Can compassion 
justify voting ‘yes’?

Can compassion 
justify voting ‘yes’?
A noble end cannot justify an evil means, otherwise morality would be a simple matter of having good intentions, writes Dr John Murray


Many people, including practising Catholics, might be motivated by compassion for women in crisis pregnancy situations to vote ‘yes’ in the upcoming abortion referendum. Such women and their difficulties feature often in the media and form an important part of the repeal campaigns. Their stories pull at our heart strings and seem to make voting ‘yes’ the Christian thing to do. But is this actually the case?

Despite what the ‘yes’ campaigners often seem to imply, a ‘yes’ vote is not in itself a vote for abortion restricted to the ‘hard cases’, such as rape or incest situations. In fact, a ‘yes’ vote is for removing the State’s, and Irish society’s, acknowledgement of the equal right to life of the unborn and its commitment to respect, defend and vindicate that right as far as practicable (I’m using the very terms of article 40.3.3), and this is morally problematic in itself.

But a yes vote is also for inserting into that section of the Constitution concerned with fundamental rights an enabling clause that will give the present Irish government, and subsequent governments, the right to legislate for abortion in whatever ways they choose.

And that enabling is even worse than repeal (although the two are closely connected, of course, as repeal is absolutely necessary for the further enabling of abortion).


We know from what the present Government has clearly stated that it intends to introduce abortion on demand in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and what can only be described as virtual abortion on demand thereafter (seeing as it will allow abortion in cases of risk to the woman’s mental health). And who knows what future governments might do if the Irish public give them an abortion mandate provided by a yes majority?

So a Catholic considering voting ‘yes’ would have to be willing that widespread abortions take place, or at least be willing that widespread abortions be facilitated by law and public policy.

Even if it is reluctant willing, it is still willing, it is still freely and personally saying ‘yes’. Can compassion for the hard cases, for women in very difficult situations, justify this kind of willing? The answer is no. A noble end cannot justify an evil means. Otherwise, morality would be a simple matter of having good intentions, never mind what it is that we actually choose to do or directly support others doing.

But this cannot be so, whether in morality or in politics. Good intentions cannot justify willing injustices, especially serious injustices. To say otherwise renders morality and law totally subjective.

And that is what abortion is: a serious injustice. In itself, whether for hard cases or indeed for any case, the deliberate choice to kill or get rid of an innocent unborn human being is directly violent and destructive.

It is inherently unfair and discriminatory. It cannot be anything other than an action that offends God and his love. It contradicts the Gospel of life. It directs the people involved away from God and heaven.

It cannot be part of any Catholic’s following of Jesus, part of one’s discipleship. This is not a matter of mere legality or legalism; it is a matter of truth and salvation. Choosing to support abortion is objectively a sin, a mortal sin. (I’m not speaking here of personal culpability, which is a different matter, but of the objective nature of the action, which is what conscience needs to know in order to make a good choice.)

No amount of sincere compassion can change the nature of abortion and make it morally or politically acceptable, even in the small number of hard cases, not to mention the proportionately much larger number of other cases. (Nor can the fact that some abortions already take place in Ireland, or that women will buy abortion pills anyway, nor that women are going to England to get abortions, and so on.)


Voting in this referendum is a moral issue of great importance. Catholics need to know what is at stake, and that means a direct and honest focus on abortion as an attack on the beautiful innocent life of the unborn child.

Catholics need to be reminded of what is already an integral part of the Catholic faith and right reason (the natural law), namely, that supporting abortion is a serious wrong in itself, an injustice, an objective sin that moves my soul away from God and his kingdom.

But don’t we support abortion already by allowing women to travel abroad for abortions? This is not necessarily support for abortion, but a matter of justified toleration. We are not morally obligated to set up a police state in Ireland to stop women from travelling abroad to get abortions: this would be a futile, counterproductive and unjust act.

It too would be an example of a noble motive/end (to stop abortions abroad) failing to justify a means that is itself wrong. Catholics do not believe that an action can be justified by our motive only: we must always take account of the nature of the action itself. So when I’m deciding how to vote in the Referendum, I need to take account of the nature of what my vote enables or blocks.

As voting in this referendum concerns morality, the will and the conscience, it is directly a matter that the clergy should address in homilies and other settings. And they may allow and encourage lay people to speak to congregations and parishes too. Not only may this be allowed, but it is a duty.

If directly supporting abortion harms my soul as well as violating the right to life of the innocent, then it is required that good men, including our clergy and lay people, speak up against this evil.

Dr John Murray lectures in theology in DCU; he is chair of The Iona Institute, Dublin; he is also involved in a new, small pro-life group, see: