Philosophers Argue Against Equal Fetal Rights Amendment in Irish Constitution


A referendum is being conducted this week in Ireland over whether to repeal the 8th Amendment of the Irish Constitution, which declares that “The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.” In anticipation of the vote, a group of over 40 philosophers have published a statement urging the amendment’s repeal.

Here is the text of the statement:

The upcoming referendum asks us to decide whether the unborn should have constitutional rights. Many good arguments have been put forward in support of the idea that women and girls in Ireland should not be forced to travel abroad or face the threat of a 14 year prison sentence if they find themselves unable to carry a pregnancy to term. What has not been discussed much is whether a 12-week old foetus is a person entitled to constitutional protection. What makes this particularly problematic is that the issue hinges on a complex philosophical question that has no straightforward answer, namely ‘What is a person and when does a person begin?’

We can all agree that there are clear cases where a person does exist: nobody doubts that a seven year-old is a person. There are also cases where we can all accept that a person does not exist: neither a human sperm nor an unfertilized egg is a person. Some claim that a fertilized egg is a person. We think this is totally implausible: while it contains DNA that could belong to a person, the same DNA is also contained in the egg and sperm that combined to form that fertilized egg in the first place; it has merely been moved into a single cell. A fertilized egg has no feelings, no character, nothing that we value in each other as persons.

For most of European history, in fact, a person was not thought to come into being as soon as a fertilized egg was present. Influential figures like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas held that a foetus is not a person until it begins to move, which they took to be 40-80 days after conception. This is not a very plausible criterion for personhood either, since early movements are generated simply by muscle twitches that can occur even in muscle fibres detached from a body. A more plausible condition on personhood is sentience — the ability to have experiences including pain. But experiencing pain depends on brain functions that do not develop until at least the 20th week of pregnancy.

We grant that the question ‘when does a person begin’ is complex. But because the constitution is the backbone for all law in the state, it should be confined to highly plausible restrictions on the law that more or less everyone can agree with. The 8th amendment is not a legitimate addition to the constitution, because it binds the entire community to a highly controversial position on a complex question that could never find widespread agreement, with very serious effects for the health of many of the state’s residents. Our view is that the amendment should be repealed.

The letter’s signatories at the time of this post are Lilian Alweiss (Trinity College Dublin), Robbie Arrell (Wuhan University), John Baker (University College Dublin), John Barry (Queen’s University Belfast), Keith Begley (Trinity College Dublin), Keith Breen (Queen’s University Belfast), Liam Kofi Bright (London School of Economics),  Darragh Byrne (University of Birmingham), Brian Carey (University of Limerick), Maeve Cooke (University College Dublin), Aisling Crean (University of Oxford), John Danaher (NUI Galway), Oisín Deery, (Monash University), Cian Dorr (New York University), Heike Feldman (University College Galway), Graham Finlay (University College Dublin), Tim Fernando (Trinity College Dublin), Dr Brian Garvey (Lancaster University), Shane Glackin (University of Exeter), Elizabeth Hannon (London School of Economics and Political Science), James Jardine (University College Dublin), Richard Kearney (Boston College), Adam Loughnane (University College Cork), James Mahon (City University of New York), Neil McDonnell (University of Glasgow), John McGuire (University College Dublin), Conor McHugh (University of Southampton), Marie Moran (University College Dublin), Clare Moriarty (King’s College London), Cara Nine (University College Cork), Samir Okasha (University of Bristol), Felix Ó Murchadha (NUI Galway), Cathal Ó Madagáin (École Normale Supérieure), Mahon O’Brien (University of Sussex), Lilian O’Brien (University College Cork), Jim O’Shea (University College Dublin), Adina Preda (University of Limerick), Don Ross (University College Cork), Alessandro Salice (University College Cork), Markus Schlosser (University College Dublin), Andrew Shorten (University of Limerick), Damien Storey (Trinity College Dublin), Nick Tosh (NUI Galway), Elmar Unnsteinsson (University College Dublin), Joel Walmsley (University College Cork), and Alexa Zellentin (University College Dublin).

(via Joel Walmsley)

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