“Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you and before you were born, I consecrated you” (Jer 1:5)
In his 1995 encyclical letter The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae), Pope Saint John Paul II requested the bishops of the different countries of the world to celebrate the gift of life with an annual Day for Life. He wanted each country “to foster in individual consciences, in families, in the Church, and in civil society recognition of the meaning and value of human life at every stage and in every condition.” Ireland has celebrated this day annually since 2001. Over the years, we have dealt with end of life care, abortion, suicide, people with disabilities, care of the environment and many other aspects of protecting life in all its forms.
This year we again talk about abortion. This is not really our choice of topic today. However, the campaign to repeal the 8th Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland is gathering momentum. Those who wish to get rid of the amendment are getting considerable publicity. There is a danger that people will drift into supporting this cleverly planned campaign without being fully aware of its implications.
The amendment, passed in 1983, states: “The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard for 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.”
Some will complain that Catholic teaching should not be part of our Constitution, and I have no problem with that position. However, this is not just a matter of Catholic teaching, it is a fundamental human right. Opposition to abortion is by no means confined to the Catholic Church. Many, practising different religions or no religion at all reject abortion on purely human grounds. Once the right to life is diminished, whether of the born or the unborn, other human rights are put at risk. We see it happening in the case of assisted suicide for those who are seriously ill. In the past week, a seventeen-year-old in Belgium, with the consent of his parents, has petitioned the courts to allow him to take his life.
Some of the campaigners speak of what they call fatal foetal abnormalities. They want abortion in these specific cases. However, the medical prognosis for a child in the womb or the extent of a disability is no more a reason for ending the life of an unborn child as it is for an adult facing terminal illness. Pro-life people acknowledge these situations, but they prefer to talk about life-limiting conditions. A further problem is that in at least one country where abortion is acceptable, 90% of children diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted. The phrase fatal foetal abnormality can have a very broad meaning in these cases. As Archbishop Eamon Martin says in his Day for Life statement today: “There is no such thing as limited abortion.”
Other campaigners seeking to repeal of the 8th Amendment adopt a different approach. They do not want to focus on special cases or difficult situations. They want what is called ‘safe accessible abortion’ for all women for whom this is their choice. The website for this contains the following quote: “At the Abortion Rights Campaign our goal is for free, safe and legal abortion to be available in Ireland to any woman who requests one.” These campaigners are very clear. They are not going for the thin edge of the wedge; they want full access to abortion from the beginning. They know that “limited abortion” is only playing with words.
Pope Francis is very clear on matters relating to life. In Laudato Si’ (Praise Be – on care for our common home), his encyclical letter of May 2015, Pope Francis writes, “Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion” (§120). He continues, “When human beings place themselves at the centre, they give absolute priority to immediate convenience and all else becomes relative” (§122). More recently in his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love – On Love in the Family), published in March of this Jubilee Year of Mercy – and which was the fruit of the two Synods on the family convoked by the Pontiff in 2014 and 2015 – Pope Francis comments, “Every child growing within the mother’s womb is part of the eternal loving plan of God the Father” (§168). The Pope quotes from the prophet Jeremiah who wrote about 580 BC, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you and before you were born, I consecrated you” (Jer 1:5). The belief in the personhood of the unborn has deep roots in the Bible.
- Bishop John Kirby is Bishop of Clonfert.
- Day for Life is the Church’s special day dedicated to celebrating the dignity of life from conception to natural death.
- The Day for Life was initiated by Pope Saint John Paul II and has been celebrated in Ireland since 2001. It encourages the Catholic Church worldwide to promote and celebrate the sacredness of life. In his 1995 encyclical letter Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life) the late Pope proposed that “a day for life be celebrated each year in every country” with a purpose “to foster in individual consciences, in families, in the Church, and in civil society, recognition of the meaning and value of human life at every stage and in every condition” (EV #85).