Pastoral letter by Bishop William Crean on the right to life

“Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you”.  Jer.1:5


Debate, Discernment and Decision

The national debate on the life question is in full flow.  Our decision is required on the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of Ireland which guarantees the protection of the expectant mother and her unborn child.  The decision is a difficult one because of the complex issues involved.  In order to make the best decision may I suggest a three-step approach to the many issues raised:

First, I suggest that you listen attentively to the debate.

Second, you/I/we need to enter a process of discernment whereby we seek, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to separate the good spirits from the bad.

Third, we may then be better prepared to decide.  We can see what factors need to inform our decision.

Let us reflect on each over these Sundays.


In some ways the debate reaches back to 1983 when the Eighth Amendment was put into the Constitution as a way of protecting the unborn from becoming victims of a liberal abortion regime like what had emerged in the UK after the 1967 Abortion Act which promised abortion in rare circumstances.  The reality has been a shocking toll of destruction of innocent unborn children.

Our more recent debate began with the Citizens’ Assembly which was meant to be representative of a cross section of people.  Its final report recommended legal access to abortion up until an extraordinary late point in the pregnancy.  It left many people aghast at its conclusions.  It led many also to question its representative nature.

The issue was then considered by a representative all party committee from both the Dáil and the Seanad.  Having heard the testimony of all the experts they recommended that abortion be permitted up to the 12th week of pregnancy without any acknowledgement to the right to life of the unborn.  In giving assent to the report many politicians confessed to changing their minds on the grounds of compassion.  Compassion is a noble and desirable virtue that all true Christians seek in the face of distress and suffering.  The question it raises in this context: ‘Is it right and just to extend compassion to one at the cost of life to another?’  Compassion that injures another’s life to the point of death is a flawed if well intentioned compassion.  Is it just?  Is it fair to do so?

The other concern we need to address is the situation that so many women find themselves in with an unwanted or enforced pregnancy.  Their situations are deeply stressful and leave them in a great dilemma.  They need our understanding, compassion and support.  The proponents of the repeal of the Eighth Amendment insist that the provision of abortion is the best way to support women in crisis or difficult pregnancies.  Are these proposed solutions the foundation on which we wish to build the support and compassion they need?

We need to examine carefully the proposed legislation should the Eighth Amendment be repealed.  Let there be no doubt that this is a watershed moment in Irish society.  The right to life, from its beginning to its natural end, is the cornerstone of a civilized society.

Should the Eighth Amendment be repealed the Government have outlined the law that will replace it.  As one would expect, this text is too lengthy to quote from at this point.  However, just one of the ‘definitions’ that is central to the intent of the Government’s Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy Bill 2018 is, ‘termination of pregnancy’ means a medical procedure which is intended to end the life of the foetus.  This is the stark reality that we face.

The decision we face is one of conscience.  This entails taking time and effort to ensure that our conscience is properly informed.  In the absence of this process we risk arriving at a decision that is superficial and poorly grounded.  For example, there are many people of faith and practice who feel that while they personally are pro life they do not wish to stand in the way of those who believe that abortion is morally acceptable.  On what grounds can one justify collusion with actions that you find morally repugnant?  On what basis can you justify facilitating actions that in conscience you believe to be wrong?

During these days I invite you to reflect with me on how to discern our path through these issues so that we can come to a clear decision on how we will exercise our vote.


In the middle of this vigorous debate it is easy to be confused.  Often people sow seeds of confusion by way of inviting the confused to trust them because ‘they know best’.  We must not be naïve about what is at issue in this Referendum.  It is a great struggle between light and dark, between life and death.  In the work of discernment, we seek the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit.  We search for the light in the arguments being put forward.  We must be alert to the dark forces that hide their true intent.  While we respect those who differ from us, we also know that in our midst there are wolves masquerading as sheep.  The art of spin is common practice.  We need to be alert to subtleties that seek to take us down side-tracks.

The array of groups dedicated to the provision of an unrestricted regime of abortion is hugely powerful and well-funded.  Many hold entirely contradictory positions on the question of human rights.  It is mind-boggling to see the United Nations promoting abortion as a human right.  With ‘reproductive rights’ come duty and responsibility.  Are women and men well served by the suggestion that the Eighth Amendment is solely a women’s issue?  Surely it is also a men’s issue, a family issue, and a societal issue?

Discernment is the process that we go through to decipher the truth from falsehood, not unlike the task of the fisherman who, when he has landed his catch, he sifts through the haul carefully to select the good and jettisons the bad.  In the discernment process we approach the issues from both the perspective of reason and faith.  The insight of one enriches and enhances the other.

Pope Francis, writing in his recent Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et Exusultate (Rejoice and be Glad), speaks to us of the importance of discernment in the spiritual life:

How can we know if something comes from the Holy Spirit or if it stems from the spirit of the world or the devil?  The only way is through discernment, which calls for more than intelligence or common sense.  It is a gift we must implore” (par 166).

The gift of discernment has become all the more necessary today, since contemporary life offers immense possibilities for action and distraction, and the world presents all of them as valid and good” (par 167).

Discernment is necessary not only at extraordinary times, when we need to resolve grave problems and make crucial decisions.  It is a means of spiritual combat for helping us to follow the Lord more faithfully” (par 169).

Certainly, spiritual discernment does not exclude existential, psychological, sociological or moral insights drawn from the human sciences.  At the same time, it transcends them” (par 170).

Naturally, this attitude of listening … to the Lord in prolonged prayer … entails obedience to the Gospel as the ultimate standard, but also to the Magisterium that guards it, as we seek to find in the treasury of the Church whatever is most fruitful for the ‘today’ of salvation” (par 173).

Discernment is both an individual and community exercise.  We seek an individual synthesis and a community consensus, all the while one guiding and supporting the other.  This is precisely what we ought to be doing as a nation at this time of decision on the future for unborn children.  We need, together, to consider not just the impact of the proposed abortion regime on individual mothers and unborn children but its cumulative impact on the whole fabric of society.


The Referendum on 25 May calls for a decision.  The first and critical responsibility is that you exercise your say by voting in the Referendum.  The text of the Eighth Amendment in the Constitution 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.’

While this Amendment was introduced in 1983 it has stood the test of time.  In saying this I am aware that those seeking its repeal reject its aspiration as too restrictive and quote difficult and tragic situations where it has proved inadequate in their view.  However on 7 March the Supreme Court ruled that it is now the only protection for the unborn in the Constitution.

Our decision calls for the greater good of humanity, the protection of the unborn and the care of the individual woman to be balanced.  I am convinced by the statements of obstetricians of long standing who vouch that their care of individual women has not been restricted by the Eighth Amendment.  The Protection of Life during Pregnancy Act can best provide for difficult and tragic pregnancies.  When this debate began it started out dealing with difficult issues like rape, incest and non-viable pregnancies.  What is now proposed is light years away from very rare and restricted circumstances to a proposal that provides for termination of perfectly viable pregnancies.  I detect sinister intentions at work here (Matt 10:24-31).

In making our decision we need to be alert to what has evolved in other countries where similar proposals to ours have been put in place.  The destruction of unborn lives has not just become legal but also taken for granted and routine.  Do we wish to create a society whereby we are desensitized to the destruction of the unborn?  When something is legalised, in the eyes of many, it is morally acceptable?  When we lose sensitivity to care for the unborn we risk becoming equally insensitive to the frail and elderly.

The invitation to be pro-choice is presented as being morally neutral.  The fact is the unborn have no choice.  Our choice can be a matter of life and death unless we as a society protect them and vindicate their right to life.

In our decision we ought not to focus solely on individual difficult situations, sad and painful as they are.  The wider picture invites us to consider the implications of establishing a culture of abortion as a routine medical procedure.  It is horrendous to contemplate such a development.

Since this debate began we have increasingly been drawn into an “abortion bubble” not unlike the Citizens Assembly and the Oireachtas Committee.  The concept of termination was so vigorously promoted that a “group-think” has come to the fore, whereby those who questioned the consensus were dismissed and ridiculed.  This is regrettable.  It has now fallen to the ordinary citizen to defend the right to life of the unborn.

Two Lives, One Love

“An expectant mother needs and deserves the care and support of everyone around her, particularly if her pregnancy poses a serious crisis for her and her family.  A mother may be informed that her baby faces serious challenges or is perhaps terminally ill.  She might be pregnant as a result of rape.  Especially in those tragic cases, both the mother and her unborn child can – and must – be loved and cherished.

A compassionate society will do all in its power to support and love the mother and the baby and encourage responsible support from fathers.  This vision of life makes sense to people of all faiths and none.  ‘While it is enriched by our Catholic faith, it is our common humanity that convinces us of the right to life of every human being’ (statement of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Spring 2018).

Choose Life!

My brothers and sisters in Christ.  In the light of these reflections on the debate, the nature of discernment leading to a decision I invite you to CHOOSE LIFE!

It is necessary to reaffirm our solid opposition to any direct offense against life, especially when innocent and defenceless, and the unborn child in its mother’s womb is the quintessence of innocence”.  Pope Francis’ audience with Italian Movement for Life on April 11, 2014.

That means voting No to the proposal to repeal the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution which seeks to vindicate the right to life of both the mother and her unborn child.

I appeal to you to exercise your vote and participate in this national decision on how we wish to treat the unborn into the future.

Continue to pray for the health and well-being of the expectant mothers.