Abortion, human rights, professionals duties, and moral values: discuss.

Yesterday, three women from the Republic of Ireland took a case to the European Court of Human Rights. The women argued that Ireland’s abortion law-whereby abortion is permitted only if the woman’ life is endangered-violates their human rights. Although this story only made it to page 54 of The Times newspaper I’m guessing it will be of higher interest to many of Ireland’s women, 6,000 of whom make expensive, secretive, and potentially hazardous journeys to the UK each year in search of the abortion which potentially makes them subject to life imprisonment back home in Ireland.


Finding this story, for the second time, in The Times took me a while as I vainly searched in the ‘News” section only to realise I needed to look instead in the “World News”. An indication perhaps of how close the people of the UK and Ireland are in so many ways despite our shared and troubled history. A reminder also of how illusory that sense of closeness is, reflected all too starkly in the different approaches adopted by the UK and Ireland to the issue of abortion. And timely, as, by sheer coincidence, I facilitated, on the same day that the case came to court, a discussion amongst eleven first year medical students about legal, professional and moral rights and duties.

The UK is often said to have the most liberal abortion laws in the world and Ireland one of the most restrictive. Interestingly, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service and the Irish Family Planning Association are supporting the women’s legal fight. Which doesn’t surprise me too much, after all they’re the ones who faced with the task of helping these women, women who are already facing decisions that are difficult enough. Like millions of women before them, both in Ireland and around the world, some of those denied access to abortion in Ireland will take desperate measures to meet their unhappy need. Some will be able to travel for help but may find themselves back in Ireland with complications that have been aggravated by unnecessary travel. Others may try some of the homemade methods that everyday takes lives around the world and, in the past, in the UK. Still others will be forced to live lives that are not of their choosing.

Faced with such a woman, in a doctor’s surgery in Ireland, I wonder how my students might, in the future, draw on their teaching. They will have been taught about the duty of care they owe patients: the duty to take care that their actions or inactions do not harm the patient. They will have been encouraged to be aware of how their own values, experiences and upbringing, and the moral values they hold, influence the way in which they view the woman’s request and whether they consider the prevailing legal situation with regard to abortion to be a good or not. They will have been ‘brought up’ in a system in which the General Medical Council and the UK Law expects doctors to meet any emergency needs of women seeking an abortion and, at a minimum, expects doctors to ensure they do not actively block a woman’s access to abortion. And they will have learnt about human rights and by then, I anticipate, the ruling that follows from today’s case will form part of that teaching.

All that and more and it’s only term one along the long road to qualification as a doctor. So if any of you are reading this and wondering where next for help I suggest two things: first keep an eye on this case because the judges ruling and arguments promise to be instructive, and second, and here comes the medical humanities bit, watch the film Vera Drake, just to remind yourself what it used to be like in the UK, before the liberalisation of our abortion laws.

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