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A SOMBRE ANNIVERSARY

Fr Billy Swan



Dear friends. Today, 25th May 2023, marks the fifth anniversary of the referendum that repealed the 8th Amendment to the Constitution and led to the legalisation of abortion in Ireland. For all of us, no matter where you stand on the abortion debate or how you voted, we all have a moral duty to reflect on the consequences of the change in the law that came into effect after the referendum. Did the promises and assurances of the pro-choice side hold firm or have the predictions made by the pro-life side materialize? What is the truth and are we prepared to go to where the truth takes us? If we are really interested in a mature and honest debate on this topic of extreme importance, then we must be prepared to seek the whole truth about the issue and to acknowledge certain truths that may be inconvenient or difficult to face.


Last week, the Irish bishops issued a statement on the fifth anniversary of repeal. It was entitled: ‘Abortion: Changing the Narrative’ that spelled out the serious questions that remain on the issue of abortion law in Ireland and that challenge us to tell the full story about abortion while proclaiming once again the value and dignity of all human life, born and unborn. The need to tell the full story is increasingly necessary given that both the government and the media can no longer be trusted to shine a light on all areas of the issue. Here are just some truths that we must consider and not ignore in the ongoing debate:


• Many of the people who campaigned to retain the Eighth Amendment were women. Many of these were members of the Church but some were not. It is untrue to assume all women supported repeal and untrue to assume that to be against abortion is Catholic thing. It is also untrue to suggest that those against abortion are anti-women. Many argued and still argue, and with good reason, that abortion fails women, fails family, fails our future. Many people are anti-abortion because they are pro-woman. They are against abortion because they care deeply for women, children and families.


• The recent government review suggests scrapping the three-day waiting period as if it was an obstacle and inconvenient barrier that needs to be removed immediately. The truth is that every year, 1,000 lives have been saved because of it. Since 2019 (when the law became effective), this means that we have about 4,000 more Irish citizens who would not have survived had this 3-day wait been absent. The World Health Organisation says there is no need for this and other restrictions to be in place. Seriously? The 4,000 people still alive today thanks to that restriction, might beg to differ.


• As the Pro-Life campaign and the Church predicted, repeal has led to a surge in the numbers of abortions in Ireland. Before repeal, about 4,000 abortions took place outside the country per year. Now the number of Irish abortions has risen to 8,500 – more than double. Most media reportage of this statistic fails to acknowledge the tragedy that abortion is with the staggering loss of life. In fact, in interviews following the publication of the government review findings, Minister of Heath Stephen Donnelly quoted the figure of 8,500 terminations as satisfying evidence of how well the abortion law is working. We recall that the Taoiseach at the time, assured the electorate that abortion would be ‘safe, legal and rare’. Voters were told in 2018 that if they voted for repeal, safeguards and restrictions would be in place with many reluctant Yes voters trusting these political promises. So where then is the accountability five years on? It is becoming increasingly clear in politics and in the media that the numbers of abortions don’t matter. The government review fails to even mention the increase in numbers as a concern. It’s only focus was on how effectively the new abortion law was working in doing what it was supposed to do, namely to become deadly and efficient at ending life.


• Since repeal and because of repeal, the Rotonda Hospital recently revealed that 95% of babies diagnosed with Down Syndrome in the womb are now aborted. The truth is that we now have State sponsored eugenics – a horrific development that is conveniently ignored. How can we credibly talk about equal rights for people with disabilities when this shocking discrimination takes place at the beginning of their lives? This too was predicted to happen in the run up to the referendum five years ago, should the 8th Amendment be repealed. We were told that this would not happen. And now it has.


• In a recent article in the Wexford People Newspaper (David Looby, ‘Anti-Abortion Campaign sees Irish Church go Right into the Past,’ 17th May 2023), the author suggests that most of the guilt and shame around abortion ‘emanated from antiquated church dogma’. Yet he fails to engage with that dogma and teaching. Do people feel guilt and shame only because the Church tells them to feel that way? Is it possible that people feel guilty because of their actions and therefore conscientiously object to doing what they consider to be wrong? Many doctors and health care workers indeed have conscientious objections to facilitating abortion because it goes against their conscience. They know that abortion is not like a tooth extraction – it involves the ending of human life. It is a moral and ethical issue that presses on their human conscience that urges them to protect life and not destroy it.


The HSE review identifies conscientious objection as a major factor in the refusal of hospital consultants to provide abortion. Their recommendation is frightening – to convince people to carry out abortions and to penalise professionals and hospitals who don’t comply. The review says the health system should ‘positively discriminate in favour of persons willing to provide termination of pregnancy services’. As the bishops’ statement points out: ‘This is a shocking proposal. Freedom of conscience is a fundamental human right and cannot simply be over-ridden in this way’.


• The the Church cares deeply about women and families in crisis pregnancies. She knows how complex situations can be and how difficult circumstances arise. Through her agencies and support of groups like ‘Gianna Care’, ‘Every Life Counts’, ‘Rachel’s Vineyard’ and other charities, members of the Church dedicate themselves to the support and care of families, women and the children, born and unborn. These wonderful groups and the people involved offer positive alternatives to the tragedy of abortion and help create the conditions that make life possible and give it a chance. In the words of the bishops’ statement: ‘The mechanics of Ireland’s abortion regime have been reviewed but the human experience of loss and loneliness remains largely cloaked from public scrutiny’.

The bishops also offer words of encouragement to people on how we can offer support to women in a crisis pregnancy – to walk the walk with them and their child and not just to talk in a moralizing way:


‘Our casual comments or reactions can be encouraging and supportive, or negative and dismissive, when a family member, friend or girlfriend tells us she is pregnant. Over the years many mothers in crisis have felt supported - sometimes at the very last minute - by a sensitive offer of practical help to find a way out of their crisis, other than by ending the life of their unborn baby. Find out about pro-life support groups for women in crisis pregnancy; for parents of children with life-limiting conditions; and those which provide spiritual support for people following abortion’.


These are just some of the truths that impose themselves upon us as we look back after five years since the repeal of the 8th Amendment. Facing up to all of them all will be a key part of helping Ireland and our society to move forward and not backwards when it comes to the value we place on human life and consequently on human rights. This concern for life and human rights trumps any desire to be modern or progressive. Any society that disregards human life and rights is not progressive but heading for disaster. Despite present challenges, the Church cannot endorse laws that seek to normalise the ending of human life as part of health care. It must continue to be a voice for the voiceless while caring for women and families in crisis pregnancies.

The issue of abortion in Ireland five years after repeal is far more complex than many of the simplistic narratives on offer today. Ireland might have moved on, but the moral and ethical issues have not gone away.

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