Opening Statement to the Queensland Parliament Health Committee Abortion Inquiry public hearing on 1 August 2016 by Cherish Life Queensland Vice-President Dr Donna Purcell
On behalf of Cherish Life Queensland, I would like to use our introduction to summarise some basic principles that we believe are at the heart of the abortion debate, and which have been our guiding principles also.
I would like firstly to turn to a brief discussion of the humanity of the unborn. Since the groundbreaking work of Lennart Nilsson presented in Life magazine in 1965 entitled “Drama of Life Before Birth” showing the first photographs of prenatal life, the world has been left in no doubt of the wonder and beauty and extreme intricacy and delicacy of the process of human reproduction.
New photographic techniques and electron microscopy have added detail and colour never imagined. Fertilisation of egg by sperm and conception itself can be photographed. Embryonic heart cells in action can be photographed. That heart begins to pulsate at 24 days and by 7 weeks is beating 140-150 times a minute. By 30 days past conception, the embryo has already grown 10,000 times its original size and is 6-7 mm long. By 20 days the foundations of the nervous system have been laid and by 43 days brain waves can be recorded. By only eight weeks the embryo or foetus as it is officially known now is recognizably human but weighs only a gram. By 10 weeks most of the body is sensitive to touch. By twelve weeks or the end of the first trimester, all the bodily organs are present. Modern obstetrics uses ultrasound as a routine tool and it can validate these facts.
If we use science to inform so much of our routine antenatal care, why is Parliament invited or encouraged to ignore this when dealing with this Bill? Advocates of abortion either ignore it because they have no answer to it, or they fall back on slogans which are as unscientific as they are ridiculous. In reality you are being told to be as unscientific as they are, to employ a dichotomy that says if the baby is “wanted’ we will marvel at the birth, but if abortion is wanted, we will pretend nothing exists there. Our organisation hopes that as members of Parliament, you can employ more intellectual honesty than that.
Others do not deny the science, but demand other qualifications for full humanity of the unborn child. Chief amongst these is not qualifying for “personhood,” but what does this mean actually? What determines when a person has “personhood”? Do we regard babies and children as incomplete persons because they cannot make rational decisions as adults can? Or because they are not as self- aware as adults? Or because they do not yet have a concept of past and future?
Some philosophers and ethicists claim that a human being only becomes a person, and therefore is accorded rights, when he or she has developed certain features such as self-awareness, autonomy, sentience, rationality, consciousness and so on.
These features are useful in describing a human person, especially when we are drawing distinctions between animal and human life. However, to insist that they are the criteria for determining the moral status of a human individual is to set up a group of attributes that would exclude many human beings whom almost everyone would consider are worthy of moral status.
We know there is a gradualness in the development of a human being from the moment of fertilisation, and that not all features of a human person emerge at the same rate and to the same degree. However, this is not the same as saying that there is a gradual development of personhood, that our moral status grows by degrees or for that matter that our moral status is lost by degrees.
It is important to note that the embryonic period of a person’s life is not the only time when he/she lacks certain features so clearly identifiable in adult persons, such as awareness, consciousness, rationality. When we are asleep or drugged, under an anaesthetic or in a coma, when we are passionately angry or paranoid, when we pass into a state of senile dementia, we lack in varying degrees, many of these features. Do we stop being a person in those situations?
A human person is a human being who has the essential features of personhood or possesses those features in a form that will progressively emerge, unless interrupted by outside intervention or an inherent fatal defect. The data for this transformation to occur is contained in the genome that is present at conception, and gives the new human being his or her unique characteristics.
Viability is sometimes given as a marker of personhood. But why should the moral status of an individual be dependent on the state of technology, giving that advances in medical science are bringing down the age of viability?
And taking birth as the beginning of personhood is the even more unlikely because birth is simply a change of address.
The intrinsic moral status of the embryo can be denied only at the price of denying many other persons human rights, especially those who at a given point of time, do not possess a sufficient degree of the arbitrary attributes to ensure protection.
Hierarchy of Rights
There is a hierarchy of rights. Some rights depend upon others being already in place.
You can have no right to justice, or right to freedom of assembly or right to freedom of religion unless you first have the right to life.
It is a fundamental principle of morality, justice and the natural law that persons have the right to life before all others. Otherwise, any other excursion into the area of human rights is meaningless and beside the point.
Quality of life is an impossible ideal without the guarantee of the right to life itself. The right to life is the primary right. All other rights are secondary or derivative.
Simply put, the right to life of a pre-born child must take priority over his or her mother’s right to the pursuit of her goals or needs as they exist at the time.
This is why Justice McGuire’s 1986 ruling on the Queensland law included this quote from the 1938 Bourne judgment in England, on which he relied for his interpretation: “The law of the land has always held that human life is sacred and the protection the law gives to human life extends also to the unborn child in the womb.”
It is because it is imperative that a just and civilised society protects innocent human life and also because of the damage that abortion does to women and families that Cherish Life Queensland urges this Committee to recommend to Parliament that the Pyne Bill be rejected and the current law on abortion be retained.