Northern Ireland is a highly patriarchal society. The leading figures in politics, the professions and the judiciary are predominantly male, while women are still generally deemed to be best suited as mothers and wives. This second class status in a society which is part of the United Kingdom at the end of the 20th century is truly astonishing and must be a major cause for concern to Humanists.
Ulster's patriarchy stems from a fundamentalist religious outlook in which women are regarded as secondary creations. Indeed, the one thing that all traditional religions have in common is their treatment of women as inferior, and in theocratic states this inferiority is enshrined in legislation and social custom. In Northern Ireland, there is not one but two reactionary religious forces, Calvinist Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, and both are opposed to equal rights for women. This opposition can be seen clearly on the issue of abortion, where the denial to women of the right to control their bodies reflects the general lack of control over their lives.
Abortion is still illegal in both parts of Ireland. The Abortion Act of 1967, which applies in England, Scotland and Wales, was not extended to Northern Ireland. The present law in the province dates back to the 19th century and prohibits abortion, except when it is necessary to save a woman's life. In practice, abortions are performed in Northern Ireland only when there is a serious risk to health or life.
If the medical profession refuses to perform an abortion on a woman, she has three basic choices: make an expensive journey to England, where she to pay privately for the operation; endure her unwanted pregnancy; or have a backstreet abortion. Nearly 2,000 women annually make the journey, possibly as many as 35,000 altogether since the 1967 act, to obtain a service which is legal in all the rest of Western Europe with the exception of Ireland.
Arguments against abortion in this country are usually hypocritical. They generally revolve around the so‑called 'right to life'. A typical syllogism goes as follows: direct killing of innocent life is morally wrong; a foetus is an innocent life; therefore direct killing of a foetus is morally wrong.
First, 'innocent life' is generally restricted in the argument to humans. This is surely unwarranted. If we defend the foetus as having a life with a stronger claim on us than animal life, then we must be able to point to morally relevant properties it has but which animals lack.
In point of fact, on any fair comparison of such characteristics, like rationality, self-consciousness, awareness, pleasure and pain, and so on, chickens, pigs and calves come out well ahead of the human foetus at ANY stage of pregnancy. A fish or even a prawn shows more signs of consciousness than a human foetus of less than three months.
Yet all these forms of life are killed throughout Ireland ‑ a country with large agricultural and fishing sectors ~ with no protest from anti‑abortionists, most of whom are quite happy to eat them regularly. It is difficult to take seriously an ethic which vents so much anger at abortions and yet remains silent at the widespread slaughter of far more developed forms of life for the taste of their flesh or for profit.
One counter to this argument is that a foetus is a potential human being and human beings have more rights to life than other life forms. But this will not do. Prince Charles is a potential King of England, but he does not now have the rights of a king There is no reason why a potential person, should have the rights of a real person. And this is precisely why the rights of mother are more important than the rights of the foetus.
It is also possible to make great play 'innocence'. It may allegedly be morally justifiable to kill other human beings they are aggressive and attack us, but this case they are not 'innocent’ whereas a foetus is always innocent. This argument might seem convincing until we realise that (1) innocence is quality of the living not of a collection cells, and (2) those who kill other human being can always claim that their victims were not entirely 'innocent.
The plea for the 'innocent' foetus is, in fact, a type of moral blackmail which obscures more important moral rights, such as the rights of women and children, the rights of suffering animals and the rights of innocent victims of sectarian murders and beatings.
Humanists are concerned with the QUALITY of life, so in general we believe it is right that some pregnancies should medically terminated to avoid greater suffering and distress. Women are the best judges of their own situation and the choice of abortion should be available them, particularly where there is grave physical or psychological risk or where the child would be born severely handicapped. Most Humanists would therefore, call for the belated extension the 1967 Act to Northern Ireland.
The number of women here with unwanted pregnancies has much to do with the lack of childcare facilities, the inadequacy of sex education., poverty and unemployment. Equality of rights for women, advice on sexual matters for your people, and the eradication of poverty are only some of the issues on which Humanists have campaigned and will continue to campaign, until we see a just fair, liberal and humane society.
Teach evolution, not creationism Date Posted: 2011-09-22 Thirty leading scientists and five national organisations have issued a statement calling for the extension of evolution lessons in school science and firmer statutory guidance against creationism.