Ex-Irish Chief’s Abortion Call Is Only Her Latest Bombshell
Former president, now U.N. human rights head, calls it 'healthier, more honest'
BY Cian Molloy
November 22-28, 1998 Issue | Posted 11/22/98 at 2:00 PM
DUBLIN, Ireland—Former President Mary Robinson has shocked pro-lifers by calling for abortion to be legalized in this country.
The call comes in Mary Robinson, The Authorized Biography , a new book by journalists Olivia O'Leary and Helen Burke. It reveals many details about the complex and ambivalent relationship Ireland's first female president has with the Church and with Catholic teaching.
But it is her stance on abortion that has shocked Catholics the most.
“I would make abortion available in this country,” the book quotes Robinson as saying. “It would be healthier and more mature about ourselves, more honest. Even for a country that regrets and feels a great sense of loss at the termination of life, it would be a preferable solution. It would be a kind of coming to terms with the problem, instead of exporting it and moralizing about it.”
Abortion is illegal in Ireland, but hundreds of Irish women travel to Britain each year to terminate their pregnancies.
Already, a former presidential chaplain to Mary Robinson, Father Dominic Johnson OSB, has staged his own “silent protest” over her call. The Benedictine prior of Glenstal Abbey in County Limerick kept a photograph of himself and Robinson in his office as a souvenir of his brief time as her chaplain. But he has since removed the photograph and destroyed the negative. He said, “Mrs. Robinson's office at present is United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. What a contradiction in terms! Unborn children are human beings with the basic human right to life. The commissioner would deny them their human right to life.”
Caroline Simmons, legal spokesman for the Pro-Life Campaign in Dublin, said Robinson is “now seeking to legalize the most notorious abuse of human rights in the Western world.” Simmons described her reaction to Robinson's call as one of “shock and deep concern.”
“This is tragic,” she added. “At the very time when people of all shades of opinion on abortion were coming together to seek positive alternatives, we have a call for the legalization of abortion.”
Maurice Colgan of the pro-life group Youth Defense said: “We have been saying for years that this woman had her own agenda, and this is no surprise to us. What is shocking is that as U.N. Commissioner for Human Rights she is going around criticizing governments for human rights abuses, yet she would deny the fundamental right to life to the unborn child.”
The authorized biography also reveals that Robinson believes her presence as president probably influenced the outcome of the constitutional referendum on divorce in 1995. Before that ballot, which was carried by a slim majority, Robinson gave a television interview where she supported the pro-divorce side. Ger Casey, a member of the No Divorce Campaign at the time, said: “We said then that it was an inappropriate intervention by the president in that campaign. Now she has admitted that she did indeed influence the outcome of the divorce referendum.”
The chairman of the No Divorce Campaign, Des Hanafin, said he is considering making a legal challenge to the referendum's result following Robinson's admission.
Robinson was born Mary Bourke into a prosperous family with a traditional Catholic background, in Ballina, County Mayo, in 1944. She attended a Catholic boarding school but began to question the Church while at a finishing school in Paris in the early 1960s. In the book she is quoted as saying, “I was very angry at a lot of what the Church stood for at that time, at how religion could become power-play and oppressive, undermining the true sense of spirituality and the true ethical norms and standards that are at the highest reaches of the human mind.”
After Paris, Robinson studied law at Trinity College. Because it is a Protestant school, her father had to obtain permission from Dubin Archbishop John Charles McQuaid before she could study there. At Trinity, Robinson met her future husband, Nick Robinson. Her family objected to the engagement, because Nick Robinson was not seeking a traditional career: He wanted to become a cartoonist. Her family did not attend her wedding.
She was elected as a senator to Ireland's upper house, Seanad. In 1971, according to her biographers, “holy war” broke out between Robinson and the Irish hierarchy when she unsuccessfully introduced a bill to legalize contraception. By this stage she had reconciled with her family, but relations were endangered, the book says, when Robinson was denounced at her parents' local church in Ballina. Perhaps naively, not understanding the full weight of the Church's objection to artificial contraception, Robinson traveled to Dundalk to visit William Cardinal Conway in a bid to have him “accept the integrity” of her position. When he refused, Robinson branded him “a bully of the Church.”
The biographers, describing how Archbishop McQuaid outlined his objections to Robinson's contraceptive proposal, make a claim that many would find absurd: “If he had stuck an effigy of Mary Robinson on every church door and invited people to stick pins in it, he could hardly have targeted her more specifically.”
It was a time of great hurt—the hate mail that was sent to the Bourke family may have further increased Robinson's antipathy to elements within the Church. She continued practicing as a barrister and in 1986, she took a case to the European Court of Human Rights which abolished the “illegitimacy” status for children born out of wedlock.
Her liberal credentials were firmly established by 1990, when she was asked by the Labor Party to stand as their candidate in the presidential election. She won the contest in November 1990 with an overwhelming majority—her main opponent had been discredited earlier in the campaign when it became known that he had lied to the Irish public.
Unlike the United States, the office of president in Ireland carries little executive power and is seen as a mainly ceremonial post. But Robinson played politics like no other president before her.
Many Catholics said she demeaned the office and used it for her own ends, particularly in securing her U.N. human rights post. Almost every time she visited New York, she visited the U.N. headquarters, and the United Nations—its potential, its failures, and its future—were a frequent theme in her speeches and interviews. She had a troubled relationship with the Irish government, particularly as she went against its wishes when meeting controversial figures such as Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Fein, the political wing of Northern Ireland's largest terrorist organization, the Irish Republican Army.
One of her last acts as president in 1997 was a visit to Rome to address a U.N. conference on International Women's Day, during which she met the Pope in the Vatican. It proved to be one of her more controversial meetings. It was claimed that the ad hoc nature of Robinson's visit showed disrespect to the pontiff and that she broke Vatican protocol by not being properly dressed during the papal audience.
In the biography, Robinson is quoted as saying: “When I recognized that, I was delighted that I had taken the decision that I had. Far from feeling awkward about it, I felt this was what I was about.” Father David O'Hanlon, who was in Rome at the time and who provoked controversy in Ireland by describing the president's gesture as “cheap,” said the biography has reinforced his view of Robinson's actions.
“There was much made of the fact that no offense was taken in the Vatican, but that does not mean offense was not intended,” Father O'Hanlon told the Register. “She did not have to wear a veil; Vatican protocol does not require it. She could have steered the middle ground as Hillary Clinton and Nancy Reagan did, not wearing veils, but suitably dressed. Mary Robinson's actions were calculated to make a point.... She claimed to promote equality and pluralism, but she exploited her visit to Rome in a way that was offensive to the Catholic community—it was an action that was non-pluralistic and non-inclusive.”
In a graver matter, Robinson's view that abortion be legalized goes against Church teaching, set out most recently in the papal encyclical Evangelium Vitae, which says Catholics must oppose the legalization of direct abortion under all circumstances.
The one area where she and Church agencies share the most in common is in the area of development and other assistance to the Third World. She is credited with bringing the Somalian famine in 1992 to the attention of the international community, but it was a priest who helped her do this. At a briefing with Irish aid agencies, she asked “What can I do to help?” to which Father Aengus Finucane of the relief agency Concern, replied, “Why don't you go there yourself, President?”
While her work highlighting famine in Africa helped secure her U.N. post, there is no doubt that the aid agencies benefited from her interest. Indeed, there was competition among them for her attention. According to the biography: “Justin Kilcullen of Trocaire [the Irish hierarchy's overseas aid agency] admits cheerfully that he created a bit of a scene in the Foreign Affairs Department in 1994 when he heard Mary was going to visit the camps run by other agencies at the borders of Rwanda. ‘I went in banging the table,’ says Kilcullen. ‘I said, She's going to Zaire where GOAL is. She is going to Tanzania where Concern is. She has to go to Rwanda itself where Trocaire is.’”
It is in this area that Mary Robinson made the biggest impact. It is thanks to her, working in tandem with Irish aid agencies, most of them Catholic, that the governmental post of Minister for Development was recreated and that Irish overseas aid has increased.
Cian Molloy writes from Dublin, Ireland.
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