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Conscience, Abortion, and the SDLP

As is now well known, last weekend the SDLP voted in favour of two motions: (i) to allow a conscience vote on abortion and (ii) to retain the pro-life party policy. Just a few days after this, the party leader Colum Eastwood came out in favour of repeal in the referendum in the south citing concern about difficult situations. There are number of things to observe here.

How we are to take the retention of the SDLP’s pro-life policy whilst at the same time endorsing a conscience vote on the matter of abortion? At best we can say that the SDLP as a party will not campaign for abortion. But at the same time, how can the SDLP support the pro-life position as party policy if those who are not pro-life and do not support pro-life measures are permitted to campaign and vote on policies inconsistent with the right to life? Whilst these issues may not have any effect on the pro-life position of the majority of the party members, it means that SDLP public representatives can, without impediment, endorse positions inconsistent with the pro-life party policy.

Given that the majority of members of the SDLP are pro-life, one may not be too concerned with its adopting a conscience position on abortion. However, what is of concern is party leader Colum Eastwood coming out in favour of repeal in the south and seeking a law change for difficult situations whilst at the same time calling himself pro-life (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-44198421). To be clear, to be pro-life in this context means to defend the right to life of those who have such a right. All human beings have such a right as stipulated by both the Universal Declaration of human rights, the European Convention, and good old rational thinking. Is Mr Eastwood’s position consistent with defending the right to life of all those who have such a right? Let’s consider the matter.

Mr Eastwood speaks of difficult situations that families and doctors are put in because of restrictions in law, and he would like to see that changed. But the law up here (and the case is similar in the south) is that it is lawful to perform an operation in Northern Ireland for the termination of a pregnancy, where: (i) it is necessary to preserve the life of a woman; or (ii) there is a risk of real and serious adverse effect on her physical or mental health, which is either long term or permanent. Not only is this consistent with the law, it is consistent with respecting the right to life of the unborn since the principle of double effect allows for an action to be undertaken the consequence but not direct intention of which is something that is morally problematic. Hence a woman can receive treatments the consequence but not direct intention of which is the ending of the life of the unborn; in such cases we are not working to end the life of the unborn, but to treat the mother. The law here (and in the south) has a balance between the right to life of the mother and of the unborn child.

Now Mr Eastwood wants to see the law changed in order to deal with difficult situations. These situations cannot be those in which the mother’s life is at risk or there is a real and serious risk to her mental/physical health, since these are already dealt with in the law. Thus, it follows that Mr Eastwood would like to see the law changed to allow for abortion in cases where the mother’s life is not at risk and she does not face a real and serious risk to her mental/physical health, long term or permanent. But this is inconsistent with protecting the right to life of the unborn, since in cases where the mother’s life is not at risk or there is not a serious risk to her mental/physical health, no measures need be taken which have the consequence but not the direct intention of ending the life of the unborn. In those cases, if we take measures to end the life of the unborn, we are doing so with the direct intention of ending the child’s life, not treating the mother. And this clearly violates the right to life of the unborn and cannot be adopted by anybody who is pro-life.

Mr Eastwood has the task of squaring the circle of being pro-life and allowing for the direct and intentional ending of life for someone who has a right to life. Whether he can square the circle is Mr Eastwood’s affair (I don’t think he can), but what is clear is that his position is confused and that his thinking on this matter does not merit to be called pro-life.

Dr Gaven Kerr