DUBLIN — The Irish government this week brought before parliament legislation that would legalize abortion on demand, effectively bringing the protection of unborn life in the once pro-life country to a tragic conclusion.
The legislation, the first of its kind in Ireland, follows a referendum in May, where less than half of the electorate, but almost two-thirds of those who turned out, voted to remove the country’s constitutional protection for the unborn.
Irish President Michael Higgins signed the abortion referendum bill into law on Sept. 18, formalizing the repeal of the Irish Constitution’s Eighth Amendment, which had recognized the equal right to life of the unborn and the mother.
The legislation introduced and debated Thursday in the lower house of parliament (the Dáil) would allow abortion for any reason up to 12 weeks and, on the grounds of “a risk” of serious harm to the physical or mental health of the mother, up to “viability.” Viability is considered around 24 weeks.
The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, on the other hand, only permits abortion where a “real and substantial risk” exists, and, even then, a pregnancy can only be ended in cases where the life, as distinct from the health, of the mother is considered to be in danger. The Protection of Life During Pregnany Act remains in effect, but is now challenged by the new legislation.
The new legislation, which the Irish government promised to introduce if the country voted to repeal the Eighth Amendment, also means that abortion would be allowed for at-risk babies judged likely to die either before, or — in a recent change — up to 28 days after, birth and for healthy babies in cases where there was an assessment of “an immediate risk ... of serious harm” to the physical or mental health of the mother.
In these cases, there would be no gestational limits, and the babies could be legally killed right up until their “complete emergence ... from the body of the woman,” which appears to raise the specter of partial-birth abortion in a country where direct intentional abortion was completely illegal until very recently.
The bill also means that “termination of pregnancy” will be defined for the first time here as “a medical procedure which is intended to end the life of the fetus.” In the past in Ireland, the death of the baby was treated as an unwanted consequence of the ending of pregnancy but never an end in itself.
“This is the opposite to how many of us view health care,” explained Dr. Andrew O’Regan, a member of the Irish Doctors for Life organization. “For the first time, we are being asked to use our skills as doctors to harm instead of to heal,” he told the Register.
With seemingly little prospect of the bill being defeated or even amended significantly in a pro-life direction, attention has turned recently to the conscientious-objection provision in the proposed legislation.
“Unfortunately, the minister [for health] has failed to adequately protect the conscience rights of doctors,” O’Regan told the Register. “Under the bill, doctors who do not wish to carry out an abortion will be forced to make a referral for an abortion, thereby making them complicit in the procedure,” he said.
“It’s a macabre subversion of this vocation to redefine health care to include the deliberate ending of human life,” pharmacist James Carr told the Register. “This is particularly heinous when the lives being ended are those of the weakest and most vulnerable.”
Along with doctors and nurses, pharmacists are also left exposed to legal action by this legislation.
“It may be too late to stop this state-sponsored, taxpayer-funded atrocity being visited on Irish society,” said Carr, “but it’s surely a very meager concession to ask that doctors, pharmacists and nurses with conscientious objection to abortion should be accommodated.”
He added, “Members of the Irish government seem determined to vindictively coerce health care professionals into a choice between violating their integrity and continuing in the careers they love.”
“The minister for health [Simon Harris] could have engaged with GPs,” he said. “He could have asked GPs on the ground how they felt about a GP-led service and freedom of conscience. Instead, he is imposing abortion and disregarding the genuine concerns of health professionals. Today, over 200 doctors signed a letter asking that our academic body, the ICGP [Irish College of General Practitioners], would represent us fairly on these matters.”
The doctors’ concerns are well founded, according to Father Vincent Twomey, professor emeritus of moral theology at St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth. He told the Register that the government’s abortion bill “doesn’t take the notion of conscience seriously.”
He said, “You can’t do wrong or cooperate in doing something that is wrong, and you cannot ask someone else to cooperate in doing something that you know yourself you shouldn’t do.”
“‘Conscience is the power of the powerless,’ as Ratzinger said and also Vaclav Havel said, and it takes enormous courage and the price that one pays is also quite high. It’s a share in the cross, but it is the only thing that will redeem the world,” Father Twomey told the Register.
Cora Sherlock, the deputy chairwoman and spokeswoman of the Pro Life Campaign in Ireland, put it differently: “Minister Harris is advocating a piece of legislation that effectively devotes the resources of the state to persecuting doctors whose only offense is to obey their conscience and observe the Hippocratic Oath to ‘do no harm.’”
Health Minister Simon Harris has said that abortion should be a service provided in the Irish healthcare system, which is goverment-funded and free to citizens.
The wasting of state resources is also a concern for the economist Ray Kinsella.
“My own primary objection to the government’s proposed abortion regime relates to the denial of human rights that it entails and its negative impact on women, said Kinsella, a former professor of banking and financial services and health care at the University College Dublin Michael Smurfit Graduate School of Business.
“Even so, that does not preclude addressing the very significant economic burden which the government’s proposed legislation would impose on our overstretched health service,” he said.
Independent legislator Mattie McGrath of Tipperary was in no doubt about the gravity of the test facing the country at the moment. He told the Register, “The abortion bill that we are due to ‘debate’ this week represents a moral, political and humanitarian catastrophe.”
“In our desire to rush toward and embrace the shallowest currents of modernity, we have abandoned any authentic vision of human rights,” he said. “It is a bill that ignores fundamental freedoms, annihilates the first principles of medicine and levies upon the conscience and purse of a nation unjust taxes to support it.”
Another pro-life politician, independent Sen. Rónán Mullen of Galway, is asking supporters to canvas representatives of the lower house and senators to amend the abortion legislation.
He said that he was very concerned by the claim that there is a public expectation that the Irish Parliament will legislate for abortion according to the plans the government outlined before the referendum and that this is supposed to be because the majority of people voted “Yes” to repealing the Eighth Amendment.
“That is a false claim,” he said. “A majority of people voted to give the [Irish Parliament] the freedom to legislate for abortion as it sees fit. It is true that people were made aware of the government’s proposed model of legislation. But [representatives of the lower house] and senators have full freedom. We still have the right and duty to vote for or against abortion legislation according to our individual consciences.”
Speaking to the Register a few months ago, Bishop Alphonsus Cullinan of Waterford and Lismore said, “Isn’t it strange that on one side people who voted ‘Yes’ are being lauded for following their conscience and now we are trying to coerce people into doing something against their conscience?”
Carolyn O’Meara of the Irish pro-life crisis-pregnancy group Gianna Care described the bill as “frightening” and told the Register that “even discussing this legislation is just so terrifying for the future of unborn children and their mothers.” But “whatever they do,” she said, “they won’t stop us helping.”
Dónal O’Sullivan-Latchford is based in Dublin, Ireland.