Response to the Consultation of the Women and Equalities Committee on Northern Ireland and Abortion

An unjustified interference

Abortion is a devolved matter for the Northern Ireland Assembly which  voted on the issue in February 2016, shortly before it last sat.[1] The NI Assembly rejected a liberalisation of our law on abortion. It is totally inappropriate for MPs from other jurisdictions, in a committee which does not include one NI MP, to instruct or dictate how Northern Ireland should conduct its own affairs. It is an internal matter for Northern Ireland, which requires the input of people from Northern Ireland.


The Abortion Act 1967 does not apply in Northern Ireland because the democratically elected Members of the Legislative Assembly have not voted in favour of its extension. Indeed the SDLP, which is a sister party of the Labour party still describes itself as a pro-life party and its members continue to state that it has no desire to extend the Abortion Act to Northern Ireland.[2] Other political parties including the two with the largest mandate in Northern Ireland  i.e. the DUP and Sinn Fein, have, to date, stood for election to the Northern Ireland Assembly and Parliament on the basis of being against the extension of the Abortion Act to Northern Ireland. However since the last Westminster elections, Sinn Fein has officially altered its view on abortion, to supporting abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy.[3] The pro-abortion policy has not been universally welcomed by many Sinn Fein members. Two Sinn Fein TDs in the Republic of Ireland’s Dail were recently disciplined by Sinn Fein because of their pro-life stance. Both have now resigned from Sinn Fein and one of them, Peadar Toibin TD and other dissenting pro-life Republicans throughout Ireland are in the process of setting up a new pro-life republican party which is already attracting significant interest both North and South of the border. The grass roots group Cherish all the Children Equally has been instrumental in highlighting the rights of the unborn child and its mother in the Republican community. It was set up by Anne Brolly, a former Sinn Fein mayor and her husband a former Sinn Fein MLA along with GP Dr Anne McCloskey who has more than thirty years of experience of delivering positive health care to her community in Derry.

It is disappointing for women in Northern Ireland who support life at every stage, to see the UK  Labour party which does not operate in Northern Ireland and the Conservative party which has an almost negligible level of support, attempting to change our protective laws which value the lives of women and babies and seek to do the best for both. It is arrogant in the extreme for either of these party groupings to presume or predetermine what is “best for Northern Ireland women” or citizens more generally.

Effect of the Abortion Act 1967

Since abortion was legalised in England and Wales, just over 50 years ago,  there have been over 8.8 million abortions – the equivalent of the entire population of  London. This translates to 1 in 5 pregnancies ending in abortion[4] and an abortion every three minutes.[5] Abortion is no longer an exceptional response to a crisis, as is evidenced by the fact that 39%(**) of lawful abortions in England and Wales in 2017 were repeat abortions.[6] Surely there must be a better, kinder, way for women, babies and families in crisis than a default assumption that abortion solves the problem.

Repercussions from the Repeal of the 8th Amendment in the Republic of Ireland

This year we in Northern Ireland have watched the repercussions from the repeal of the 8th amendment. Many in Northern Ireland were supportive of that amendment. We were aware that in a jurisdiction where both lives matter, there is a corresponding beneficial effect on the standard of care for both mother and baby. It should be noted that the Republic of Ireland has a much better maternal mortality rate than 86% of countries investigated by WHO.[7] Significantly it outperforms the US and the UK, which each have very permissive abortion regimes. In the UK 1 in 5 pregnancies result in abortion- almost 200 000 annually,[8] 98% of which are under Ground C[9] (specifically, the mental health ground) which permits abortion where the continuation of the pregnancy would pose greater risk to the woman’s mental health than abortion. These are not the exceptional or “difficult” cases which the public are constantly confronted with as grounds for change. Furthermore the exceptional or “difficult” cases all involve a human life which can be cherished by affording proper perinatal hospice care or additional medical and practical assistance to a distressed mother who has been the victim of sexual crime.

Frequently those supporting relaxation of the law on abortion and in particular the repeal of the 8th amendment suggested that only a small change is proposed. Even  Lord Steele who introduced the Abortion Bill in 1967 did not anticipate the level of abortion that would result in his change in the law.[10] During the campaign for the repeal of the 8th amendment in the Republic of Ireland emphasis was laid on allowing abortion in cases where the baby was diagnosed with a life limiting condition (cruelly described as “fatal foetal abnormality”) or had been conceived as a result of rape or incest. The bill which has just been debated and passed by the Dail is much more far-reaching than this. It allows abortion for any reason in the first trimester and up until birth for disability or emergency situations.[11] It is fair to claim that this was not what the general populace who voted Yes to repeal anticipated.[12]

Abortion and mental health

Women from organisations such as Women Hurt by Abortion speak eloquently of the devastating long-term effect of abortion on the mental health of women. What research has been done in this area to avoid a legacy of mental health problems among an ever-increasing number of women? Why do so many women in Great Britain in the age group 16-24 have significant mental health concerns?[13] If the Women and Equalities Commission were truly interested in finding out how to improve the lives of women they would seek to examine the effect of abortion on the lives of generations of UK women who now resort to abortion as  the first solution to an unwanted pregnancy as is evidenced by the 39%(**) repeat abortions last year.


Ideas have consequences, and liberalising our abortion law will inevitably result in unintended consequences with irreversible and damaging social repercussions. Why should very ill or disabled babies in utero, or those whose father is a rapist  have a lesser chance at life than any other unborn baby? Surely this is discrimination against the most vulnerable?

Many women and mothers in Northern Ireland have worked tirelessly to support the right to life of the most vulnerable from womb to tomb. These women believe that mothers’ lives matter too. We know that it is the natural instinct of mothers to want nothing but the best for their children, born and unborn. Mothers need support and assistance during pregnancy, not abortion as the first solution in a crisis. The consciences of many in Great Britain have been dulled and inured to abortion. Listen to those who still value life at every stage. Maybe you will come to realise that we are offering a more progressive solution than what is currently offered in Great Britain. Our voices deserve to be heard too and we are grateful to be able to contribute to this consultation.

(**) This figure was correct at the time of submission (10 December 2018). The following day 11th December 2018, the UK Government revised the figure downwards when it released Abortion Statistics for England and Wales 2017 (June 2018 (revised December 2018), page 4. See:





[4] 190406 abortions were carried out in England and Wales in 2016 as reported in  Of these , 185 596 were on residents of England and Wales. There were 696271 live births in England and Wales in 2016 see

[5] As reported by Lord David Alton in a speech given at St Bride’s Hall, Belfast on January 25th 2018

[6], p4



[9] paras  2.13-2.17

[10] “…he never anticipated “anything like” the current number of terminations when leading the campaign for reform.”





The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Monday 10th December this year marks the 70 anniversary of the adoption of the universal declaration of human rights by the UN general assembly. The declaration of human rights was heavily influenced by several intellectuals at the time who were followers of the thought of St Thomas Aquinas, notably Charles Malik and Jacques Maritain. This blog has previously looked at the intellectual backdrop to the UDHR, but what I would like to focus on here is the position of the UDHR in human society and its importance.

The date of the adoption of the UDHR, 1948, is significant. The second world war had just ended, the world was coming to terms with what had happened, and the horrors of the holocaust were becoming more and more apparent. Historically Germany was a nation with many great philosophers, scientists, mathematicians, musicians, artists etc. Many of its mighty dead helped to educate humanity and bring enlightenment to the world; yet as is clear from the history of the 20th Century, that was no guarantee against the rise of Nazism.

The myth of the enlightenment was that with greater intellectual development and knowledge, there would be greater progress. But no matter how intelligent and understanding we are, the responsibility for acting in a morally worthy manner does not necessarily go with it. Indeed, it is an ever greater tragedy when a great mind falls into moral turpitude since such a great mind should have known better. And the same can be said for any nation with an illustrious past. What the second world war and indeed the 20th Century in general taught us is that the myth of enlightenment is precisely that – a myth. No matter how intelligent and advanced humanity becomes, we still have the propensity for great evil; indeed more so, because the more advanced we become, the more efficient our means for perpetrating evil becomes.

This realisation was one of the driving factors behind the UDHR – enlightenment is not enough to curtail the possible descent into chaos for humanity. With that in mind, it is prudent to devise a set of human rights as a standard by which human dignity is recognised and states are regulated in their treatment of their members: ‘…disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind…’. Effectively, should a state sign up to the UDHR it would be making the statement to the international community that it sees its members as having dignity and will undertake to protect the dignity of its members, or else be held accountable to the international community and not be blight on the conscience of mankind.

It is easy to go through the UDHR and see how the rights it lists are derived (see Human Rights and Human Dignity) but there is one article of the UDHR that is often overlooked, and that is article 30, the final article. This article is not  a significantly meaty article which lays down a fundamental right such as the right to life, freedom, marriage etc, rather it is as follows:

‘Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein’.

It is understandable that the casual reader would gloss over this article. Having just nailed down the fundamental rights that all humans possess in virtue of being human,  the casual reader may believe this article to be an afterthought suitable only to the legal mind. But if we consider this article, it is supremely important. This is because what it declares is that one cannot take some right in the UDHR and wield it to deny some other right to another person. If one is human, then one has these rights; to deny somebody some of these rights is to deny that they are fully human, and so hold that only some and not all of the rights apply. But this was not the vision of the UDHR: ‘…recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world’. Human beings are not a mixture of full and partial humans – they are either human or not. Hence one cannot say ‘because I have a right to X you do not have a right to Y’; this bears upon contemporary issues pertinent to the right to life.

It is undeniable that the unborn are just as human as the fully mature; the process of being born does not magically change one’s ontological status from non-human to human. Hence the unborn child has just as much a right to life as any other human being. Accordingly, the simple protection of the unborn in law does not conflict with the UDHR, in which case one who wants the law to provide for abortion cannot claim that one is entitled to it as a human right, or that one’s human rights are being undermined through lack of access to abortion. Consistent with article 30 then, one cannot deny the unborn its right to life by invoking some other right listed in the UDHR. And so it follows that all attempts to introduce abortion will be attempts that are inconsistent with the UDHR and inconsistent with human rights in general, the most fundamental of which is the right to life. Genuine human rights apply to all humans, and the moment one starts saying that such rights only apply to these humans and not to those ones one denies ‘the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family’.

Dr Gaven Kerr


St Nicholas and the Divinity of Christ

Today marks the traditional date of the death of St Nicholas. We are all familiar with St Nicholas and how this kindly old bishop of the early Church brought gifts to the poor and needy. Indeed, part of the Santa Claus mystique is rooted in the generosity of St Nicholas. But perhaps not too many of us know that St Nicholas was a fierce defender of the divinity of Christ, an opponent of Arius, and a supporter of the creed of Nicaea.

Arius was a member of the early Church who held some weird theological views. He defended the view that whilst Christ is to be revered, he was not God. Hence, Christ came into existence at some point and is not eternal like God. One typical formula of the Arians, condemned at the Council of Nicaea, was that there was a time when he (Christ) was not, thereby indicating that he came into being.

Arius was opposed by a number of people on this issue, principally by Athanasius of Alexandria. There were several reasons why Arianism had to be rejected. Some of these reasons were because the statement that Christ was merely a creature and not God conflicts with many passages of scripture, chiefly the Prologue to John’s Gospel which not only affirms that the Word is God and with God in the beginning, but that all creatures were made through him, in which case Christ cannot be any of the things that were created.

Not only does Arianism conflict with scripture, it also conflicts with some important claims about Christ and his role in salvation history. This role is such that in becoming incarnate Christ saves human beings from the original sin that besets their nature. Now only God can save man from sin, in which case it was in becoming incarnate that God, i.e. the Word, the second person of the Trinity, saved man from sin. Hence, Christ must have been divine otherwise he could not have effected salvation.

The Arian controversy led to the Council of Nicaea at which it was affirmed that the Son is consubstantial (homoousios) with the Father. This formula safeguarded the divinity of Christ and in turn permitted the condemnation of the Arian outlook.

St Nicholas was known as a fierce defender of this orthodoxy. Along with the gift giving characteristic of St Nicholas it is right and just that at Christmas we also reflect on the reality that urged St Nicholas in his generosity, that is, the birth of him who is both human and divine.

Dr Gaven Kerr



Women only need apply

The announcement by the Republic’s higher education minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor to create women only positions in universities has received responses varying from derision to praise. The idea is to create professorships only available to women so as to even out the imbalance against women in higher education. On a charitable reading we must assume that for O’Connor this scheme is genuinely aimed at evening out the gender balance in the higher levels of academia and not simply jobs for the girls.

Whilst one can praise O’Connor’s commitment to gender equality, one can certainly question her strategy for bringing that about. Such schemes which discriminate against one group so as to correct a historical imbalance against another group fall under the euphemistic title of positive discrimination. Whereas in the past women were negatively discriminated against when entering higher education, now we employ positive discrimination to get them in. The assumption here is that because the discrimination is positive (for women) it is good.

However, positive discrimination for one group is very easily seen as negative discrimination against another. This is because the other group that it impacts, in this case men, are being discriminated against on the basis of factors irrelevant to the post; it does not matter whether one is male or female in order to be awarded with a professorship, what matters, among other things, is one’s experience, publications, qualifications etc.

Now one may argue that historically men have benefited from discrimination against women in the past, and in order to right that we must employ positive discrimination on behalf of women. But this is quite flawed reasoning because it treats individual men and women as part and parcel of the amorphous groups: men and women, and it reasons that if an individual is a member of one group, then he or she deserves the appropriate discrimination. But it is not clear that the individual men applying for jobs in higher education have benefited from historical negative discrimination against women, nor that the individual women who will benefit from O’Connor’s proposals have been negatively impacted by historical negative discrimination against women.

Being a member of a group with an identity does not entail that one is subject to all the privileges and drawbacks of that group. Rather, human beings are individuals, and so if one wants to correct injustice, one must look to injustices upon the individual. This is why when it comes to employment, what is taken into consideration are only those criteria which directly affect the post in question, and the candidate is assessed on whether or not he or she meets that criteria. This is the fairest way of awarding a position to a candidate, since the only injustice that can occur will be one which overlooks the candidate’s fit for the post and judges the candidate on criteria not relevant to the post. In academia, gender is not a relevant criterion for the fulfilment of a post, and hence it would be unjust to wield it against a candidate who applies for a position (or to deny outright the opportunity to apply).

So in this case what we have is one injustice being used to correct another historical injustice; and it is not at all clear that in order to correct injustice we must make use of more injustice. Rather, resorting to injustice to correct injustice only perpetuates injustice, accustoms a society to the universality of injustice, and in this case does nothing to promote excellence in academia. This is why O’Connor’s plan is not only plain silly, it is downright unjust.

Dr Gaven Kerr


UNESCO World Philosophy Day

Thursday 15th November marks UNESCO world philosophy day. This is a day wherein philosophy is celebrated throughout the world. Many departments of philosophy host special events or celebrations to mark this day.

It is right and just that we take a day to celebrate philosophy, for whilst the designation of ‘philosophical’ can often come across as quite negative (‘that’s all just philosophical’), there is an importance to philosophy that often goes unnoticed.

I think the importance to philosophy is illustrated by a famous story said of Thales. Thales was walking along one day and as he was looking at the sky observing the heavenly bodies, he fell into a well. We naturally think that Thales was quite foolish and absent minded for falling into the well, that he could not see beyond the end of his nose and look where he was going. But let’s consider this.

Thales was no fool; he was said to have predicted an eclipse. In order to do this he had to go through the painstaking observations of the heavens and abstract from that the principles of their motion and position in the sky, and then from that deduce where the heavenly bodies would be at a future date. This is a task many today would find challenging, never mind a few thousand years ago. Clearly Thales was a very intelligent individual, so what does his falling into the well have to say about the importance of philosophy?

Thales’s intelligence is revealed precisely in his missing the well because he was observing the heavens. He moves his attention away from the here and now and focuses on those realities without which there would be no here and now at all. Such a shifting of attention can make Thales comes across as stupid, unconcerned with everyday life, useless to the community; but in fact he is thinking through and trying to understand what the community in their everydayness take for granted. And this is what the philosopher does; in pursuing the different branches of philosophy, he goes beyond the concrete particular to consider that without which the concrete particular would be unintelligible. The philosopher is of service to the community precisely because it is he who understands being and its intelligibility.

The same thought can be drawn from a famous parable in Plato’s Republic. In the Republic, Plato, through the character of Socrates, outlines the myth of the cave. He asks us to imagine prisoners trapped in a cave from birth, unable to move so that they can only see the wall in front of them. Behind them is a fire and between them and the fire their captors parade objects from the outside world so that shadows appear on the wall before the prisoners. Not knowing any better, the prisoners naturally assume that the shadows are real things and that the talk of the captors comes from the shadows. However, a prisoner escapes and exits the cave. Immediately he is dazzled by the light and can only come out on a moonless night. Even in such darkness he can see that objects have more reality, more depth to them, than the shadows of the cave. Eventually he can come out in the light of the moon and see even more to the objects than before. And ultimately he can stand the full light of day and see objects in all their luminosity. This prisoner cannot return to the safety and confines of the cave; for not only is it not the real world, his eyes can no longer see in the darkness. His fellow prisoners would naturally assume that his journey outside the cave has damaged him and given the chance they would kill him.

There are many interpretative levels to this parable. The primary one is illustrative of Plato’s philosophy of the Forms or Ideas such that our everyday reality is founded upon the reality of the Forms, and it relates to the Forms like the shadows of the cave relate to objects outside the cave.

But there is a salutary lesson here for the study of philosophy. To study philosophy we must escape the cave of everydayness; and the first time we do this it is dazzling (it’s not easy studying philosophy!). We can only glimpse philosophy bit by bit. But the more we turn to it, the more we become accustomed to its light. Once we are at home with philosophy we are no longer at home in the cave, and indeed if we as philosophers try to return to the cave, we are shunned and avoided – we just don’t make sense to people anymore. We are like Thales, looking at things beyond and not focusing on the everyday; to many we seem to be of no use; like the escaped prisoner, our eyes are blinded to everyday reality.

However, the study of philosophy allows us to see the reality behind the humdrum of the everyday. We see things are intelligible and capable of being understood; indeed we offer accounts for precisely how all of reality can be understood and thereby justify what many sciences take for granted. We offer accounts of what it is to engage in action and what kind of action we ought to engage in; thus philosophy is pivotal for thinking through how one ought to live and act. Philosophers are critical in their thinking and do not take for granted something simply because some authority says it is so; indeed logic is the special domain of the philosopher. Through the application of logic and critical thinking, philosophers look for justification for any belief on offer. Indeed, when it comes to God and religion, philosophers engage with these issues and offer systematic defences of the existence of God and the truths of religion. In short, the pursuit of philosophy enables the philosopher to pursue a life lived well. This may not be of immediate utilitarian benefit, but it is something of everlasting benefit, since the life lived well is something that remains even when all utilitarian benefits are gone, and this is because the philosopher living that life remains throughout the comings and goings of riches and poverty.

Philosophy is worth the pursuit and effort that it takes to study it, and whilst many will not study it systematically at a high level, all are capable of engaging with the works of the great philosophers and getting something from them. In doing so, one will find that one becomes more reasonable in one’s thinking and better able to step back from arguments and disagreements in order to take a critical view of matters. Whilst philosophy may not have an explicit utilitarian benefit in the way that business studies might, the ability to adopt a calm and reasonable attitude to vexed issues open for public discussion is certainly a valuable consequence of the study of philosophy in this day and age.

Dr Gaven Kerr