Editorial - Constitutional amendment on abortion

The proposed constitutional amendment on abortion has very little to do with the actual issue of abortion but a great deal to do with re-asserting the Catholic nature of this state and reversing recent trends towards a pluralist society. It has also to do with the degenerate nature of the Irish pollitical system, whereby any demand is acceded to and where all politicians run scared - or conversely wish to appear holier than thou - on an issue of deep emotional and reliigious significance.

The fact that the proposed amendment has little to do with abortion is evident from the following facts: (a) aborrtion is already illegal, (b) there is no significant lobby in favour of changing the law and no prospect whatsoever that the DaiJ and Senate would amend the existing law, (c) the evidence is (statements by the country's most eminent Supreme Court Justice, Judge Brian Walsh) that the Suppreme Court would find that abortion would be unconstituutional. Even if any of these facts were found to be untrue, for instance if the Supreme Court did in fact find that the prohibition of abortion was unconstitutional, then there could easily be a swift constitutional referendum to change the situation, if that was what the electorate wanted.

The demand for a constitutional amendment has arisen therefore primarily for reasons unconnected directly with abortion. As Pat Brennan points out in her investigation of the background to this campaign on page 14, many of those prominent in the referendum campaign state openly that the amendment will be only the first step towards restoring Ireland to a Catholic traditionalist position on such issues as contraception, sex education etc. These same people are also unalterably opposed to any suggestion of removing the constitutional prohibition on divorce - they are against the concept of a pluralist Ireland which alone holds out the prospect of an end to the conflict in Northern Ireland and. the loss of life there - so much for the sacredness of human life.

Because of the entirely artificial way in which the deemand for a constitutional amendment on abortion has arisen, one cannot separate it from these other issues connnected with the concept of a pluralist Ireland. But the prooposed amendment is itself directly related to the pluralist issue for it seeks to enshrine in the constitution other exxclusively Catholic concepts.

The first of these is the certitude which the Catholic Church holds that a foetus constitutes a human person from the moment of fertilisation. Other churches oppose abortion but only the Catholic Church holds this view with such certitude. This view is, to say the least, controversial. It woulq mean, for instance, that the millions of fertilised ova that are expelled from the womb as a matter of nature's course are each human persons and deserving of baptism and a Christian burial.

The reasoning behind the thesis that the fertilised ovum constitutes a human person is that there is no discernable break between fertilisation and birth in the development of the foetus. But as pointed out recently by Dr. P.J. McGrath, former Professor of Moral Theology at St. Pattrick's College, Maynooth, this line of argument is no more reasonable than to contend that an acorn is in fact an oak tree because there is no discernable break in the development of an oak tree from an acorn. The reasoning assumes that a human person or an oak tree comes into existence at a particular point, rather than as the result of a gradual process.

The other exclusively Catholic concept which the prooposed amendment seeks to implant in the constitution is the notion of double effect. In the case of abortion this doctrine holds that when a foetus is removed along with, say, a cancerous womb, then this is not abortion and is morally permissable because there was no intent to kill the foetus, rather to save the life of the mother. (The Catholic Church does not forbid the removal of a nonnviable foetus in the case of an ectopic pregnancy or of cancer of the uterus, which surely exposes the Catholic inconsistency on the issue of when human life begins.) This reasoning could be used to justify the taking of any innocent human life to save the life of another person Èreasoning which our laws quite properly reject and treats such behaviour as murder.

Another persuasive reason for opposing the amenddment campaign is that one is thereby opposing a regressive and somewhat sinister force in Irish society. As stated earlier, many of the people and organisations cammpaigning for the constitution amendment are using the emotive issue of abortion as a symbolic issue for other purposes - they want to row back the liberal tide which has resulted in a relaxation in the laws on contraception and a greater willingness to consider the removal of the constitutional prohibition on divorce. They are thus being less than honest in their promotion of the abortion referenndum. This is a manipulative device, characteristic of the nature of many of the organisations involved in this cammpaign.

Many of these organisations are secret. Some of them are front groups with no independent existence and exist solely for publicity purposes. They refuse to divulge basic inforrmation about themselves, about their membership, financcing, their links with one another etc. Some of them have ties with the Knights of Columbanus, the secret Catholic right wing male dominated organisation which has exerted a great deal of covert power and influence in Irish society. Much of the activities of these organisations - in their secretive, manipulative and infiltrationist character - are fundamentally anti-democratic and anti-social, whatever their charitable works. This is something sinister in Irish society and the consequences of letting these organisations and individuals off the leash could be very unpleasant. We are not stating that this is true of all the individuals or orrganisations involved in the amendment campaign - we ackknowledge that there are among them genuine people who simply believe in the clear-cut issue they are espousing.

Another worrying element in this campaign is the mannner in which the political leaders of Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Labour agreed to the referendum. The commitments on the referendum were given at private meetings within days of the setting up of the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign, without any debate either within the parties or in public. The secretive and rushed manner in which politicians, running scared of having a pro-abortion tag hung on them, bowed to pressure from these welllplaced groups bodes ill for democracy. It is not long since Garret FitzGerald was telling us of his wish to eradicate sectarianism from the Constitution - but his acquiesance so far in this blackmail gives a hollow ring to his claim.