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The Unborn

In the great debate about killing the unborn or not, the fundamental decision is: do human beings have a right to life? This is basic to most religions and most social norms. If we have a right to life, then we have a right to live from when life begins. This leads to the question: when does life begin?

At the moment of conception a little human starts her journey to development. Nine months later a baby is born or not. There is fierce argument as to whether or not what happens at conception is ‘life’, but no alternative universally agreed definition has succeeded in being accepted. This has to be because there is no other clearcut moment of change that can be identified as the beginning of life.

There is a case to be made that intimacy and conception are not instant and there may be delay between the two. The exact moment of conception is not certain unless it is in vitro. Depending on your point of view, the unborn is true life from conception, or it's not (it's true life at some other point along the journey to birth).

Much of the case for conception being the start of life has come from organised religion. This has been limiting, as if you are not religious, you may see no reason to accept its arguments. The same applies if you have become disillusioned with any organised religion that promotes the protection of the unborn. It seems clear that any discussion of the rights of the unborn versus the rights of mothers must stand on its own merit without being dependent on religious belief.

Not everyone is comfortable with the taking of human life. A possible explanation for this is the existence of mirror neurons (1). Here is a simple explanation of how mirror neurons might work. A mirror neuron is a nerve cell that fires in unison with another. So, if we see distress in another human, our distress nerve cells fire and we feel distress. Mirror neurons are particularly found in the frontal lobes of the brain. They underlie our ability to empathise/sympathise with others. So, our mirror neurons can fire at the thought of taking human life to the extent that it is so uncomfortable that we cannot do it.

Mirror neurons allow us to walk in the shoes of another. They allow us to identify with another. The more we can identify with another, the more difficult it is to injure another. It is possible that the extent to which our mirror neurons are active determines our ability to or not to cause distress to another or to take human life.

This all suggests that there are people who are not distressed by, or who can override their distress at, the taking of human life. Then, there are individuals who would be so distressed by the taking of human life that they cannot do it.

The population that support killing the unborn have a mantra for women: ‘My body my choice’. The belief is that a woman has the right to choose what happens to her body. She has a right to reproductive freedom.

There are three responses to this. The first is that no individual as part of any society has an absolute right to do whatever she wants to her own body. ‘My body, my choice’, is a limited one. For example, if you engage in self-harm, you will be considered to have mental health problems and you will be expected to need treatment and care. Associated with this is the mantra, ‘I should not be forced to carry a pregnancy’. But, once conception takes place, a woman is a mother and is already carrying her child. If you believe that you should not be ‘forced’ to carry a pregnancy, then the only alternative is to kill the unborn right up to the moment of birth. Once conception takes place, carrying the baby is inevitable. It is just a matter of how long the baby is carried.

In the same vein, one could argue that a woman should not be forced to give birth. However, once conception takes place, again birth is inevitable, whether one is giving birth to an early or full-term baby; whether it is alive or not.

The second response is that a decision must be made as to whether the unborn is part of a mother’s body or is a separate human being? If it is part of the mother’s body, then killing it is destroying part of the mother. While this can be compared to removing a tumour, this is not a good analogy as an unborn child is not an illness. It is a positive and not a negative entity.

If it is not part of the body of the mother, then it is a separate life and the mother is a host. If the mother is a host, her unborn is a guest and to kill it is to kill her guest.

Thirdly, should not the rights of the mother be balanced by the rights of the unborn? If no, then is there not an imbalance of power between the mother and unborn baby?

An unborn child has a value or not depending on how we regard it. We care for what we value and the treatment of the unborn is a reflection of its value to us. The value of every unborn child informs the value of every sibling and ultimately every being in the world.

If we do not value every unborn, we are saying to its siblings, you could have been terminated if there were certain circumstances or if circumstances had been different. This has implications for the self-worth of any child whose mother terminated the life of a sibling or believes in terminating the life of the unborn. We need to be valued by our mothers. It is what provides our foundation for life. It is what provides the foundation for the value of every human being in society. If my life is not valuable to my mother, what is my worth in the world? This is an emotional interpretation of killing the unborn, but the mother/child relationship is nothing if it is not the most important emotional bond in the world.

It is important that we value the unborn. It is important that we value all human beings. Social value is a continuum. We value the unborn, we value the individual with disability, we value the individual who is at the end of life. Human value creates a culture of self-worth. When we devalue one segment of society, we devalue others. If we are comfortable with killing the unborn, why stop there? Why not kill other selected groups, e.g. the poor, the disabled, the Irish, the Jews, the elderly?

Eugenics was formally introduced to the world by Francis Galton in 1883 (2). It is based on the idea that by eliminating certain individuals, society is ‘improved’. It became disreputable because of Adolf Hitler and his Nazis, but it has not disappeared. In south-east Asia, there are families who select out females and select for males. In many countries allowing killing the unborn, mothers kill the disabled. Encouraging poor women or women of a certain ethnic group to kill their unborn children, reduces that population. This is eugenics.

There is a logical problem with the thinking of eugenicists. Eugenicists believe in the elimination of ‘others’ as defined by eugenicists. Eugenicists arrogate this power to themselves to make these decisions. I do not support eugenics, nor the elimination of eugenicists, but does it not occur to eugenicists that another self-selecting group, deciding on the elimination of certain groups, might think that said eugenicists are the ones who need to be eliminated?

Spontaneous miscarriage is generally a cause of much emotional pain, yet killing the unborn by choice is supposed to be a positive decision. There is a dissonance between the attitude towards spontaneous miscarriage and the planned ending of a pregnancy. It seems unlikely that the planned ending of a pregnancy does not cause foreseen and unforeseen emotional pain as great or greater than a spontaneous miscarriage for many women.

As well as the pain of loss, there can also be the pain of guilt. Guilt does not have to be a negative thing. A level of guilt goes with a level of humanity. To not feel guilt, is to have personality disorder.

A euphemism is a term we use to soften a harsh word. So, abortion is used instead of killing. We talk about a bunch of nerve cells, a zygote, a foetus, an embryo instead of an unborn chid. We pretend that the unborn is not really a person, a human. The use of euphemisms when talking about the unborn diminishes and dehumanises them. They become disposable objects, instead of life to be cherished. The use of euphemisms is a way of wriggling away from the explicit, which may be uncomfortable. It is a way of ‘othering’ the unborn.

When we are born, each one of us is gifted with humanity. We grow or we shrink this humanity by our every action every day. When we take human life, we shrink our humanity and we are the lesser for it. When we cherish human life, we enhance our humanity. Every human is born with the gift of humanity. We increase or decrease our total humanity by how we live. When we kill, we decrease our humanity.

We live in a world that has had unprecedented population growth in the last 100 years. This has reduced the value of children and reduced the value of being a mother. It has increased the value of paid employment and career success. For those who see the world as over-populated or with too many ‘deplorables’ (3) or too many demands on the taxpayer from single mothers, killing the unborn is a way of reducing these demands as seen by its proponents.

But, ultimately this all has a consequence. As motherhood and children have become devalued, women with choice are choosing to have less and less children or not to have children at all. We have moved from population explosion to demographic cliff.

Killing the unborn does not happen in a vacuum. It happens in a cultural context. Where there is insufficient support for mothers and children, a mother may feel that killing her unborn is her only choice.

Killing the unborn also does not happen in a vacuum for others, for where it is legal, it involves other people. What dehumanises a mother who kills her unborn also dehumanises those involved in assisting her. The more those involved in assisting her do it, the more they are dehumanised. The more we are dehumanised, the more we are desensitised to the practice of killing.

We are all groomed as to how we live our lives. This grooming can be functional or not. While women can have heartfelt views on killing the unborn, they can also be groomed to see killing the unborn as abhorrent or heroic. Selling the killing of the unborn as 'the right of a woman to control her own body' can also be a way to groom a woman. It is hard to engage in rational discussion where there is gaslighting. It is also hard to promote rational discussion where militancy shuts down debate.

In all the conversation about killing the unborn, the concentration has been on the mother. Every unborn child has a father. It cannot be right to so exclude the father from the conversation. I believe that a man has rights as a father and these rights should not be disregarded. A father should have a right to want to see his child live. But, where there are rights, there have to be responsibilities. A father should have a responsibility to acknowledge, accept and protect any child he conceives. I believe that he should be a positive role model for his child, be a regular and reliable presence in his child’s life and contribute to the care and upkeep of his child. Men who neglect their duties as fathers contribute to the culture of killing the unborn.

Killing the unborn gives women control over their fertility in a way that is perceived to put them on an equal fertility footing with men. But, a man who conceives a child and rejects or neglects it is a man who is abusing that child. Why would any woman aspire to that model of being?

So, are there any circumstances in which action can be taken to prevent the conception of the unborn or to unavoidably end the life of the unborn?

It was proposed at the beginning of this article, that the exact moment of conception is uncertain, so it could be said that following intimacy, action could be taken to prevent conception taking place. Then, if there is a medical emergency in a pregnancy, a mother and/or her doctors can only make the best decision they can based on the information and circumstances of the moment, without legal repercussions. Then, there are tragic cases where an unborn baby has no immediate chance of living, e.g. a baby who has not developed lungs. There is a case for delivering such a baby early, but ‘early’ should be live and compatible with minimal gestational survival. A baby who can live two weeks is not a baby who has no chance of life. It is a baby with a short life expectancy - there is a difference. The baby delivered early still needs to be treated with loving care as long as she lives.

If we are to make killing the unborn unnecessary, unthinkable or undesirable, we need to reconfigure society. We need to re-orient our value system so that what is important to us is the individual, especially mothers and children.

Parents need to be supported, especially parents who have children with special needs. Having spent a lifetime in healthcare, some of it working with individuals with profound and multiple disabilities, I am not unaware of the demands of having a child with special needs. It can impoverish you, exhaust you and ruin your health. Seeking services may be a challenge and fighting for healthcare for your child a battle. But, that is a reflection on society and not the fault of the child.

For a pregnant mother, there is no costless decision to kill an unborn child. Neither is there a costless outcome for society. Nurturing all children is a benefit and how we treat the most vulnerable is a measure of our humanity.

Historically, society has dealt with babies conceived without public approval by unofficial abortions, private family or village arrangements, forced marriages or incarceration in mother and baby homes, e.g. The Magdalene Laundries in Ireland. Is killing the unborn our modern alternative to the Magdalen Laundries?

So, what does a mother do who has killed her unborn child? If a mother has killed her unborn child and has no regrets, then SHE does not have a problem. If a mother has killed her unborn child and is in distress, she needs help and she needs to understand that she is human. She needs to forgive herself. If one becomes a mother, then being a mother is the most important role a woman can ever have. If a man becomes a father, then being a father is the most important role a man can ever have. On becoming a parent, being a parent is more important than fame, wealth, success, power or any career. It comes before work, which is just there to support being a parent. It is the foundation of society, ‘the pillar of the house’ (4).

Culture is a potentially precious resource. I believe that our attitude to the unborn human life is the foundation of our culture; it tells us what we are worth. It informs the value of all human life at all stages in that culture.

By Helen Carty

Any Woman

I am the pillars of the house;

The keystone of the arch am I.

Take me away, and roof and wall

Would fall to ruin me utterly.

I am the fire upon the hearth,

I am the light of the good sun,

I am the heat that warms the earth,

Which else were colder than a stone.

At me the children warm their hands;

I am their light of love alive.

Without me cold the hearthstone stands,

Nor could the precious children thrive.

I am the twist that holds together

The children in its sacred ring,

Their knot of love, from whose close tether

No lost child goes a-wandering.

I am the house from floor to roof,

I deck the walls, the board I spread;

I spin the curtains, warp and woof,

And shake the down to be their bed.

I am their wall against all danger,

Their door against the wind and snow,

Thou Whom a woman laid in a manger,

Take me not till the children grow!

By Katherine Tynan

1. Rizzolatti, G., Fadiga, L., Gallese, V. & Fogassi, L. (1996) ‘Premotor cortex and the recognition of motor actions’, Brain Res Cogn Brain Res., 3(2):131–41.

2. Galton, F. (1883) Inquiries into Human Fertility and Its Development.

3. Clinton, H. (2016) speech to journalists at the New York Historical Society Library in New York City September 9 2016.

4. Tynan, K. “Any Woman”.

Boy/girl image from Freepik.



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