Commentary: British doctor’s letter to Ireland ahead of Irish referendum on abortion

People walk past a pro-life poster in Dublin May 7. Ireland votes May 25 on whether the right to life of the unborn should continue to be enshrined in the constitution. (CNS photo/Clodagh Kilcoyne, Reuters)

By Catholic News Service

Responding to editors’ requests for a regular sampling of current commentary from around the Catholic press, here is an unsigned commentary called “British doctor’s letter to Ireland ahead of Irish referendum on abortion” from the May 21 issue of The Catholic Universe newspaper for Great Britain and Ireland.

A Catholic British doctor writes an open letter to Ireland. She is unable to reveal her identity due to her pro-life stance and her wish to continue providing medical care to patients in Britain. This letter is her voice regarding the proposed Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution: trying to remove the protection of the unborn children and insert a law permitting terminations ‘for any reason’ up to 12 weeks. Presently the state is obliged to uphold “the right to life of the unborn and … the equal right to life of the mother.”

After her experiences as a pediatric doctor in Britain, she urges Irish voters in the referendum on May 25 not to follow the road taken by Britain causing decades of suffering and anguish for women as well as the denial of life of nearly 9 million boys and girls.

Dear Ireland,

I am a British doctor working in pediatrics.

I have grown up in a society where we have legalized abortion of unborn children up to 24 weeks and up to birth where there is fetal abnormality. A fetal abnormality is a disability that a child has while he or she is still in the womb. In Britain it is legal to abort these children up to birth, even if the disability is minor and can be corrected by surgery.

I write urging you in the referendum on May 25 to protect your Constitution’s Eighth Amendment, in so doing you protect both women and unborn children in Ireland. Some of my friends have had abortions and I also write this letter to you with them in mind. One in particular, still cries for the child she aborted 10 years ago, a decision she made due to an unfaithful partner and considerable family pressure.

Abortion has adverse long-term consequences for the mother. These include an increased risk of long-term psychological problems and infertility.

Readily available abortion also has had huge implications for health care in this country. When Lord Steel brought the bill in 1967, a conscience clause was made for the many doctors and nurses who did not wish to be involved. It has become increasingly hard for pro-life professionals to navigate a career in some branches of health care.

Two Scottish midwives recently lost their jobs because they refused to supervise medical abortions. I have asked to remain anonymous due to fear of similar repercussions. This in itself perhaps tells you how far things have gone.

Over 50 years of abortion on demand has left us with an inconsistent and confused stance toward life. On the one hand, we proudly proclaim values of tolerance and equality. On the other, we continually make judgments regarding the value of individual lives. Many women have been pressurized by others to believe that it is better for the child not be born at all rather than a child live with certain disabilities.

I have witnessed the pressure put on pregnant women carrying babies with fetal abnormalities to consider terminations. And then cared for other children with the very same conditions: all of them unique and frequently with more energy and life than the rest of us. I have been struck so many times by the inconsistency of it all. I am also reminded of Marie Stopes, a pioneer of birth control and the namesake of many abortion clinics. Few seem to recall her own support of Nazi eugenics. She said that disabled children were “stunted, warped and inferior infants,” who in her eyes should never have been born.

One of the hardest experiences I have had as a doctor involved working in the labor ward when a 33-week-old baby’s life was terminated because of a fetal abnormality. This involves giving medication that can be injected into either the unborn baby’s heart or the umbilical cord to stop the child’s heart. Labor is induced, and the baby is born dead. I spent the shift feeling sick at the thought of the intentional killing of the weakest, smallest and most silent patient on the ward.

The following day, I was called to the delivery of a baby of the same age. He came out pink and crying. He was shown to parents and then whisked round to the neonatal unit to be placed in a warm incubator and fed through a tube until he was old enough to suck for himself.

One of the things that abortion legislation tries to do is to put a time restriction on when a child’s right to life begins. In 1967, this was 28 weeks, but then younger babies started to survive. The current limit in the U.K. is set at 24 weeks, the so-called age of viability. But I have cared for babies born at 23 weeks and seen them go home.

In the U.S. and Sweden, they are managing to save infants born at 22 weeks. Teams of nurses and doctors work round the clock to keep them alive. It is one of the toughest jobs I have ever done; threading needles through tiny veins, treating infections, chasing blood tests, prescribing drugs at miniscule doses and responding to the endless beeping of the machines. It just made no sense to me to know that next door in the gynecology wing, younger babies were being aborted.

The resilience of those ‘preterms’ — babies born premature, who were given the chance of life — was always astonishing. So many times, I thought the fragile little baby lying in the incubator wasn’t going to make it, and then returned for the next shift to find they had turned the corner. I recently bumped into the grandmother of 24-week twins who we all thought were going to die on more than one occasion. She beamed with pride as she showed me a picture of two lively toddlers climbing up their cot bars.

I have been in health care long enough to know that doctors do not always get it right. We can be adept at giving grim faced prognoses, which many parents will happily tell you their child disproved. My aunt was told her unborn baby would have spina bifida, causing terrible anxiety and fear. But the child was found to be healthy at birth and went on to become a dancer.

I have worked with many families with disabled children. No disabled child has ever told me they wish they had never been born. A very small number have died, far older than the doctors originally predicted. I remember each one of them with respect and admiration, such lives not always free of discomfort and challenges but certainly well lived and well loved.

Gandhi said that the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members. There is no individual more vulnerable, defenseless and voiceless than an unborn child.

And what of the legacy of abortion in the U.K.? Well, in 50 years, nearly 9,000,000 abortions have been carried out. We have a significant number of women who have repeated abortions and use it as a means of contraception. In 2014, the U.K. had the highest teenage birth rates in western Europe.

We have a high prevalence of domestic abuse directed in main toward women. We have rapidly increasing rates of sexually transmitted diseases and have consistently been in the top five countries in Europe for rates of chlamydia, herpes, HPV, hepatitis C and gonorrhea. We have a society that displays an inconsistent stance toward the weakest and most vulnerable. We have health care professionals who are afraid of publicly declaring their personal beliefs when at variance with the status quo.

Ireland, please do not follow the U.K. down this path — we have got this so very wrong. Please consider using your vote to choose life: protect both women and children — protect your Eighth Amendment.

Yours sincerely,

A British doctor.

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