DUBLIN — A controversy has erupted in Ireland over the distribution by Cura, Ireland's official Catholic pregnancy counseling agency, of information that would help pregnant women obtain abortions.
Four women who disclosed Cura's actions were dismissed from the organization in May, but last month the Irish bishops overruled Cura's administration and ordered a halt to distribution of the pamphlet that contained the information in question. But concerns have now arisen that the Irish government may withdraw its funding of Cura because of that decision.
In early May, four volunteer pregnancy counselors in County Donegal wrote a letter in the weekly Irish Catholic newspaper publicly revealing Cura's new policy of distributing the Crisis Pregnancy Agency's “Positive Options” leaflet.
Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin asked Cura for “more detailed information” about its approach, and put the controversy on the agenda of the national bishops conference meeting in June. The Crisis Pregnancy Agency was established by the Irish government in 2001 in response to concerns about the number of Irish women traveling to Britain for abortions. While legal in Ireland in some circumstances, abortion is not practiced because of the ethical guidelines of the country's Medical Council. However, about 7,000 Irish women travel abroad for abortions annually, and it is legal to provide information on how to obtain a foreign abortion.
Cura receives $785,000 annually from the Crisis Pregnancy Agency, and, as part of this funding, agreed to provide clients wanting abortions with “Positive Options.” The pamphlet lists agencies that provide abortion referral information, including the Irish Family Planning Association, the Irish affiliate of International Planned Parenthood Federation, the world's largest private abortion provider.
In a response in the Irish Catholic, Louise Graham, Cura's national coordinator, defended the Cura policy on the basis that it had received advice from an unnamed moral theologian that the policy was morally acceptable. Graham said that, far from facilitating abortion, Cura was providing a woman confronted with a crisis pregnancy with “an opportunity to further consider her options and the likelihood that she will make a fully informed decision.”
Others strenuously disagreed with that stance. Jesuit Father Seamus Murphy, a lecturer in moral philosophy at the Milltown Institute of Theology, dismissed Cura's defense, saying that the key issue is the morality of the actions of counselors who make use of the pamphlet.
Giving a woman who wanted an abortion the leaflet would be “unquestionably morally wrong,” Father Murphy said. “It would amount to formal cooperation with serious wrongdoing.”
Father Murphy added that morality “lies most of all in our actions, as the encyclical Veritatis Splendor makes clear. The pregnancy counselors’ moral responsibility for their own actions takes precedence over helping others with theirs.”
The controversy deepened at the end of May when it was revealed that the national executive committee of Cura had expelled the four counselors, claiming that the women — who between them have 70 years of service in the agency — had broken Cura's confidentiality agreement by publicly commenting about its policies.
Following its three-day meeting last month, the Irish bishops’ conference requested that Cura discontinue distribution of the Crisis Pregnancy Agency's pamphlet because it implied that abortion is a “positive option,” and because seven of the nine agencies listed in the leaflet provide addresses of British abortion clinics.
However, Bishop John Fleming of Killala, the president of Cura and a member of its national executive committee, said at the bishops’ press conference that distribution of the information was “not just a black-and-white matter,” and that the policy of giving it out was aimed at slowing down the decision-making process so that women could make better decisions.
The bishops did not request the reinstatement of the four volunteers, and instead asked those involved to “seek ways of achieving healing and reconciliation.” A bishops’ conference spokesman could not confirm what such a process might entail and Cura did not return phone calls from the Register seeking to discuss the matter.
The spokesman for the dismissed volunteers, Seamus Farren, said that the women had not yet been contacted by Cura to commence the reconciliation process. Instead, Farren said, the situation had worsened in Donegal with another six volunteers leaving the agency, necessitating the closure of Cura's office there.
“The women will not return until there is a clear commitment to a pro-life ethos,” Farren said, adding “this will mean the resignation of the national executive of Cura. How can anyone have confidence in them when they have made a fundamental moral error like this?”
Farren also raised serious questions about the dismissal. He said that the four women met with Graham in October 2004 and had written to Bishop Fleming in January 2005 voicing their concerns with the policy, but received no response from either party until their letter of dismissal at the end of May.
“It lacks accountability and due process — if they were employed a dismissal process would have to be engaged in, and there is no reason why the same process shouldn't apply here,” Farren said.
The Diocese of Killala declined to comment on the matter when contacted by the Register.
Due to the nature of the agreement between Cura and the Crisis Pregnancy Agency, the net effect of last month's policy change is that Cura may lose its state funding. Crisis Pregnancy Agency officials sought an “urgent meeting” with Cura to discuss the matter, Associated Press reported June 16, and the agency's Executive Director Olive Braiden said that the policy change would “cause a problem, and we would have to discuss it.”
Ireland's Pro-Life Campaign has expressed concern about the Crisis Pregnancy Agency's role in the controversy. Pro-Life Campaign spokesman John Smyth said “the agency has produced a number of ideologically motivated surveys and reports, culminating in its chair, Olive Braiden, calling for abortion legislation in Ireland.”
Added Smyth, “If we are serious about reducing the abortion rate, all government agencies should be obliged to abide by principles that respect the dignity and value of every human life.”
Patrick Kenny writes from Dublin.