My dear people,
In these days, every person in Ireland, is being asked to consider a fundamental question, a question that lies at the heart of allowing a child the possibility of reaching their potential. All of us, especially people of faith must engage in this debate; we do this by exploring the issues it raises, and by having our voices heard. Every single one of us has a part to play – we cannot leave it to others. As responsible citizens and people of maturity, we are called to play our part in shaping the country we want both for ourselves and for those who come after us.
In recent years and more with increasing intensity during the past months, I have listened carefully to what has been said. I have listened as a son, as a brother, as an uncle, as a priest. I have heard heart-rending stories of people, sometimes couples, but usually women in very difficult situations. In recent weeks, since becoming Bishop of Ossory, I have listened with a new awareness to what is being said. Today, I want to share some of my more specific concerns underpinning this very significant decision that we are shortly called to take.
Our Respect for Women in Pregnancy
As Irish people, we are proud of our democracy. Our forebears struggled for it, and we strive to maintain it—and we strive to maintain it for all. The Constitution of Ireland provides real protections for the real lives of the real people in our land. The Church – conscious of its own wrongs and shortcomings – contributes to the current debate on the Referendum sincerely and respectfully. We must all remain acutely aware of the difficulties many women go through during pregnancy. The moral responsibilities of society, for the same four reasons outlined below, must include providing the greatest compassion possible for women who face tragic circumstances. It must be a compassion that takes shape in practical care – and ongoing support – for the mother and the little infant growing in her womb, always keeping in mind that the unborn child is one of us. Abortion that seems necessary because of personal circumstances is not a free choice; it is often a decision made in desperation and vulnerability. It is our responsibility as a society to provide every resource required to help those who face challenges in a supportive environment. We must be there for each other – always, all the days of our life. This is especially so in caring for a mother in a crisis pregnancy.
The Central Issue – The Right to Life of a Vulnerable Human Life
The real issue is not the difficult and stressful pregnancies so often cited in debate, but whether we want to strip the unborn defenceless child forever of the right to life. The law and the teaching of the Church have always found a way, with compassion, to deal with the hard cases. From experience we know that once abortion was introduced it has proved extremely difficult to restrict. Laws do not remain static. Moreover, abortion becomes normalised. For example, in England about 40% are repeat abortions. What was once proposed as a resolution to a tragedy has, over time, become a matter of lifestyle and choice.
The result of abortion is always the death of an unborn girl or boy. What we are voting for on 25th May is whether we want abortion on demand for any reason up to 12 weeks. If we vote Yes we will deprive the most vulnerable and defenceless of the right to life. If we vote No, the mother and baby are equally protected.
The Responsibilities of Fathers
A man is equally responsible for a pregnancy. How often is the woman abandoned with her pregnancy, when the man, the child’s father, is unwilling to accept responsibility for it? In abandoning the mother of his child during pregnancy he indirectly encourages the woman to seek an abortion. Abortion knows no gender bias. In this regard abortion visits harm not only on women, but also on men and the surviving children. Saint Pope John Paul II made it clear that by leaving the woman alone to face the problems of pregnancy, a man indirectly encourages such a decision on the woman’s part to abort (cf par 14, The Dignity of Women). He goes on to say in The Gospel of Life that, “in this way the family is thus mortally wounded and profaned in its nature as a community of love and in its vocation to be the ‘sanctuary of life’” (no. 59).
Our Commitment to a Mother and her Unborn Child
The decision we are asked to make deals with the complex realities of the real lives of real people. While the basic issue is clear, there are many aspects which can be difficult to grasp, and which can be presented in different ways. Because of that I would like to outline for you, the four basic reasons for our Catholic commitment to a mother and her unborn child:
Firstly, every human being has a right to life. This right is not given to us by the Constitution of Ireland or by any law. We have it ‘as of right’, whether we are wealthy or poor, healthy or sick. Every human being has it. For us as a society to now declare that any category of human being should have that right taken from them would be a serious attack on human life. It effectively says that the unborn child is less than a full human being, that she or he does not count. Every person who has ever reflected on this realises that the child in the womb is a person. As a society we rightly strive to protect that child and the mother. Our doctors and nurses work for safe delivery of the child and the health both of the unborn boy or girl and of the mother. If the Eighth Amendment is repealed the most voiceless will have no protection under abortion laws, which are likely to become even more permissive. When the unborn boy or girl is stripped of their most fundamental right to life – the right to life itself – mention of any other human right becomes meaningless. If your life is taken from you, you have nothing. We need to think about this.
Secondly, how we treat each other is the measure of our society. The foundation of all morality and, as a result, all law is the fundamental dignity of the human person. Human dignity means that each person is of value, an immense value and priceless worth. Dignity is so important that it can never be removed. We Christians believe that this dignity is God-given, but we also happily recognise that everyone in our world, people of other faiths and people of none, agree that we all have a responsibility to uphold and defend the dignity of each person. Any attempt in history, or in our world today, to undermine that dignity in another, or to suggest that it is in any way lessened, is shocking to us. We must then also defend the dignity of the unborn girl or boy. It is not for us to decide when a person acquires their dignity – we don’t – our laws merely serve to reflect how it is that we value that dignity in others.
Thirdly, in our world today, we are all dependent upon each other and connected to each other. We know the importance of this interdependence. It helps us achieve so many things and it motivates so much of what we do. We depend on each other in life and this is especially true when we are at our most vulnerable. When we are weak we need the support of others in very real ways. In particular this comes to the fore at the beginning and end of life. We know, all too well, how our elderly parents and relatives depend on the support and care of others. We know, too, how the new born baby is totally dependent on others. Without someone to feed or to wash that child, the infant will not survive; it is a matter of life and death. How much more true is this for the child that is still in the womb. Our humanity brings home to us how it is the responsibility of everyone to protect the most vulnerable and to always support their central carers: for a baby this is every mother and every father.
On all these counts, legalising abortion is a profound failure of these responsibilities. Abortion itself is the deliberate taking of life. It denies the most basic of human rights that are meant to protect the dignity of each of us: the right to life. In the end, a legal system that allows abortion will undermine the culture of life that we currently cherish, leading to a society with much-weakened responsibilities to those who are most vulnerable.
The fourth reason places the above into a Christian light. We are a people who believe that in Christ God shows us how God truly is, and how we truly are. The Lord came among us, to bring home to us that we could have life and have it to the fullest. Simply put, to be a Christian is to live united with God in Christ expressed in love of God and others. Our God is a God who knows us intimately, who knows our hurts, joys, potentials and pitfalls. Our God who reminds us, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart” (Jeremiah 1:5).
At the heart of true Christian spirituality is the knowledge that we are loved without end, right from our very beginning, the moment of conception. We are sent by the Lord to spread His word and do his work. We are empowered for this mission when we find our place in God’s story. God’s love challenges and calls us to reflect that love to others – especially those who are most vulnerable, and who is more vulnerable than an unborn child?
We say that it takes a village to raise a child. I pray that every mother and father, whatever their circumstances in bringing their son or daughter into the world, will experience the care of their community so that the culture of life we cherish may continue. I ask the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, to guide us, so that all we cherish may continue to be protected by our Constitution.