Saturday night last saw a great turn out at the fourth annual pro-life dinner, Ceiliuradh Cois Life, organised by Senator Ronan Mullen and the Pro Life Campaign. Over 750 people gathered together for food and music and to hear former Taoiseach John Bruton speak.
In some ways, it was a difficult gathering for the pro-life community, the first since the referendum. While we acclimatise to inhabiting an Ireland that many of us scarcely recognise, the reality is that we are just playing catch up with other western nations. For some decades, those nations have convinced themselves that the barbaric killing of infants is what women need to be free.
The US has been dealing with the reality of the abortion industry since it was legalised on a federal basis in Roe vs Wade in 1973 and for the last 45 years pro-life organisations there have been working tirelessly to fight for the rights of the most vulnerable members of the human family.
In his speech, Mr Bruton alluded to the example offered by pro-life organisations in other countries. He reminded us that once the constitutional protection is deleted, the law will no longer be a deterrent and that other ways of avoiding abortions must be considered. A more creative approach is needed to reach out to women who find themselves in a difficult position during pregnancy.
Mr Bruton urged us, as a society, to become more family-friendly, and mentioned specifically the housing crisis and the taxation system. He said that it was “perverse” that the child tax allowance was abolished many years ago, while the tax allowance or tax credit for adults living in the same household has been steadily increased.
Earlier the same day, Minister Simon Harris commented on Mr Bruton’s speech, stating “let’s not try to recommence a campaign here or re-begin the debate”.
While Harris said that he had a mandate to legislate, given that he had published a detailed general scheme for a bill in advance of the referendum, the referendum exit polls would suggest that there was a great deal of confusion about what was being tabled in the legislation. In any case, in a parliamentary system it is the job of parliament to debate legislation that comes before it fully and under public scrutiny so that the people can understand what it is that is being legislated for.
Mr Bruton pointed out that, in the wake of the referendum, Mr Harris did not seem to display either the balance or attentiveness to other points of view that one would like to see in someone who will be deciding on the detailed content of the Termination of Pregnancy Bill.
Minister Harris, in answer to Mr Bruton, begged that the debate not be re-opened, but in truth, there were many elements of the legislation that were not debated at all.
For instance, as Mr Bruton pointed out, the issues surrounding freedom of conscience are significant. While there is a – limited – recognition of the freedom of conscience of doctors and nurses, who may refuse to carry out an abortion, there is no such freedom for other hospital workers who may in effect be “aiding and abetting” abortions.
Neither is the freedom of conscience of doctors respected when they are required – by law – to refer or transfer a woman to another doctor, who will carry out the abortion. As Mr Bruton pointed out, this too is tantamount to “aiding and abetting”.
I would hazard a guess that very few voters are aware of the difficulties the Government’s proposals raise for doctors and others in the field of medicine. John Bruton described his fear that doctors who are known to oppose abortion will be targeted under this clause by people wishing to “catch them out” and prosecute them because of their religious or human rights beliefs. He alluded to this having happened in other areas, where there are conflicting beliefs within a population.
Perhaps the most profound issue highlighted was the lack of a value system underpinning this brave, new, pro-choice world. Mr Bruton pointed out that the pro-life approach has a coherent value system centred around the idea of respect for humanity and human life, and on the dignity and equality of each human person. By contrast, he said, there was no engagement, by the proponents of repeal, with the question of when life begins, with when a human life should be recognised as a person, and hence when it ought to acquire human rights.
What is most tragic, of course, is that the people have – wittingly or unwittingly – voted for this value-free system. The right to life, which ought to sit at the pinnacle of the hierarchy of rights, has been undermined by the recent referendum result. Because the right to life has ceased to be a universal principle and has instead become dependent and contingent, to be altered according to the wishes of the electorate, there is no longer a principle that states that no human being may be denied the right to life. And if the right to life can be denied, what other rights are safe?
In 1977 the American jurist Ronald Dworkin wrote about how individual rights are political trumps held by individuals. He said that “individuals have rights when, for some reason, a collective goal is not a sufficient justification for denying them what they wish, as individuals, to have or to do, or not a sufficient justification for imposing some loss or injury upon them”.
We as a people, have just authorised the opposite: the presumptive wish of the individual not to be killed has now been subjugated to the collective wish to have the freedom – or choice – to kill.
The challenge for the pro-life movement from now on is to make the child in the womb visible, and recognised as someone whose life has a value, a purpose, and a dignity, no matter what anyone else may think.