Letter: Honest doubts about the meaning of life

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The Independent Online
Sir: Archbishop Habgood ("The meaning of life - and death", 20 April) has performed a useful service in opening up a discussion on the meaning of life. Differing views have emerged and this debate is important to clinicians. The possibility that the fertilised ovum is not as yet an individual dates back to the teaching of St Thomas Aquinas.

David Jones and Pita Enriquez Harris (letter, 24 April) indicate that many of those who assist in the formulation of Roman Catholic teaching are physicians and embryologists. There are, however, conflicting views and dissenting Roman Catholic experts have defined alternative positions.

To the practicing clinician the anencephalic infant survives only on the automatic reflexes of its spinal cord and brain stem. It lacks sensibility and it lacks the cerebral gray matter which conditions human behaviour and understanding. To say that this is a "whole" infant from conception is irrational. Likewise the spontaneous division of a single fertilised ovum into two monozygotic twins raises problems. Has one personality been split into two?

In the past, Humanae Vitae rejected the medical viewpoint. At least one branch of the Guild of Sts Luke, Cosmas and Damien (a Roman Catholic ethical group of doctors) adjourned sine die. In 1983, seven professors of paediatrics and many paediatricians publicly opposed the constitutional amendment which made it unconstitutional to amend the 1870 abortion law in Ireland. It is important that in a matter of such significance it should be conceded that there is room for honest doubt. The correspondence confirms that there are differing views on the basic questions, and while this is so, there is a basis for non-directive counselling of families.

Yours sincerely,

O. CONOR WARD

Professor Emeritus

University College

Dublin

25 April

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