How Ireland Traveled From a Pro-Life Ethos to Legalized Abortion

NEWS ANALYSIS: The path to Ireland’s first abortion law is a tale of political betrayal, bullying and abuse of conscience.

Young Irish pro-lifers keep vigil outside Ireland's Dáil (Parliament) on July 12, the day it passed a bill legalizing abortion.
Young Irish pro-lifers keep vigil outside Ireland's Dáil (Parliament) on July 12, the day it passed a bill legalizing abortion. (photo: Pro-Life Campaign)

DUBLIN, Ireland — In 1983, the Irish people voted overwhelmingly to amend their Constitution to explicitly acknowledge the right to life of the unborn.

Thirty years later, a law allowing state-funded abortion for threatened suicide, without time limits, has just passed.

Critics predict that the bill, which was passed by Ireland’s Dáil (Parliament) on July 12 and by the Seanad (Senate) on July 23, will allow easy abortion access to any woman who claims her pregnancy has led to suicidal thoughts. The Irish Bishops' Conference condemned the legislation as “a dramatic and morally unacceptable change to Irish law.”

According to Cora Sherlock, deputy chair of Ireland’s Pro-Life Campaign, there is “nothing restrictive about what the bill will introduce, nothing reassuring for those with a conscientious objection. Most importantly of all, there is nothing lifesaving about its measures. It is life-ending, not lifesaving.”

The path from a firm pro-life ethos to Ireland’s first abortion law has involved several court judgments and four referenda. But, ultimately, it is a tale of political betrayal, bullying and abuse of conscience.

The political betrayal originates from the 2011 general election. The usually conservative Fine Gael party, at that time in opposition, was concerned that abortion was becoming an election issue, and it actively courted pro-life voters. In the week before the vote, it issued a statement confirming that “Fine Gael opposes the legalization of abortion.” And according to the Pro-Life Campaign, Fine Gael consistently requested that this pro-life promise be communicated to pro-life voters throughout Ireland.


Coalition Bargain

Following the election, Fine Gael entered a coalition government with the secularist Labour Party. It was Eamon Gilmore, leader of the Labour Party, who was responsible for the decision to close the Irish Embassy to the Holy See in 2011, and it is the Labour Party that is pushing for the Church to concede control of half of its Catholic schools to the state.

As part of its coalition deal with the Labour Party, Fine Gael abandoned its pro-life promise, and the government introduced the euphemistically entitled “Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill” earlier this spring.

The abortion bill is ostensibly an attempt to legislate for a 1992 Supreme Court judgment, known as “the X Case,” that interpreted the 1983 pro-life constitutional amendment as allowing abortion where there is a real and substantial risk to the life of a woman. Amongst other measures, the bill allows for abortion in cases of threatened suicide if, in the “reasonable opinion” of two psychiatrists and one obstetrician, the threat of suicide can only be avoided by the destruction of unborn life.

Controversially, the legislation also imposes a duty on specified institutions to perform such abortions. There are no opt-outs for Catholic hospitals.

The use of psychiatrists as gatekeepers for abortion generated significant disquiet within the profession. Voicing the concerns of many colleagues, Dr. Jacqueline Montwill, a consultant psychiatrist, asked during a television debate, “How is a psychiatrist going to say that a woman is not eligible for an abortion under this legislation? No psychiatrist can tell you which patient is going to commit suicide. Psychiatrists are not going to be able to not certify this woman as being suicidal; she will therefore get her abortion.”


Conscience vs. Career

Perhaps the most dramatic aspect of the parliamentary debate on the bill was the clash between conscience and career. Fine Gael imposed a strict three line whip on members, meaning that opposing the abortion bill would result in dismissal from the parliamentary party, having to move offices to a different building and being removed from committees and other positions of influence. Those removed from the party could also lose speaking rights in the Dáil and even be prevented from running for the Fine Gael party in the next election.

In a culture in which party loyalty is intergenerational, the loss of party endorsement could spell the end of a political career. Despite initial reports that up to 35 members of Fine Gael had reservations about the legislation, only seven actually opposed it, five in the Dáil and two in the Seanad.

But some of those who voted for the bill still had severe qualms of conscience. Michelle Mulherin, a Fine Gael TD (Member of Parliament) who shares the same constituency (district) with Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny, expressed reservations about allowing abortion for threatened suicide. But she ultimately supported the bill, saying, “I am now faced with either supporting the bill or being booted out of the party, my party, and I am not going to allow myself to be booted out, so I am supporting this legislation."

The most high-profile Fine Gael rebel is Lucinda Creighton. At just 33, she was already minister for European affairs and prepped for higher office. In a remarkable 27-minute speech in the Dáil, she articulated an intelligent pro-life philosophy and outlined how she once favored legal abortion but had changed her mind when she stepped outside of what she termed the Irish political “groupthink.”

Having failed to win support for several pro-life amendments to the abortion bill, she voted against the government. She was immediately expelled from the Fine Gael and had to resign her role as a government minister. She has remained a trenchant critic of the handling of the abortion debate, stating on her personal website that “elected members of our Parliament were, in many instances, coerced and cajoled into voting for legislation they clearly considered to be faulty and against their better judgment. ... In my investigations I could not find any other democratic country on this planet that forces people to vote against their conscience. Ireland has the dubious distinction of standing alone in its denial of conscience.”

In a further twist, Creighton’s husband, Sen. Paul Bradford, also opposed the legislation in the Seanad and was also expelled from the Fine Gael.

The final hours of debate and voting on the bill in the Dáil were marked by other controversies. Instead of adjourning for the night, the government decided to keep debate going in a marathon session lasting until 5am, in order to “get rid of it tonight,” as Enda Kenny put it. The Dáil bar remained open, with several TDs drinking alcohol throughout the night. In one incident in the Dáil chamber, a Fine Gael TD (who strongly supported the abortion bill) grabbed a female colleague and pulled her into his lap, holding her for several seconds before releasing her. He then appeared to slap her buttocks when she stood up. His actions were fully visible to other TDs and were also caught on camera. Fine Gael initially dismissed the incident as mere “horseplay.”


Continuing Battle

With the bill now through the parliamentary system, it will proceed to President Michael Higgins for signing. But this may not be the end of the drama. The president has the discretion to refer the bill to the Supreme Court to test its constitutionality. A number of high-profile lawyers have expressed doubts that the court will approve it, if such a review took place. If the court found it to be unconstitutional, it will not enter into law and will cause an embarrassing crisis for the Fine Gael and Enda Kenny.

Before the abortion bill is even signed, the pro-abortion lobby is pushing ahead with its agenda. The Labour Party has promised to work towards holding a referendum to allow for abortion in cases of rape and incest or where babies have terminal illnesses (euphemistically called “fatal fetal abnormalities”).

The pro-life movement remains determined to resist further efforts to liberalize abortion and to succeed in repealing the new bill. Commenting in an email following the passage of the legislation through the Dáil, Caroline Simons of the Pro-Life Campaign said that “thousands of people across Ireland feel a deep sadness at what happened, but also a determined motivation to turn this bad situation around. The pro-life movement is mobilized and growing. We have seen the biggest-ever gatherings of pro-life people in recent weeks. We now move into a new phase of activity, where we will work to restore full constitutional protection for unborn children and a legal order that operates to discourage abortion, not promote it. That work starts today.”

Whatever happens with Enda Kenny’s abortion bill, the pro-life battle in Ireland is far from over.

Register correspondent Patrick Kenny writes from Dublin.