities”. Why has it become acceptable to refer to children diagnosed with serious conditions in the womb as being “abnormal”? If children or adults fighting a terminal illness were to be described by politicians or as a matter of law as having an ‘abnormality’, there would surely be storms of protest.

So these repeated references to “fatal abnormalities” is insulting, as well as being inaccurate. And yet, politicians, the media and a large section of the Irish medical profession continue to use this phrase.

In fact, groups campaigning on this issue not only defend the use of this inaccurate terminology, but have intervened in the media to insist on its usage.

The CEO of the Irish branch of Amnesty International recently wrote in protest to The Irish Times to insist that this “accepted” terminology of “fatal foetal impairments” be used, on the basis that “it is a term which the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women uses”.

So in other words, the views of a politically-appointed UN committee ought to trump expert medical opinion.

This issue has caused genuine concern across the Irish political spectrum, not least in my own party, Fine Gael, which has a strong pro-life ethos at its core.

In spite of this, a view has gained traction at a high level in Government in recent months that it may be possible to amend the Constitution to retain the general right to life for unborn children, but to allow abortion in the cases of children diagnosed with so-called “fatal foetal abnormalities”.


On one level, this proposal is a legal fiction, since it will be impossible to formulate a constitutional definition for something for which medical science cannot diagnose with any certainty. But it also ignores a fundamental moral and political conundrum.

Any such referendum would essentially ask the Irish people to reaffirm the general right to life of all citizens, including children in the womb, but to strip the right to life from a small number of children for the sole reason that they have been diagnosed with a serious illness.

In 2012, the Government successfully proposed a referendum to insert a new section into the Constitution which guaranteed “the natural and imprescriptible rights of all children”. And yet now, a little over three years later, leading members of the same Government are advocating the abolition of the most fundamental right – the right to life – for sick and vulnerable children in the womb.

You don’t have to be a Catholic, or even religious, to see the fundamental inhumanity at the heart of this proposal. Just think of the Rubicon which we would be crossing as a society: if constitutionally guaranteed human rights can be removed from one small group of Irish people, then what is to stop others from meeting a similar fate at some point in the future?

Human history is peppered with instances where a section of a society has been deemed to be deserving of lesser or no rights due to their age, sex, religion, race or physical disability. And each time, it has led to discrimination and needless loss of life.

While campaigning to abolish slavery in the US, Abraham Lincoln regularly referred to the writings of Euclid, the ancient Greek mathematician, whom he had studied decades earlier while working as a travelling lawyer.

He was particularly drawn to Euclid’s famous observation that “things that are equal to the same thing are also equal to one another”.

Lincoln realised that this rule of mathematical reasoning also had direct application to human society: how can any human being be inferior to another, or be enslaved by him, when all aspects of their basic existence were identical?


The same is surely true of all children in the womb. Each child is conceived through the same biological process. They each grow, develop and are sustained by their mothers for the first months of their existence.

So how can we say that one child in the womb has a right to life because they are healthy, but that another child should have no such right, because they are terminally ill or seriously disabled?

Lincoln wrote that “he who would be no slave, must consent to have no slave. Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves.”

Let’s apply that logic to the Irish abortion debate for a moment: if we, the voting public, believe that we are deserving of a right to life, then how can we amend our constitution to deny it to others?

If we believe that children in the womb are human beings, but at the same time propose that terminally ill babies should have inferior constitutional rights to healthy babies, then how can we rebut any future claim which might arise that terminally ill adults are less deserving of the same constitutional rights?

I can almost hear those proposing a referendum on this issue saying “but it’s not the same thing!” Really? Why not? Children in the womb are either human beings, or they are not. Principles such as equality and universal human rights cannot have any caveats or sub-categories of people to which they do not apply. And yet this is what is essentially being proposed should be enshrined in our laws.

If Bunreacht na hÉireann is amended to say that some human beings do not have a right to life, then that implicitly means that the right to life of all human beings in Ireland will have a question mark placed over it.

The true measure of any society is how it treats its sick and vulnerable. If we strip the right to life from terminally ill children on the grounds that their short lives outside the womb are not worth living, what message does that send to our many citizens who bravely fight terminal illness every day?

All life is precious and deserves to be protected, whether it lasts for a day, a year, 10 years or a full natural life.

The amendment of our Constitution to effectively declare that short lives are not worth living would be a truly shocking development which should be strongly opposed by all who believe this to be the case.

*Barry Walsh is Vice Chair of the Fine Gael Executive Council and was President of Young Fine Gael, 2007-10. He writes here in a personal capacity.