Emily Murtagh: Be informed on new powers on abortion

We need learn to discuss abortion in a way that promotes a due sense of compassion and care as warranted by such a sensitive topic. Picture: Getty Images

We need learn to discuss abortion in a way that promotes a due sense of compassion and care as warranted by such a sensitive topic. Picture: Getty Images

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EMOTIONAL issue requires sensitivity when discussed, says Emily Murtagh

This October saw the announcement that abortion law is to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Because of the responsibility which comes with these new powers, it is for each of us, as individuals, to be adequately informed and to enter discussion at a level that aligns with both our minds and our hearts. In view of how vitriolic debates around abortion can be, it is imperative that we learn to discuss the issue in a way that promotes a due sense of compassion and care as warranted by such a sensitive topic.

It would seem that a good starting point is in the examination of how past abortion legislation and its subsequent amendments have been interpreted and put into practice since its enactment. This includes the grounds on which an abortion can be obtained, and how many weeks into the pregnancy an abortion is legal – which currently stands at 24 weeks in Wales, England and Scotland. Indeed, with the constant advancements in neonatal care, the stage at which the foetus can independently sustain life is constantly being redrawn and offers no stable solution for those who wish abortion to be considered on these grounds.

As well as examining present legislation, we can also look to some of our closest neighbours and how appropriate their laws have been, when assessing abortion. Some of Scotland’s nearest neighbours, in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, practice much more restrictive laws. In the Republic, the embryo is constitutionally protected and abortion is permitted only when there is an endangerment to the life of the woman. While in Northern Ireland it is only possible where there is a serious and long term risk to the mental or physical health of the woman. Examining how abortion is understood in other European countries is also important. For example, in Germany, abortion is legal at the request of the woman but only until the 12th week of pregnancy and counselling provided for every woman who seeks abortion.

The difference between countries is a demonstration of how concepts, such as that of personhood, are not universally defined principles. Is this a biological, philosophical or theological concept? Does a foetus become a person at conception, at birth or somewhere along the way in its development? This is something that cannot be scientifically measured. Thus a discussion that listens to voices across disciplines and world views and which takes into account, in a meaningful and serious way, the stories and experiences of individuals seems like an important endeavour. With this approach, a responsible discussion can exist that does not dissolve into a battleground for those who hold different world views, but rather that works towards the best possible outcome for the flourishing life of citizens.

As an increasing number of powers continue to be devolved to Holyrood, it would seem true to say that we are part of the story of a nation that is writing a new chapter. It is hoped that with due care and sensitivity towards issues such as abortion, it is a legacy of compassion and solidarity that is woven into the narrative at this point. It is hoped that the discussions can be set free from medical and political jargon, and instead be a demonstration of the exchange of stories and ideas across disciplines and backgrounds, making it a respectful discussion for all.

• Emily Murtagh, research associate with the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics

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