The Irish Bishops and the Abortion Referendum

Conference Backs an Imperfect Plan in an Attempt to Limit Evil

DUBLIN, Ireland, DEC. 22, 2001 ( Is it licit for Catholics to vote in favor of a law that is not completely acceptable from a moral point of view? That´s the question Ireland´s bishops have had to face when the government proposed a referendum on abortion.

The episcopal conference, in a declaration published Dec. 12, answered “yes” to the question. At the same time, the document clearly states the bishops´ reservations about the proposal and presents the Catholic doctrine on this subject.

Debate over abortion in Ireland has been heated for some years. In 1983 a popular vote on the subject saw a majority against abortion, resulting in constitutional protection for unborn children. But in March 1992 the Supreme Court, in what became known as the X-case, ruled that abortion may be allowed in certain circumstances. The ruling allowed abortion in the case of a threat to the life of the mother, including a mother´s threat of suicide.

Following this decision, in November of that year, a large majority of voters once more rejected abortion, throwing out a proposed constitutional amendment which would have allowed abortion.

The problem remains, however, in the way that the Supreme Court has interpreted the right to life of the unborn, protected by Article 40.3.3 of the Irish Constitution. The bishops declare that “the judgement in that case is profoundly flawed,” referring to the 1992 decision. For this reason, Church leaders in the past have made repeated demands for a new referendum in order to overturn the Supreme Court judgment.

In their Dec. 12 document, Ireland´s bishops welcome the referendum on abortion that the government has proposed “as a significant improvement on the current unsatisfactory situation.” For that reason, they have encouraged the faithful to support the proposal when it comes up for a vote, in all likelihood early next year.

Bishop Brendan Comiskey of Ferns, in a statement made to ZENIT, explained that one of the main reasons why some doctors refrain from doing abortions under the present law is because the Irish Medical Council guidelines state that abortion is unethical. These guidelines can be changed, however, and there have been efforts during the past year to do precisely this. Hence the urgency of reforming the law by means of the referendum.

During the presentation of the statement on the referendum, Cardinal Desmond Connell of Dublin expressed his hope that pro-life groups would read it “very carefully.” The statement was agreed on unanimously by Ireland´s 35 bishops, the Irish Times reported Dec. 13.

One of the groups, Pro-Life Campaign, has declared its support for the bishops´ document. But another organization, Abortion Reform, is opposing the referendum. Ivana Bacik, speaking for this group, contended that the bishops´ position was in contradiction to the teaching that life begins at conception, the Irish Independent reported Dec. 13.

A day later the same newspaper reported on another pro-life organization, the Mother and Child Campaign, which had started a billboard campaign against the referendum. The posters carry the slogan “Don´t let them legalise experimentation on babies. Protect all human life.”

The phrase refers to the group´s fears that if the referendum is approved the door will be opened to scientific experiments using material from unborn children.

A pragmatic option?

A Dec. 13 editorial in the Irish Independent described the bishops´ position as a “pragmatic decision.” “This is a welcome change from past moral absolutism,” the editorial stated.

But, as the bishops´ document carefully explains, their support for the referendum in no way weakens moral teaching on life matters. There is in fact no doctrinal contradiction between support for the proposal to be put to voters and the Church´s teaching, as some pro-lifers fear.

The very first paragraph of the declaration made by Ireland´s 35 bishops starts off: “It is the clear and consistent teaching of the Catholic Church that human life is sacred from the moment of conception.” The bishops then go on to state: “The basic right to life is a natural and moral right which does not depend on legal or political recognition for its value.”

The document explains why the current state of affairs is unsatisfactory and that for this reason the referendum is to be welcomed. “We believe that this is an opportunity that should not be lost,” state the bishops, referring to the possibility of overturning the 1992 Supreme Court decision.

The document adds, however, that in the bishops´ view, even if the proposal is approved, there is a need for further legal reforms in order to protect unborn life, especially given what is now developing in the area of cloning and research using human embryos.

The bishops acknowledge that some people feel unsatisfied by the referendum, since it strengthens legal protection for the unborn only after implantation in the womb but does not fully defend the right to life from the moment of conception.

In fact the British pro-life group Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) highlighted this as one of the defects in the referendum proposal. The definition of abortion as the intentional destruction of human life after its implantation in the womb leaves the door open to stem cell research and cloning and would also permit the use of the morning-after pill, the group contended.

SPUC noted that another defect stems from the proposed test for legal abortion. If approved, the law would allow abortion where there is a “real and substantial risk of loss of the woman´s life other than by self-destruction.” This has the advantage of overturning the 1992 X-case, but it leaves undefined the crucial terms “real and substantial.”

Nevertheless, Ireland´s bishops maintain “that the new proposal represents a considerable improvement on the existing situation, and that it does not in itself deny or devalue the worth and dignity of the human embryo prior to implantation.”

In explaining why the episcopal conference supports the referendum, the bishops´ document refers Catholics to what John Paul II states in No. 73 of his encyclical “The Gospel of Life.”

The Pope starts this section with the declaration: “Abortion and euthanasia are thus crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize.” John Paul II then explains that not only are Catholics not obliged to follow such laws, but “there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection.”

The encyclical then goes on to ask what happens when a legislative vote comes about when a law is proposed that would limit the number of abortions, thus replacing a more permissive regime. The new law would still not outlaw abortion. Is it licit then to vote in favor of the measure?

John Paul II affirms that in such a case, “when it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law,” a parliamentarian could licitly support the proposal seeking to reduce the existing law´s harm. “This does not in fact represent an illicit cooperation with an unjust law, but rather a legitimate and proper attempt to limit its evil aspects,” observes the Pope.

The Irish bishops are aware that the government proposals are imperfect and that much remains to be done to protect the unborn even if the referendum is approved. But approval would be a move in the right direction. If the Church were to hold out for something 100% acceptable, the great risk is that it would end up with nothing. For this reason the Pope approves supporting imperfect improvements, without ever forgetting that life is always to be defended.

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