Pastoral letter from the first Anglican bishop to come out in favor of eliminating the Irish constitution’s anti-abortion clause.
The Bishop of Cashel, Ferns and Ossory’s April Pastoral Letter of 28 March 2018
I begin my thoughts this month by emphasising that I am writing what follows in a personal capacity. I want to contribute candidly to discussion around the diocese, within and beyond these pages. I am but one disciple, one citizen, one voter, and I respect those who when confronted with a binary choice on a ballot paper will reach a different conclusion to myself. I am offering these comments now because last month I indicated that I would do so. I realise that next month the editor intends to publish further articles concerning the referendum with a range of voices and perspectives. It is good that there will be such healthy debate within the diocese between now and voting day.
As a relatively new voter in 1983, I cycled a long distance to make sure I reached my polling station before closing time in order to register my vote against the unfortunately-named pro-life amendment. I have never liked the thought of easily-obtained or widespread abortion. But after the divisive referendum campaign I was determined to have my say, knowing full well that I would end up on the ‘losing’ side. In making my choice I felt affirmed by several thoughtful voices within the Church of Ireland. They emphasised, amongst other things:
- the lack of necessity for the amendment given the legal situation at the time
- the unsuitability of attempting to handle so complex an issue by means of a blunt phrase in the Constitution
- the hypocrisy involved in giving the impression that Ireland was supremely virtuous in this matter, a pretence that could only be maintained because of the escape route to Britain for so many women in crisis pregnancies whose stories at the time were rarely told. Hypocrisy, I felt, was something about which the gospel had a good deal to say
- the problematical nature of the very text of the Eighth Amendment. What would be meant by the word ‘unborn’? Could it possibly be argued that a newly-fertilised egg shared utterly equal rights with the woman within whose body it lay? Would this supposed equality of rights not lead to tragic human situations ending up in the Supreme Court, and to uncertainty amongst medical practitioners as to when they could intervene when a mother was at risk?
All this was said in 1983. And in my view the Church of Ireland at the time offered society some truly prophetic voices. Here one has to mention the name of the late Dean Victor Griffin. Much of what he feared and prophesied came to pass less than a decade later in the now infamous X case, involving an attempt by the State to prevent a teenager allegedly pregnant as a result of rape from travelling to England for a termination. The Supreme Court, in a remarkable but pragmatic piece of reasoning, permitted her to travel. It ruled that abortion might be licit under the Constitution where there was danger to the life as opposed to the health of the mother. It also took the view that the risk of suicide might constitute a real risk to the mother’s life.
This judgment both displayed the miserable inappropriateness of such matters reaching the Supreme Court, and also determined the parameters of much of the convoluted debate that has surrounded abortion in Ireland ever since. Those who had campaigned to achieve the insertion of ‘the Eighth’ lamented that the Supreme Court had interpreted it in the case of ‘X’ to mean the opposite of what they thought it meant. Given this, and other similar legal experiences, I find it ironic that those who continue to defend the amendment have failed to see how truly unsatisfactory its words have proved to be, even to those who share their views.
Matters have moved on at this stage … medical ethics become ever more complex, society has radically changed, women tell stories of their own painful experiences that would have been silenced in 1983, the online availability of pills capable of bringing about miscarriage has transformed the contours of the debate. It is now time for a new generation of voters to revisit this issue. They will of course be influenced in their thinking by the work of both the Citizens’ Assembly and the subsequent all – party Oireachtas committee. As someone who spoke on behalf of the Church of Ireland at the Citizens’ Assembly last year, I was impressed … far more than I expected to be … by the quality of discussion there. The members digested a huge amount of expert wisdom, and were disciplined about appealing to their more emotional side. It was, I suspect, not easy for many of them, or for many parliamentarians either, to accept how many genuinely grey areas there are in this debate, how difficult it would be to legislate for some of them, how the way forward may need to involve a more radical approach than might at first have been envisaged.
I for one gasped when I first heard the specific proposal that the Oireachtas might, if so enabled, legislate for terminations up to twelve weeks. I certainly accept that many people have considerable difficulty with this – indeed given the present composition of the Dáil such legislation might not be passed at all at this time. However, it is the duty of legislators to look at the whole picture, to make laws for a society capable of facing the truth about itself. The decisions of the Oireachtas do not change the teachings of the Church of Ireland or of any other church. Even within Anglicanism there would be some significant ethical thinkers who would regard termination in the early weeks of pregnancy, if clinically guided, as differing in moral character from later terminations. And as a parent I always ask myself … If my young adult daughter was in a crisis pregnancy, had been offered as much support as possible, and was well aware of the ethical aspects of her situation but still concluded that she wished to obtain abortifacients online, would I want her doing so in the absence of medical supervision? That today is the tough question at the bottom of it all.
I will be voting for Repeal because I believe, as I did in 1983, that the text of the Eighth is incorrigibly flawed. While I may be anxious about what may happen next, I believe sufficiently in parliamentary democracy to hand the matter to legislators and indeed to trust them – that is their duty and their vocation. As I said at the Citizens’ Assembly, it would be tragic if the cynicism that often seems (largely unfairly) to surround politicians made us less than mindful of the privilege of living in a parliamentary democracy. It has always been the practice of the Church of Ireland to pray unceasingly for our legislators – in the coming months they may need that prayer perhaps more than ever.