Each of us will soon have the opportunity to vote on whether or not to remove an amendment to the Irish Constitution that defends the right to life of unborn children.
There is no point in beating around the bush: a vote to remove this protection from unborn children will be a vote for abortion. It is not possible to vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment and to consider oneself to be pro-life.
Already, doctors in Irish hospitals are permitted to act to save the life of a mother even if a regrettable consequence is that her unborn child will die.
Savita Halappanavar died, tragically, due to the late diagnosis of a septic miscarriage as three independent reviews of her case have shown. She did not die because of the Eighth Amendment. If the correct diagnosis had been made in time doctors could have acted to save her life even if this would have resulted in her baby’s death.
To the surprise and indeed shock of many citizens across the political spectrum, the Government has decided to delete the Eighth Amendment entirely rather than amend it to allow for certain restricted categories of abortion. A vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment is therefore a vote for widespread abortion.
Its deletion will mean that the issue of abortion will be taken out of our hands as the people of this country and placed in to the hands of politicians present and future. The matter of whether a 12-week limit will apply, as proposed, or one of 24 weeks as is the current situation in Britain, could, for instance, be a ‘bargaining chip’ between political parties as they try to form a future government.
There’s no rowing back from a repeal of the Eighth Amendment. As voters, we must reckon with unrestricted abortion as the eventual outcome if the amendment is repealed.
Committed Catholics must therefore face the fact that they are being asked by the Irish Government to vote in favour of something that fundamentally contradicts a core belief they hold as Christ’s disciples, namely, that human life is sacred and inviolable from the moment of conception.
Therefore, committed Catholics who are considering voting yes or deliberately abstaining in the referendum need to ask themselves what this means in terms of their personal relationship with God, the author of human life.
Catholic politicians abroad often have to stand up and be counted when it comes to abortion. Here in Ireland, Lucinda Creighton and her colleagues did just that in 2013 when she opposed the Protection of Life in Pregnancy Act. She sacrificed her ministerial career because she judged that the legislation she was being asked to support did not sufficiently recognise that two human lives, that of the mother but also of the baby, needed protection.
Seldom, however, do Catholics find themselves in the same situation as their elected Catholic representatives. Yet that is the situation in which Irish Catholics now find themselves. In the forthcoming referendum we are the legislators.
Some, even some Catholics, will argue that the issue of how to vote in the forthcoming referendum is not clear-cut.
For instance, they will argue that the Church didn’t always teach that human life is present from the moment of conception.
However, Christians have always held that the intentional killing of innocent human beings is wrong (‘Thou shalt not kill’). Today, science leaves no doubt that human life begins at conception. The position of those who are pro-life is more consistent with the evidence of modern science than is that of those who are pro-abortion.
Some argue that abortion should be permitted, on compassionate grounds, where the baby has been conceived through rape or incest, or where there is medical certainty that the baby will die shortly after birth.
Compassion in such tragic circumstances is both vital and essential. However, abortion is, as Pope Francis has said, ‘false compassion.’ It compounds and prolongs the pain. The deliberate killing of an innocent human life inevitably diminishes everyone involved. It can add to the sense of violation in the case of rape and incest. It can increase the sense of loss in the case of fatal fetal abnormality.
Our personal beliefs
Some will claim, as Micheál Martin has, that “we must each question how far we are willing to go to impose our personal beliefs on others”.
This point needs careful consideration. When we vote in a democracy where every other eligible citizen also has a vote we are not ‘imposing’ our beliefs. We are exercising the same democratic right everyone else has to take their personal beliefs into account in deciding on the laws that govern us.
When we vote, whether as citizens or as politicians, we should always do so in accordance with our personal beliefs. Otherwise, privately we believe one thing, yet in our vote, which is in effect a public statement of what we believe, we are stating something else. We are being hypocritical.
Of course, personal beliefs can change, as seems to be the case with politicians who have said that their views on abortion have ‘evolved’. Their personal belief now seems to be that the decision to have an abortion should be a matter solely for those who find themselves in such situations, at least for the first twelve weeks after conception.
They are entitled to this belief but it is seriously at odds with justice and with truth. This is because from the moment of conception there are always two human lives in need of support and protection as far as is humanly possible, even in tragic circumstances such as rape, incest or fatal fetal abnormalities. Support and protection should include protection of the law.
The direct and intentional killing of an innocent human being is always wrong. This is true regardless of how the baby is conceived. The perpetrator of rape or of incest is, of course, guilty of a crime, but an unborn baby resulting from rape or incest is not and has not forfeited the right to life.
It is also true regardless of the health of the unborn baby. The Church’s teaching is consistent here, as Bishop Kevin Doran has rightly pointed out. If as a society we permit the killing of weak and vulnerable unborn babies because they may not live long after birth we have crossed a line that could see the intentional killing of other weak and vulnerable people such as the elderly. The non-voluntary killing of the sick and elderly is already a reality in other liberal countries.
A lot more than we might think is at stake in the Eighth Amendment. The conviction that we shouldn’t let our personal beliefs influence how we vote is the opposite of what Catholics believe. Catholics hold that beliefs, though personal, can never be private. Christians have convictions about what serves human dignity and the common good, and, as Pope Francis has said, have a responsibility to speak of these even if they are unpalatable (Evangelii Gaudium, n. 65).
Christians are required to “help build a more just and peaceful world through morally acceptable means, so that the weak and vulnerable are protected and human rights and dignity are defended” (Familiaris Consortio, 20).
The Eighth Amendment protects the weakest and most vulnerable in our society and that is why committed Catholics ought not support its repeal.