What is a ‘person’ – the thorny question at the heart of the abortion debate

The NI Department of Justice has recently begun a review of the abortion laws in N Ireland; this was limited to the place of abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, or pregnancy as a result of actions, such as rape and incest, which are criminalised.

The Human Rights Commission was recently granted leave to pursue a judicial review of the abortion laws in NI.

The leader of the SDLP, Dr Alasdair McDonnell has “unequivocally” rejected calls for abortion. According to the Belfast Telegraph, he said,

“The SDLP is unequivocally opposed to abortion, even in those particular circumstances because basically, the predictions in those circumstances are never accurate,” he said.

“Nobody can predict that a foetus is not viable, and that’s the problem, and as a GP, I’m fully aware.

“I have seen situations where termination or an abortion was recommended to somebody because a foetus that had this, that or the other thing, and that foetus grew up to be a perfectly normal child.”

Dr McDonnell is factually incorrect. Anencephaly, for example, is a malformation of the foetus that can be detected on ultrasound. It is a failure of development of the brain. It is always fatal.

Think of the brain as being like a mushroom, though the cap must be divided into two to represent the two cerebral hemispheres. The stalk of the mushroom is, in evolutionary terms, part of the ‘old’ or primitive brain, and is responsible for ‘vegetative’ functions, the control of heart rate and breathing, for example; those functions of which we aren’t normally aware, and can’t consciously control.

The ‘cap’ of the mushroom is the evolutionary ‘new brain’; it contains sight, hearing, thinking, the awareness of surroundings, emotions, thought, consciousness, the awareness of ‘self’, and the mind.

According to Wikipedia, only three infants have survived longer than a few days or hours after birth; one of these was the subject of legal proceedings in the US. All of these three died in early life.

Anencephaly raises difficult questions at the intersection of medicine, psychology, ethics, theology, and the law. All have differing interpretations about what a ‘person’ is. What is a ‘person’?