Irish Bishops’ Overseas Aid Agency Is Rocked By Abortion Controversy

DUBLIN, Ireland—A row has broken out in Ireland about the role of Catholic overseas aid agencies and the promotion of the Gospel of Life. The row began before Christmas at the launch of TrÛcaire's 1998 Development Review. The event should have been an uncontroversial, even celebratory occasion, as the occasion was one of a series of events marking the 25th anniversary of TrÛcaire, the Irish hierarchy's overseas aid agency and a strategic partner of the American organization Cathaid.

But the politician chosen to launch the review, Gay Mitchell, foreign affairs spokesman for Fine Gael, the main opposition party, used the occasion to declare that he was pro-life and to call on his party to become “unapologetically pro-life.”

Abortion was illegal in Ireland under Article 40 of the Irish Constitution until the Supreme Court made a ruling in the ‘X’ case which involved a schoolgirl who became pregnant after being raped. The Supreme Court ruled that the article which reads ‘The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right’, allowed for abortion when a pregnant woman threatened to commit suicide if the pregnancy continued. Since that ruling in March 1992, pro-lifers have been calling for a new constitutional referendum on abortion, but the present government is proposing to deal with the matter through legislation—raising the fear that they may allow limited abortion in the state for the first time.

At the TrÛcaire launch, Mitchell said: “As a Christian Democrat, I believe that the hallmark of a successful Christian Democratic Party should be that it must be unapologetically pro-life. In the new party alignments now taking place, this is where Fine Gael, my own party should renew its credentials.” Fine Gael have refused to comment on Mitchell's call .

However, more controversially, Mitchell said at the launch: “It is time that direct abortion was confronted as an issue which runs counter to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

“I hope that organizations like TrÛcaire, which are much respected and are calm and constructive in their deliberations, will not leave the ownership of this issue to extreme organizations on either side. It is time that organizations like TrÛcaire, which are informed by Gospel values, deliberated on this important human rights issue.” In response, TrÛcaire said it was committed to the teachings of the Catholic Church and re-issued its policy statement on population and development.

That policy statement concludes: “In line with the norms of the Catholic Church, TrÛcaire does not support programs which promote the use of artificial contraceptives. A fortiori, we do not support the use of abortion as an instrument of family planning. This does not imply any opposition to the notion of family planning. As we have indicated above, TrÛcaire works with the poorest people of the world, irrespective of color, culture, and creed. At all times, our work is based on the notion of partnership with these peoples and never includes any attempt to impose our views, religious or otherwise, on those with whom we work.”

A TrÛcaire spokesman added: “We are not involved in campaigns against abortion and have no plans to become involved at present.” In response, Dr. Mary Lucey, founder of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child, one of the most respected pro-life organizations in Ireland, said she believes that TrÛcaire's policy of not campaigning against abortion was “reprehensible.”

She added: “Material poverty is bad, poverty of the soul is unspeakable.”

Lucey was particularly critical of TrÛcaire's lack of action against abortion at U.N. conferences on population in Istanbul, Cairo, and Rome, where SPUC Ireland also had delegates present. She said, “We had considerable success in preventing further destruction of the unborn by aligning with the papal delegates, the Muslim delegates, and the South American delegates who were opposed to abortion, but TrÛcaire would not go near us.

“Instead, they remained with DÛchas, the group made up of 19 Irish aid agencies. DÛchas follows the government line and therefore the U.N. line on population control.”

Lucey quoted from the aid agency's entry in The Irish Catholic Directory which states, ‘TrÛcaire works to raise awareness about development issues and the principles of social justice involved’ and commented: “The crime of abortion—the killing of unborn life—is an issue of social justice. It is the greatest sin against justice in existence. The Holy Father never misses an opportunity to state that abortion is the greatest crime of our century; and he has exhorted us to speak out against us. Why don't the Irish bishops teach TrÛcaire its priorities?”

But Bishop John Kirby of Clonfert, the chairman of TrÛcaire, said those who call on TrÛcaire to campaign actively against abortion, don't understand the overseas development agency's mandate. “Within each individual country, I can assure you that TrÛcaire is very careful, not only in regard to abortion, which is much more serious, but also in regard to issues of family planning, because we are a Catholic organization,” he said.

“Just because we don't open up publicly on abortion, doesn't mean to say we haven't a view on it. We share the view of the Church, that abortion is wrong. When the issue comes up, we address it. We contributed to the Cairo conference on population and abortion issues. We had representatives there and we tried to make sure the Catholic Church's point of view was expressed.

“But we see ourselves primarily as a development agency. We didn't comment on the recent One Body, One Bread document [which addresses Church intercommunion], because we have a specific mandate.” Noting that Mitchell had also called TrÛcaire to take part in efforts to create a NATO-style European security force, Bishop Kirby added: “I thought he was stretching what our mandate should be. That said, I certainly fully support Gay Mitchell in his comment to his own particular party about abortion.”

Cian Molloy writes from Dublin, Ireland.