INSIDE POLITICS: The Catholic church appears intent on a confrontation with the democratically elected politicians of this State going by recent statements in advance of the Oireachtas committee hearings on the abortion issue which begin on Tuesday.
in which papal nuncio Charles Brown used the occasion of world peace day
Mass in Mount Merrion church, Co Dublin, on New Year’s Day to lecture
politicians and dignitaries, from the President down, about abortion
exemplified the assertive tone.
The mystifying aspect of the
church’s strategy is it has chosen to take such an aggressive stand
against a Government and parliament which is shaping up to do little
more than codify one of the most restrictive abortion regimes in the
Leading church figures have either failed to grasp
what the Government is attempting to do or they have chosen to wilfully
misrepresent the position.
The accusation by Bishop Leo O’Reilly of
Kilmore that the decision to legislate was the “first step on the road
to a culture of death” was particularly ill-judged.
caused considerable anger among politicians, particularly those who
hold conservative views on abortion.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny spoke for many
of them when he flatly rejected the bishop’s claim and spelled out why
the Oireachtas had a duty to act.
Of course the Catholic Church is
perfectly entitled to hold strong views on abortion and to express them
in whatever way it deems fit.
However, all it has succeeded in doing to
date is to insult those politicians who broadly agree with its position
while fuelling the distaste with which it is regarded by a growing
What is actually
being proposed by the Government is not freely available abortion, as
church statements imply, but a framework of legislation and regulation
to give legal standing to current medical practice in which abortion is
permitted if the life of a woman is in danger.
contentious aspect of the regime will be how it deals with a threat of
suicide by a pregnant woman. This has to be dealt with once and for all
because of the Supreme Court judgment in the X case in 1992 which
accepted that a threat of suicide was a threat to the life of the
Since then governments have twice sought to eliminate the
threat of suicide as grounds for abortion by putting the issue to the
people in a referendum. However, both in 1992 and in 2002 the people
rejected a constitutional amendment designed to clarify the issue.
1992 voters rejected the 12th amendment to the Constitution that
specified it should be lawful to terminate the life of the unborn where
“there is an illness or disorder of the mother giving rise to a real or
substantive risk to her life, not being the risk of self-destruction”.
This amendment was opposed for very different reasons by the Catholic
Church on the one hand and liberals on the other.
The then taoiseach,
Albert Reynolds, a devout Catholic, was astounded at the opposition of
the church, having received an assurance from at least one senior bishop
that the amendment was acceptable.
The net effect of the people’s
decision was to reinforce the Supreme Court judgment that abortion was
legal in circumstances in which a mother’s life was in danger and that
included the threat of suicide.
Then, in 2002, after a detailed
consideration by a Constitution Review Group, the publication of a Green
Paper, consideration by an all-party committee on the Constitution and
the publication of legislation, the issue was again put to the people.
The amendment again sought to prohibit abortion except in cases where
there was a threat to the life, as distinct from the health, of the
As in 1992 it was specified that such a threat to a woman’s life
did not include self-destruction.
This time around the church
authorities backed the amendment but it was opposed by a number of
anti-abortion groups as well as liberal campaigners who opposed the
attempt to rule out the threat of suicide as a risk to a mother’s life.
voters again rejected the amendment, leaving the issue in a legal
limbo. In practice, abortion has been permitted in the extremely limited
number of cases where a woman’s life is at risk.
The issue came
back on to the agenda in December 2010, when the European Court of Human
Rights found that Ireland should give legal standing to the X case
The findings of the court, which is an institution of the
Council of Europe, and not the EU as is often mistakenly believed, are
not legally binding but they do have some moral force.
response to the court decision the Government established an expert
group to advise it.
After considering the issue for more than a year,
the group reported last November. It suggested three options, with the
most comprehensive one being legislation plus regulation to give effect
to the X case judgment.
The Government decided to follow that
course of action and designing the legal framework will begin next week
when the Oireachtas committee begins hearing the views of experts and
In advance of that the church launched a
broadside objecting to the legislation before the process has even
It is a dangerous strategy that amounts to a direct challenge to
the authority of the electorate and the Dáil and it can only have one
The elected representatives of the people simply have to win
the confrontation to preserve the democratic legitimacy of the State.
Catholic Church does have an important principle to defend in relation
to the sanctity of human life but its ill-considered approach could well
have the effect of undermining its message.
The divisive debate it is
attempting to generate could ultimately pave the way for a liberal
abortion regime in the future.