American pro-life forces may be poised to lose one of their strongest allies in the international campaign against abortion: The Republic of Ireland.
Over the past 45 years, while one Western nation after another has capitulated to the push for legalized abortion, Ireland has remained solidly pro-life. Besides Malta, it remains the only nation in Europe that prohibits the intentional taking of an unborn child’s life under any circumstances.
That prohibition was guaranteed in 1983 through an amendment to the Irish constitution — an amendment drafted specifically to prevent the Irish courts from doing what the U.S. Supreme Court did in Roe v. Wade, legalizing abortion by judicial fiat. The amendment acknowledged the right to life of the unborn, and directed doctors to protect the life of both mother and child.
Although those protections were brought into question in 1992, when the Irish Supreme Court ruled in Attorney General v. X, known commonly as the X case, that mothers whose lives were threatened by carrying a pregnancy to term did have a right to an abortion, the ruling had little practical effect. Women simply were permitted to travel outside Ireland to obtain an abortion, and the Irish Medical Council, which licenses Ireland’s doctors, continued to prohibit medical professionals from performing abortions.
Over the past 20 years, no legislative action has been taken to change that, primarily because no party has been willing to assume the political risk.
“Although the pro-choice media has been softening people up, Ireland still remains overwhelmingly pro-life,” said Patrick Carr, a bioethics consultant with the Irish pro-life organization Family and Life. “The government knew any legislation would unleash a huge reaction.”
The tides are turning
All that, however, may be about to change.
In December 2010, the European Court of Human Rights found in ABC v. Ireland that Ireland had violated its constitution by failing to provide abortion for women under the circumstances delineated by the X case. It also tasked the Irish government with taking action to remedy the situation.
Although the court’s judgment, at least arguably, is not binding, the Irish government’s ruling coalition immediately assembled an expert group of medical and legal professionals to devise a list of options for the legislature. The group’s findings are expected later this summer.
It’s possible those findings could suggest ways for Ireland to avoid legalizing abortion — such as a referendum to close the loophole left by the X case — but it’s not probable.
“Those of us who want to safeguard human life are probably in the worst position we’ve been in for 20 years,” said Carr.
The reason pro-life groups in Ireland are concerned stems partly from the process by which the members of the expert group were selected. Much of it went on behind closed doors, and the group includes several prominent advocates for abortion rights.
Even more concerning are recent remarks of Dr. James Reilly, Ireland’s minister for health.
In a speech before the Irish legislature in April, Reilly lamented that “no action has been taken [on the issues raised in the X case] by six successive governments.”
He went on to promise: “This will not be the seventh.”
More recently, as the Irish Catholic reported in its July 5 edition, Reilly wrote last month to members of the senior party in the current ruling coalition, Fine Gael, saying Ireland “must” legislate to provide “effective and accessible procedures whereby pregnant women can establish whether or not they are entitled to a lawful abortion.
“It sounds as if no matter what happens, legislation is envisioned that will facilitate the practice of abortion,” said Caroline Simons, legal consultant for Ireland’s Pro-Life Campaign. “All the signals say they’re going to push hard on this.”
Observers of the unfolding situation in both Ireland and the United States are quick to point out that Fine Gael’s seeming reversal and the current momentum to legislate for abortion aren’t simply a reaction to the European Court ruling.
“This is the last round of the boxing match, not the first,” said Patrick Fagan, a senior fellow at the Family Research Council, noting that Planned Parenthood and its allies have spent decades laying the groundwork for legalized abortion in Ireland.
That groundwork includes the ABC case itself, which was funded by the Irish branch of Planned Parenthood International and tried by Julie Kay, an American attorney working on behalf of the U.S. Center for Reproductive Rights.
It also has included outreach to Irish doctors, who until now have been a bulwark against abortion in Ireland with their insistence on an interpretation of the Hippocratic Oath that precludes the intentional taking of a human life, born or unborn.
Carr told OSV that one example of this is the U.S. group Medical Students for Choice, which recently established chapters at two Irish medical colleges. Among other activities, the group provides Irish medical students with a stipend that allows them to travel to England and observe abortionists at work.
The global cost
Through it all, one main argument has been used to justify allowing abortion in Ireland: It’s sometimes necessary to save the life of the mother.
Simons, also a governor of Europe’s largest maternity hospital, said, “Doctors in Ireland don’t let mothers die. Women receive whatever treatment they require during the pregnancy, even if an unintended consequence of that treatment is the death of the unborn child. But doctors also do whatever they can to preserve the life of the child.”
In fact, Ireland has long been considered the world leader in both regards, setting the gold standard in maternal mortality rates and devising innovative treatments for difficult pregnancies. Women in the United States are seven times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than a woman in Ireland.
That is one of the reasons why legalizing abortion in Ireland matters so much to abortion rights forces in the West.
“One of the most popular arguments for abortion is to say no matter how reluctant you might be about abortion, sometimes it’s necessary to save the life of the mother,” said Carr. “At present, when that argument is made, people can point to Ireland and show that’s simply not the case. If Ireland goes, so does that response.”
Irish pro-life activists recognize, Simons said, “Once you diminish the respect for life at any stage or under any circumstances, the underlying respect starts to go.”
No action will likely be taken by the legislature until October, so pro-life groups in Ireland are hopeful they have time to make it clear the Irish people remain solidly pro-life. They’ve kept busy this summer, holding rallies, lobbying their legislators and conducting massive mailing campaigns.
“If push comes to shove we’ll be looking for another referendum,” said Simons. “The X case has been discredited and gives no just cause for legalizing abortion. The government has no mandate to act on any other basis. Anything more cannot be decided unless it’s brought to the vote of the people.”
Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.