Ireland's yes to abortion

Say it is impossible, but it happened. Ireland’s national legislature has voted to allow abortions. The provision is not open-ended. Restrictions apply, but Irish pro-life supporters think that the door has been opened, and as time passes these restrictions will be relaxed. Who knows? This has been the case elsewhere, however. When total bans against abortion have been modified, a slippery slope has been created.

Abortion in any case is gravely wrong, according to Catholic teaching. Rare is the American, at least, who does not associate Ireland and the Irish with a strict reading of Catholic teaching. Yet Irish Catholicity has dramatically changed in the past few decades. Every usual indicator of Catholic faithful practice is at an all-time low in Ireland, regular Mass attendance and vocations especially.

Still, the great majority of the Irish identify themselves as Catholics. The Church has an abundance of means available to it to make its message heard. Returning to a point already made, no one in Ireland, nor anywhere else in the world, can say that the Catholic doctrine regarding abortion is unclear.

During the debate over the bill, Irish Taoiseach, or Prime Minister, Enda Kenny gave his full support to the measure. He refers to himself as a “practicing Catholic.” Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, it should be recalled, refused to appear on the platform with Kenny when Boston College honored him at its May commencement. Nevertheless, at a Mass, the Taoiseach served as lector.

When the abortion bill came to a vote, a quite considerable majority of legislators supported it. I have done no research as to the religious affiliation of the men and women serving as Irish lawmakers, but it would be astonishing not to find that most at least also identified themselves as Catholics.

Likely, given the current state of Irish religion, not all are practicing in a conventional definition of the term. In any case, the problem again arises as to how bishops and priests should handle such politicians. Obviously, it is not only a problem in the United States. It is a problem in Ireland, and for that matter everywhere in the world where legislation occurs by democratic means, and Catholics are legislators.

Were all the members of the Irish parliament, and the Taoiseach himself, bound and determined to protect innocent human life, without exception, this bill might have been delayed. Would it have been defeated for all time? I suspect not. In Ireland, as in this country, and as in any democracy, legislators serve because the people elect them. Looking at the polls, the Irish popular mindset was such that allowing abortion was inevitable. Legislators respond to the public. Now, no vast groundswell for legalized abortion surged through the Irish population. Opposition on moral grounds was heavy. Pro-life arguments were voiced loudly and clearly, in and out of the parliament.

It must be presumed, however, that the pro-abortion side was stronger. Central to passing the bill was the claim that nothing should interfere with an individual woman’s “right” to choose to have an abortion.

This demand runs all through American debates about abortion. At about the same time as the vote in Ireland, the Texas legislature, another democratically-elected body, put tough restraints on abortion in the state. Support for these restraints properly rested on the right to life of the innocent unborn.

The innocent unborn baby is the issue. Abortion takes the baby’s life. Does anyone have the right to take another’s life? We who are pro-life cannot let the focus of the discussion shift away from what is central. It is a hard, noisy battle, but it is worth the fight.

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.