Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Church's abortion broadside a challenge to democracy

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.

The manner 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 western world.

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.

That statement 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 liberal minority.

X case 

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.

The most 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 mother.

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.

In 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 mother. 

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.

The 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 judgment. 

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.

Dangerous strategy 

In 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 interested parties.

In advance of that the church launched a broadside objecting to the legislation before the process has even begun. 

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 outcome. 

The elected representatives of the people simply have to win the confrontation to preserve the democratic legitimacy of the State.

The 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.

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