Presentation to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health & Children on the Implementation of the Government decision following publication of the Expert Group Report into matters relating to ABC v Ireland

Bishop Christopher Jones, Bishop of Elphin,  10 January 2013

A Chathaoirligh, esteemed members of Oireachtas Éireann.  Thank you for your invitation to be here this morning.

I am here on behalf of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference. I am joined by Fr Timothy Bartlett from the Secretariat of the Conference.  As an adviser on this matter he will be happy to answer any questions you may have about our presentation.

We welcome this opportunity to engage with the members of the Committee. We welcome too the calm and dignified way in which the discussions have been conducted by the Committee over recent days. With you and with others we want to develop a society that is truly worthy of the dignity of every person, a society in which all are equally cherished and respected.

As public representatives, you carry a heavy responsibility. In making this presentation to you this morning I am thinking in particular of the many women in our parishes across the country who are deeply concerned about the decision to legislate for abortion. We hope you will take account of these concerns in your decisions over the coming weeks and months.

We share your concern to ensure that any young girl or woman who finds herself in a crisis pregnancy receives all the love, care and support she needs to cope with that situation in a life-giving way.  CURA, the crisis pregnancy agency of the Catholic Church in Ireland, is dedicated to providing compassionate and expert support to any woman who finds herself in this situation.  Compassion, understanding, respect: these should be central to any discussion about responding to a situation of crisis or difficult pregnancy.

As a Church we also want to see mothers and their unborn children receive all the medical care and life-saving treatment they need during pregnancy.  There is nothing in current Irish law, in current medical guidelines or in Catholic ethics that prevents such treatment from being given.

The doctors, nurses and midwives in our hospitals show an extraordinary concern for the life and well-being of mothers and their unborn children during pregnancy. These medical professionals deserve our deepest appreciation and respect.  In Ireland we have one of the lowest rates of maternal mortality in the world during pregnancy.  This is something we should be proud of as a nation.  It is something we should do all in our power to cherish and protect.

Any suggestion that Ireland is an unsafe place for pregnant mothers because we do not have abortion is a complete distortion of the truth. It is also gravely unjust to the doctors, nurses and midwives in our hospitals who have achieved such internationally celebrated standards of maternity care.

We believe these high standards of maternity care have been influenced in no small part by the recognition in Article 40.3.3 of Bunreacht na hÉireann that a mother and her unborn child have an equal right to life. This coincides with our belief as a Church, based on human reason and affirmed by Sacred Scripture that the life of a mother and her unborn baby are both sacred.  The Catholic Church has never taught that the life of the child in the womb should be preferred to that of the mother, or the life of the mother to that of the child.

Moreover, there is clearly considerable confusion about the terminology being used in the discussion about medical intervention to save the life of a mother.  The Catholic Church recognises a vital moral distinction between medical intervention to save the life of a mother and abortion.  Abortion, understood as the direct and intentional killing of an unborn child in the womb, is never morally permissible.  This is because directly and intentionally taking the life of any innocent person is never morally acceptable.

This is different from medical treatments to save the life of the mother where there is no other option and where the intervention does not directly and intentionally seek to end the life of the unborn baby. Every effort is made in this situation to preserve the life of both mother and baby throughout. This position, which is ethically sound, represents best practice in Irish hospitals today.

However, legislating for the ‘X Case’, removes the obligation to make every effort, at all times, to preserve the life of both the mother and her unborn baby.  It allows for abortion, for the direct and intentional killing of the baby in the womb.  It is not necessary to legislate for the X Case to ensure that women in Ireland receive all the life-saving treatment they need during pregnancy.  It is not necessary to satisfy the European Court of Human Rights. There is another way. Other options are available to the Government that do not involve legislating for abortion.  These include the option of appropriate guidelines, which continue to exclude the direct and intentional killing of the unborn, or a referendum to overturn the X Case judgment.  We believe both these options should be fully explored by the Oireachtas.

As a Bishops’ Conference we have always held, with many others, that the judgment of the Supreme Court in the X Case is not a basis on which to move forward on this critical issue.  In that judgment, the Court unilaterally overturned the pro-life intention and the will of the people in the 1983 referendum.  It heard no psychiatric evidence.  It believed that abortion was an answer to suicidal ideation, whereas current research indicates that suicidal ideation rarely relates to a single cause and that abortion itself can lead to suicidal ideation and mental health difficulties.  The position it took is also morally unacceptable.  You cannot morally equate the possible but preventable death of one person with the deliberate and intentional destruction of the life of a different, totally innocent person.

How would you or I respond to someone who is suicidal in any other situation? Surely our concern would be to ensure that they receive all the personal, professional and medical support they need. Surely it would be to protect them from harming themselves and to help them to come to a long-term, life-affirming approach to their difficult situation. It is our view that giving sufficient professional support and care should be the priority in response to suicidal ideation in pregnancy.  Taking the life of another innocent person, with absolutely no guarantee that it will remove suicidal thoughts and the real possibility that it may make the situation worse, can never be regarded as a humane or morally appropriate response.

Finally, the X Case judgment potentially permits abortion up to birth.  In addition, assurances that legislation will limit abortion to very specific circumstances are unreliable.  Any such limitations will inevitably become subject to challenge in the courts.

No matter what way legislation is approached, the moral and legislative difficulties posed by the X Case judgment can only be addressed definitively by a return to the people in a referendum.  In the meantime, we should be mindful of our excellent system of care for women and unborn children in our hospitals.  We can satisfy the European Court by appropriate guidelines that clarify existing best practice in our hospitals. We suggest to you as legislators that this represents an effective and morally sound way forward on this issue.

As a Church we will continue to provide every care and support we can to women facing difficult decisions in pregnancy. We will continue with others to try to build a just, compassionate and caring society. We will continue to ask the people in our parishes to pray for a society which cherishes and respects the precious gift of life from the first moment of conception to natural death.  The right to life does not depend on our physical or mental state. It does not depend on our religious faith.  It is a natural and inviolable right that no individual, no majority and no State can ever create, modify or destroy.

Thank you for your attention.