by Frank Schnittger
Wed Dec 19th, 2012 at 03:10:32 PM EST
In the 1980's and 1990's there was a lot of political turmoil in Ireland in response to the economic changes wrought by globalisation and the liberalisation of social mores in response to Ireland's membership of the EU. In what many interpreted as a rearguard action, the Roman Catholic Church and associated pressure groups sought to introduce constitutional "safeguards" to prevent future Irish Governments from legislating for abortion with very counter-productive results (from the perspective of their proponents).
The Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution (7 October 1983) sought to introduce a constitutional prohibition of abortion by giving "the unborn" an equal right to life to the mother. However, the Supreme Court, in a landmark ruling called the "X" case (1992), found that the "equal right to life" provision of the 1983 amendment meant that Irish women had the right to an abortion if a pregnant woman's life was at risk because of pregnancy, and included the risk of suicide as a legitimate risk to the life of the mother. In addition, the Supreme Court found that the Government had a duty to legislate to vindicate that right but for 20 years Irish governments have run away from that "hot potato" issue and the almost inevitable confrontation with the Catholic Church that any such legislation would entail.
Anxious to close the suicide "loophole" in the 1983 Amendment, the Government, under pressure from the Catholic bishops, introduced The Twelfth Amendment Bill (1992) to strengthen the constitutional ban on abortion further by stating that an abortion could not be procured to protect the health, rather than the life, of the woman, and specifically excluding the risk to the life of the woman from suicide as a grounds for an abortion. This was put to a referendum in November 1992 and was defeated by a resounding 65-35% margin.
However many anomalies remained. My late wife was forced to resign from her job as the administrator of the local community education centre when she refuse to remove leaflets from the community education information centre which gave advice on where further information on "options" for unwanted pregnancies could be obtained. The spectre of the police preventing pregnant women from obtaining information on abortion services abroad and from traveling to UK to have an abortion eventually resulted in two more amendments to the constitution being passed which further weakened the effect of the 1983 ban.
The Thirteenth Amendment (23 December 1992) specified that the prohibition of abortion would not limit freedom of travel in and out of the state (to have an abortion in abroad) and the Fourteenth Amendment (23 December 1992) specified that the prohibition of abortion would not limit the right to distribute information about abortion services in foreign countries. A second attempt to exclude the risk of suicide as a grounds for abortion was defeated in 2002 when the Twenty-fifth Amendment to the Constitution was rejected by the electorate.
In December 2011 the European Court of Human Rights (ABC v Ireland) ruled unanimously that Ireland's failure to implement the existing constitutional right to a lawful abortion in Ireland when a woman's life is at risk violates Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Court unanimously found that Ireland’s abortion law violates women’s human rights and that Ireland must make life-saving abortion services available.
Coincidentally with the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar (2012), an "Expert Group" reported on what actions the Government should take to legislate for the X Case judgement, and now, 20 years after the Supreme Court directed the Government to make legislative provision for abortion, the Government has finally committed to introducing legislation and regulation for abortion in 2013. Cue a histrionic reaction from the Catholic Bishops and associated pressure groups.
Rabbitte expresses 'surprise' at bishops' abortion statement
In a strongly worded statement, the church leaders encouraged "all to pray that our public representatives will be given the wisdom and courage to do what is right".
The archbishops said "public representatives must consider the profound moral questions that arise" in relation to the decision "by the Government to legislate for abortion".
Bishop of Kilmore Leo O'Reilly this morning said he was concerned the Government's plan would pave the way for a "liberal" abortion culture in the State.
"For the very first time in Ireland it would inevitably lead to the most liberal kind of abortion," he told RTÉ Morning Ireland. "This would be a radical change in the culture of life that we have had here in this country - and let's not make any mistake about it - it would be an irrevocable change, there would not be any going back."
The legislation would be the first step on the way "to a culture of death," Bishop O'Reilly said.
It looks like there is going to be another bitter battle to get any kind of provision for abortion in limited circumstances provided for in Irish law, which means that Irish doctors will continue to act in something of a legal limbo in those circumstances where the mother's health or life may be put at greater risk by the continuance of her pregnancy. Without wishing to prejudge the outcome of three inquiries into the Savita Halappanavar case, it seems at least likely that that legal uncertainty contributed to her death.
Personally I have a lot of tolerance for people of good faith having genuinely different views on the morality of abortion in various circumstances, but no tolerance at all for people trying to impose their moral or theological views on others by force of law. Consequently I have drafted the following - somewhat intemperate - Letter to the Editor for publication in Irish newspapers. I would welcome your advice on whether I should amend it or submit it as drafted.
No one seeks to deny the Catholic Bishops' right, as private citizens, to involve themselves in the debate on abortion. Furthermore, everyone would expect them to exhort their faithful to abide by Catholic teaching, and to impose any internal disciplinary processes they think appropriate for those Catholics who fail to abide by their teaching. However when they seek to enforce Catholic theology by force of secular law on all, including non-Catholics, I have a very big problem indeed. I never voted for them or submitted to their authority and I would urge everyone to resist such theocratic imperialism up to and including civil disobedience towards any such laws they successfully manage to impose.
It matters not a whit that many non-Catholics also take a dim view of abortion: They are also free to abide by and to exhort others to abide by their principles. The issue is the proper scope of secular law, and the intrusion of such law on the human rights of women whose health and life is imperiled by their pregnancy. The "unborn", particularly those in the first 24 weeks of gestation, are not recognised as persons in either state or church law, and this is for good reason: They are entirely dependent for their lives on their mother. It is for the mother, and the mother alone, to decide what risks she is prepared to take in order to bring her pregnancy to term. No one has the right to impose a pregnancy on her against her will. The gift of life is just that, a gift, to be accepted or refused, not a sentence to be imposed.
It is utterly repugnant for the Catholic Bishops to seek to label all those who disagree with them as purveyors of "a culture of death" - just as it is insulting, for the "pro-life" movement, to portray themselves as more "pro-life" than anyone else. The truth is that they are religious fanatics intent on imposing their theology on others by force of secular law when they cannot do so by force of persuasion or evangelisation. The Irish state is not, and should not be, an instrument for enforcing Catholic or (or indeed fundamentalist protestant) theology. It is a state which depends on the willing consent of the vast majority of its citizens to the laws which it enacts. We do not need another civil war on moral issues with all the strife and discord that that entails before the basic human rights of mothers are recognised.
The Bishops, too, rely on the state to enforce their right to practice their religion freely within the state. For them to interfere in the basic human rights of a pregnant women is tantamount to my campaigning to make Catholic teaching and practice illegal within the state. I expect the Catholic Bishops to have as much respect for the freedom of pregnant women to make the best choices regarding their pregnancy as I have for their right to practice their religion and to advise their faithful within the state. My respect for their right to practice their religion will decline in direct proportion to their lack of respect for the rights of pregnant women to follow their own conscience.
Has it really come to the point where people of principle and regard for human rights must oppose the very continued existence of the Catholic Church in Ireland?