“Incompatible With Life,” A Death Sentence for Unborn Children

Opinion   |   Cora Sherlock   |   May 4, 2012   |   1:55PM   |   Dublin, Ireland

Last month for the first time ever, the Irish parliament debated, and rejected, a Private Members’ Bill to introduce abortion on the factually spurious grounds that without an abortion regime women were denied life-saving medical treatment. The reality is that all essential treatment women in pregnancy need is legally available in Ireland and routinely administered, even where, regrettably, the death of the baby is the unavoidable result of the treatment.

Last month also saw the emergence of a group of women calling for the legalisation of abortion in Ireland because they had abortions when they were advised that their babies wouldn’t survive until birth or would die shortly afterwards, and they felt that they should not have had to travel to Britain to have the abortions. The National Women’s Council of Ireland (an umbrella group representing a number of Irish women’s organisations) supported and accompanied the women to meet TDs (Elected members of the Irish Parliament) and a few days later they appeared on the Late Late Show, Ireland’s most popular TV chat show on RTÉ, the state sponsored broadcaster.

The new group is calling for the introduction of legislation which would allow abortion where the unborn baby is diagnosed as being “incompatible with life”, meaning that she cannot survive outside the womb. She may die within the womb before the pregnancy term comes to an end, or alternatively, shortly after birth.

What can we, as pro-life advocates, say about these cases? Is there a better way that we can help parents and families who find themselves faced with what seems like an impossible predicament – a much-wanted baby who is termed “incompatible with life”?

Well let’s take a closer look at that phrase to begin with.

“Incompatible with life” – it’s such a dread-full sentence. After all, shouldn’t we instead embrace the language of hope? Especially at those times when there appears to be little or no hope to cling to – these are the times we need it most of all. There are too many instances of babies being pronounced “incompatible with life”, and then going on to live happy lives, for us to accept it as a final judgement in every case. Sometimes doctors get it wrong.

And its use makes it too easy for us to remember that every medical condition in history was “incompatible with life” at one time or another.

For example, I have grand mal epilepsy – happily a mere blip that doesn’t limit my horizons today – but you don’t have to go very far back to realise that it was so uncontrollable that it really was a sentence of “incompatibility with life”. People with epilepsy were literally locked away, such was the fear and lack of understanding of their condition. And the same thing goes for pre-insulin diabetes, pre-surgery heart failure, or any number of other complaints that can be treated today.

I’m not suggesting that these conditions are anything similar to anacephaly, or Trisomy 18, or those issues which merit the phrase being used now. The important point to make is that we would never have discovered insulin, or anti-convulsant medication, or any of the drugs and treatments that we all take for granted if we kept ending the lives of those who had suffered from these conditions in the past. How do we know that if we allow an unborn life to be ended on the basis that she cannot survive outside the womb, we are not denying her the benefit of some new treatment that may help her particular case, and every similar case that follows? Why are we so unwilling to give medicine a chance to do what it has always done; expand and develop so that it can deal with these worse-case scenarios? We would never dream of giving up on a human being when they’re born. “Where there’s life, there’s hope”, we believe, and on that basis, we do everything we can to find some new treatment that might help

And happily in our world, new treatment is always coming down the line. Doctors already operate on unborn babies. Adult stem cell research is opening up a whole new field of possibilities. Why don’t we apply that pioneering attitude in these cases too? Why are we prepared to allow abortion to take a life which has not ended? Why are we not prepared to give that life a chance?

After all, when we strip away the medical language, what we are dealing with is a human being with serious special needs. Why should the fact that he or she is unborn mean that they are treated any differently to those born members of society who have special needs? In a time when we work harder than ever to achieve inclusiveness and equality, this would seem to be the harshest of hypocrisies.

Perhaps we should instead take heart from the testimony of those parents who care for their children with special needs on a daily basis – where the joy and happiness experienced through the natural parent/child bond more than compensates for the challenges involved. Nuala Uí Laimhín is one such parent. Her son, Seosamh was born with a number of severe disabilities ranging from autism to severe epilepsy. Here’s what she has to say about the impact he has had on family life:-

“Every 24 hours for him holds so many more challenges than for a “normal” child. He has to contend with irrational fears and obsessions, sensory overloads and lack of understanding of what’s going on around him. I often wonder how he gets through the day and still smiles. It is so true that these people make us love them because of their helplessness and innocence.

That’s exactly what Seosamh does. I have seen the effect he has had on our other children as they develop in character. Over and over again they are called beyond themselves to selflessly play with Seosamh, sing with him, care for him in a seizure, give up their toys to him, watch him. The list is endless. Life with Seosamh can be mentally very tough at times but it is like living life on a different level. It is constantly so emotionally charged and never dull. It is exactly what we are called as Christians to do. And I don’t know how we could do it without Jesus Christ. So we and our children have learned through Seosamh that there are more important things than toys, books, ornaments, computers, nights in the pub, DVD players. He has, in his short life so far, smashed them all. He has stretched our patience to breaking point but has never broken it. He has demanded through his vulnerabilty that we love him.

But he has also brought so much joy to our family. It’s like having a baby that never grows up so while other people have their children and experience that “baby stage” for a short while we have it all the time. The joy that we feel when he says a new word or masters the smallest skill is intense because it takes 100 times more work to make it happen. It proves to us the value of patience and perseverance and has indeed taught us how to love.”

Caring for a severely disabled member of the family is, as Nuala says, “living life on a different level”. But it is a level that we as a society must be prepared to support and facilitate so that the people involved can achieve their full potential – regardless of how far that potential can reach.

There will always be the cases where severely disabled babies won’t survive. What should our response be then? Is it better to allow abortions if the experts agree that there is nothing anyone can do?



Well not if you believe, as much evidence would suggest, that an abortion is a deeply traumatic and violent intrusion on a woman’s body and psyche. To listen to the testimonies of the women of Rachel’s Vineyard, and Irish group Women Hurt, abortion won’t contribute anything positive to the experience of the parents involved. On the contrary, it may well cause further grief. And sadly too, we must discount any suggestion that abortion will limit the suffering of the unborn child. Our knowledge of foetal pain cannot lead to any conclusion other than the fact that abortion is traumatic for the unborn.

Perhaps what we need is a better acknowledgement of what is happening in these cases – a beloved family member is dying before her time. The fact that she is unborn doesn’t change that fact, and it should inform our response accordingly. If a born family member was terminally ill, the family would receive specialist support and help from the hospice movement. Many families credit this support with helping them to get through the blackest time in their lives. Why are we not advocating this type of help to families whose unborn babies are terminally ill? Specialist perinatal clinics for pregnancy where severe disability is involved, such as are available in the US, should be developed and supported.

There is a deep, fundamental truth in all of these cases too, one which we cannot ignore. The journey of a human being begins at conception, when all of the DNA that he or she will ever have in life is present. Nobody has the right to intervene in that journey and bring it to a premature end. This immutable right to life – regardless of its length – applies to the unborn just as much as to you or me. We cannot erase this right and we should not try.

Every parent who finds themselves in this horrific situation, should at least be able to look back and accept that it was the condition that took their baby away from them, and no action that they initiated. The experience of Matt and Ginny Mooney, whose little boy Eliot was born with Trisomy 18 and lived for 99 days, inspired them to make the video 99 Balloons based on his life, and the love and care that they gave him during that time. Watching the short video of Eliot’s life is a teaching moment for all of us.

One of the most disturbing elements of the recent debate in Ireland from a democratic point of view was the one-sidedness of the coverage the new campaign group received from the media, especially from RTÉ which facilitated a call for the legalisation of abortion for babies with disabilities without balancing this by ensuring that the voice of the majority of women with disabled children, and women with disabilities themselves, also be heard. That is pro-abortion advocacy. RTÉ, the Irish state-funded national broadcaster has a statutory obligation to be impartial, and yet when it comes to abortion it is firmly on one side. On primetime television the new group was provided with an uncontested opportunity to influence public opinion by their emotional experiences.

The political motive for all this hype is the will to influence the recommendations of the Expert Group set up by the Government to respond to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) decision in the case of A, B & C -v- Ireland. The ECHR ruled that, although there is no right to abortion per se in the European Convention of Human Rights, and although there was no evidence of a risk to the life of any of the three women, A, B and C, who brought the case on different grounds, still in the case of C, there was a lack of clarity about how she could discover whether or not she was entitled to an abortion under the X case. The Irish Government responded by setting up the Expert Group to bring back to them a list of options. The Group is due to report to the Irish government in July.

The pro-abortion groups in Ireland have been pushing as hard as they can ever since to try to have their particular kind of abortion included in the list of options and by muddying the waters and scaremongering about how much we need abortion on all kinds of grounds, in the hope that the Expert Group will be made to feel that there is an unstoppable feeling of support for abortion among the general public and adjust their findings accordingly.

We are facing a critical time in the pro-life debate in Ireland. We know from the experience of other countries that when abortion was introduced on the grounds of severe disability, it soon developed into a system of abortion on demand. This is the experience of our closest neighbour, the United Kingdom which marked 44 years of legal abortion (and over 6 million abortions) recently.

For the sake of the most vulnerable members of our society, we must act now to ensure that we do not make the same mistake.

LifeNews Note: Cora Sherlock is a lawyer and Deputy Chairperson of the Pro Life Campaign