Ireland deserves admiration for the dignified and intelligent manner in which it has debated the abortion issue. It has not forgotten the first principle – the sacredness of all human life; it is prepared to scrutinise church teaching for its realism and humanity; and it is aware of the strengths and weaknesses on both sides of the argument. Of course there are passions on both sides, and the issues are certainly serious enough to justify them.
The referendum next week will decide whether or not to repeal the eighth amendment to the Republic of Ireland’s constitution, which places equal weight in law on the life both of a mother and of her unborn child. This constitutional clause prevents the Irish parliament from even considering any proposal to allow direct abortion, whatever the circumstances.
What may yet tip opinion against repeal is the fact that the government is preparing legislation for when and if the amendment is repealed, and the expectation is that that would allow abortion on demand up to the 12th week of pregnancy. But this is not on the ballot paper. Without some such law, even after repeal abortion would remain illegal with very few exceptions.
The bishops have stood a little back from the fray, despite the fact that the eighth amendment clearly reflects Catholic teaching. They are aware that the moral authority of the Church has been tainted by repeated child abuse scandals. They may also have recognised that the Catholic moral landscape is shifting once more, and, as Pope Francis has pointed out, the reality of people’s complex lives cannot always be boiled down to a simple textbook formula.
After acknowledging that “our defence of the innocent unborn needs to be clear, firm and passionate, for at stake is the dignity of a human life”, Francis observes: “Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection” (Gaudete et Exsultate, 101).
Both the “right to life of the unborn” and the “right to choose”, juxtaposed in this Irish debate, are relatively modern concepts. Before about 1970 the Catholic emphasis would have been on the gravity of the sin of abortion rather than on the rights of the foetus, which were almost forgotten; while the insistence on choice reflects the contemporary swing towards individualism, consumerism and personal autonomy. That right to personal freedom cannot be unlimited. A right to an abortion obligates society at large to provide one, without questions or conditions. That is asking a lot – even the more liberal abortion law in England, Wales and Scotland does not go that far.
The Irish instinct is for the sacredness of life, but also for sincere compassion towards any woman who has been put in an impossible position by an unexpected and unwanted pregnancy. They may be difficult to reconcile, but we should hesitate before dismissing either perspective as un-Christian.