Why we must change this fatal phrase

“the phrase “fatal foetal abnormality” has now become part of the official phraseology in Irish political life… That is because control of the language symbolises power” writes Mary Kenny 

Language is power, as George Orwell wrote: and whoever controls the language controls the political power.

This is why the phrase “fatal foetal abnormality” has now become part of the official phraseology in Irish political life. Many medical specialists will attest to the fact that there is, in medicine, no such condition as “fatal foetal abnormality” since nobody can predict with certainty what biological abnormality will prove fatal.

In addition to being a medically incorrect term, it is altogether evident that, for many parents of babies born with a disabling condition, ‘FFA’ is a most hurtful phrase.

But the political class holds on to ‘FFA’, as does the mainstream media. That is because control of the language symbolises power.

The phrase that should be used, for medical reasons and by anyone of sensitivity, should surely be: ‘life-limiting condition’. An unborn infant – or foetus, which is a Latin medical term for unborn – may be diagnosed with a ‘life-limiting condition’. That is, a disability has been identified, and it may, or in some cases, probably will, limit the life of the baby.


But again, as many parents have attested, an infant has lived beyond all predictions, and has known love and been cherished even within a short life.

There should be an energetic campaign to change language from ‘fatal foetal abnormality’ to ‘life-limiting condition’. For the sake of sensitivity, and as well as for medical truth.

Of course, the powers that be know that enacting legislation to terminate a ‘fatal foetal abnormality’ will sound more acceptable than to do so for a ‘life-limiting condition’. Therein lies the linguistic conflict.

Nobody of any understanding would deny that a LLC diagnosis must be anguishing for any mother or father. According to Niamh Ui Bhriain at the Life Institute in Dublin, about 50 abortions are carried out annually (in Britain, on women who have travelled from Ireland) because of life-limiting conditions. In Dáil Eireann, John Halligan erroneously claimed the number was 1,200.

Compassion and support for families must always be to the fore – as well as admiration for the courage, fortitude and loving care which so many parents show towards a child with a LLC. We must also support extra perinatal hospice care which can provide parents with a pathway to healing, as Ms Ui Bhriain has suggested.

But let us not forget the political power struggle behind the language used.

Always ‘life-limiting condition’ rather than ‘fatal foetal abnormality’.

Moved by the Salve Regina

Is the Salve Regina quite the most beautiful way to end an evening Mass? I heard it sung at St Teresa’s, Clarendon Street in Dublin last Saturday, and, not having heard it for many years, its beauty blew me away. I have very little familiarity with Gregorian chant, and have too often assumed, perhaps, that it is “difficult”, and not sufficiently tuneful. But the Salve is truly heavenly, and the final chord – “O Clemens, O pia, O dulcis Virgo Maria” – stunningly uplifts the soul.

It is impressive to think that this Hail Holy Queen has been sung at Compline probably since the 11th Century.

How perspectives change

Google ‘Alice Lapper Pregnant’ and you will see an image of an armless mother. The sculptor Marc Quinn crafted this remarkable statue, which occupied a plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square from 2005 until 2007.

This story behind it illustrates how perspectives change. In 1962, an American woman, Sherri Finkbine, who had taken the drug thalidomide during pregnancy was so appalled at the thought of having a thalidomide child that she sought to terminate the pregnancy. She was refused an abortion in the US, but flew to Sweden, where the operation was duly done.

The case created a global sensation and was influential in advancing abortion rights. Because of thalidomide, the American Law Institute brought forward a “model penal code to legalise abortion” which was widely copied. The horror of having a limbless child was underlined.

More than 40 years later a thalidomide-affected woman, with no arms and foreshortened legs, is elevated as a model of courage and maternal love: she has also been given an honorary doctorate as a ‘titan of the human spirit’. Attitudes can, and do, change.