Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Colum Kenny: Bishops are using hyperbole to obscure clear choices

If they can't stand the heat, they should get out of the kitchen. 

Politicians complaining about the level of verbal abuse that they are experiencing from pro-choice and anti-abortion lobbyists are pathetic.

Fine Gael's Minister of State Lucinda Creighton claims that she has received vicious personal and threatening correspondence from both pro-life and pro-choice groups. She should give it to the gardai and get on with governing.

Creighton wants "a rational debate", and reportedly believes that respect for people's opinions on abortion has been lacking so far. This is fudge. Years have passed since people voted in a referendum and the Supreme Court made it clear what was needed. What has been lacking since then has been decisive government.

Another Fine Gael Minister of State, Michael Ring, last week reportedly got an email accusing him of murdering his future grandchildren. If a single, extreme email is enough to make national news, and to influence how deputies vote, then it is a reflection on the political system.

The decision by senior Catholic bishops to go high profile on abortion over the Christmas break has unnerved some Dail deputies, who for years have funked the abortion problem.

Faced now with a choice, some politicians will again choose the back door to England.

It would be nice to think that Fianna Fail and other Opposition parties are not as easily spooked by extremists as some Fine Gael deputies seem to be. But Fianna Fail has yet to prove that it is not lurking in the long grass itching to return to its old opportunistic form. And its stand on abortion legislation will be revealing in that context.

Deputies are far too easily influenced by lobbying. They need to govern more in the national interest, and pay attention to what most citizens think when it comes to a choice between letting a woman die or permitting a regrettable abortion.

Abortion is an appalling and depressing issue, especially when the public already has more than enough to bother it. The issue only surfaced because one woman died horribly in Galway. Politicians cannot continue to turn a blind eye.

And senior churchmen are not helping matters by using language that is seldom less than self-righteous.

But Irish politicians are well-paid to make hard decisions, and if they think that this is bad then they should have lived through the Civil War. In fact, if they are not getting more hassle on issues other than abortion then it is only because people find the Dail irrelevant.

Do deputies really think that the unemployed, emigrants, people in negative equity and those who cannot get proper social services or bank loans feel less strongly about such issues than they do about the abortion debate?

The return to form by senior Catholic bishops has been simplistic . This is a church hierarchy that pays lip service to broader spiritual needs but is constantly unable to reform itself so as to engage convincingly with people who are alienated from its church.

When it comes to what Cardinal Sean Brady called in his Christmas message "the need for meaning and purpose in life – elements which are absolutely essential to human happiness and fulfilment," his decision to use that message as a political platform was counterproductive.

Brady is generally regarded as a decent man, but one whose authority is well past is best-before date.

At least Brady did not go as far as the Bishop of Kilmore, Leo O'Reilly, who claimed in Christmas week that passing a law to regulate the constitutional right to abortion where a mother's life is in danger would be "an irrevocable change" and the "first step on the road to a culture of death".

But Brady has upped the ante for politicians by stating that any abortion legislation is "a defining moment regarding Ireland's attitude to respect and care for human life" and by implying that any such law would amount to "the deliberate destruction of another human life". Is he claiming that no pregnancy ever creates a real risk of suicide or death by other means?

And even the Pope's ambassador to Ireland joined in last week. Papal Nuncio Archbishop Charles Brown said that 2013 would be an important one "for the sanctity of human life in Ireland and in other nations as well".

His reference to other nations is a reminder of how the Vatican has long regarded Ireland. It was a breeding ground for missionaries, made more fertile by the suppression of contraception, and a Catholic bulwark among English-speaking states that were mainly Protestant.

The bishops use hyperbole to obscure clear choices. Should we not allow abortion in Ireland where a woman's life is really at risk? Should we never allow a woman who is brutally raped or raped by an abuser to terminate her pregnancy? Do we provide a compassionate option when the embryo is unviable or so seriously damaged that it has no prospect of a self-conscious life?

The Catholic Church has never entirely ruled out the taking of life. There are circumstances in cases of war and self-defence where it justifies it.

In the United States, on Archbishop Charles Brown's home turf, there has been no sustained onslaught by bishops on those who support the death sentence, no threat that politicians who support it will be excommunicated because of their attitude towards human life.

Spinning is part of any heated debate, as both sides grapple with complexity. Some of those who argue for abortion facilities in Ireland would indeed go much further than others and in effect provide abortion on demand. But if human life begins at conception, then no person has an unqualified right to choose to end it.

This was possibly what the papal nuncio was getting at when he quoted a convoluted statement by Pope Benedict: "Neither is it just to introduce surreptitiously into legislation false rights or freedoms which, on the basis of a reductive and relativistic view of human beings and clever use of ambiguous expressions aimed at promoting a supposed right to abortion and euthanasia, pose a threat to the fundamental right to life."

But the absolutist language of Catholic bishops is itself ambiguous, cloaking as they do in pious simplicities a complex choice between life and death.

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