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Law and life – deciding on the 8th

Ann-Marie Lee, a retired public health nurse, and obstetrician Sr Deirdre Twomey were the guest speakers in Gardiner St Church on Tuesday 8 May, 2018. Their contribution was the second in a series of three ‘listening’ nights regarding the upcoming referendum on the repeal of the 8th amendment. Almost 100 people turned up on each occasion. The PP Gerry Clarke SJ and his parish team wanted to create a safe space where people could listen respectfully and reflectively to the various issues attendant on the referendum where people are being asked to vote on whether or not to remove the article which guarantees the equal right to life of the mother and the unborn. The chairperson was Ms Pat Coyle, Director of Irish Jesuit Communications.

Both medical professionals talked from their own experience about the situation of women and their response to challenging pregnancies. They explained how what they encountered in their work helped shape their attitude to abortion and the upcoming referendum. Neither of them agreed with abortion, but nonetheless they were voting differently in the referendum of 25 May.

In her address, Dr Twomey firstly told about her brother who was born with a foetal fatal condition and died shortly after birth. She spoke of the love and joy he brought, and how he was always a part of their family, held in loving memory by his parents and siblings long after his death.

She went on to outline her time in an English hospital just two years after abortion was made legal in the country. As an obstetrician she met a variety of people who were directly affected by the ever-increasing number of abortions taking place in the hospital, including medical professionals who were conscientious objectors to abortion.

She recalled the distress she witnessed, the regrets mothers had on ending the life of their unborn child, the conflicts of conscience. She concluded that for her, the availability of abortion only served to worsen the situation of all involved. But she also said she recognised the deep pain that many women suffered before and after their decision. She felt nothing but  compassion for them all. Nonetheless she believed that by voting ‘Yes’ one would be voting for abortion almost on demand, up to 12 weeks, of a living human being – a baby. She could not in conscience agree to this after the pain and regrets she had witnessed in Britain.

Public health nurse Ann-Marie Lee also spoke of her experiences with woman who had challenging pregnancies. She said that facing into this referendum she felt she was “between a rock and a hard place”. “With abortion there is misery, and without abortion there is misery,” she opened. She was clear that, personally and morally, she did not agree with abortion but she did think there were exceptional cases. She said she could not ignore the fact that over 4,000 women were leaving Ireland every year to face into abortions that might be much less distressing for them if abortion was available in their own country. She said she believed that the 8th amendment is of no value in the constitution because of the thousands of Irish women who travel; “We cannot say we don’t have abortion.. and this is a situation that is not going to change.”

Ann-Marie said that what was needed was safe healthcare for women in crisis situations rather than laws that were rigid and lacked compassion.

Having listened attentively to both speakers, those gathered discussed what they heard in small groups and they formulated questions that had arisen for them. They then engaged the speakers in  a plenary debate, around their questions. PP Gerry Clarke said he noted the respectful listening and the sometimes vigorous debate that followed. “It was precisely this type of authentic engagement in a safe space that we had in mind when we planned this series”, he said.

On Tuesday 15 May another large group was in attendance to listen to Professor Gerry Whyte, Trinity College Dublin, outline the likely consequences of a Yes/No vote. In the interests of transparency he stated at the outset that he would be voting No.  But he was confident that his presentation would be fair and objective, and he clearly indicated in his talk when he was moving from factual explanation to informed speculation.

The session, chaired by Brian Lennon SJ, began as usual with a lectio reading from the gospel and a short period of silence. Professor Whyte, who specialises in constitutional law, divided his presentation into two parts. He began by outlining the legal consequences of a ‘No’ vote. This was relatively short and simple, he noted, as the legal position will remain exactly as it is now. At present abortion in the Republic is restricted to situations where there is a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother, including suicide.

The 2nd section of his presentation, he said, was in part more speculative in nature, given that one was considering the legal consequences of a ‘Yes’ vote. Obviously the constitution will change, and the government has given indication of what type of legislation it would introduce, he said. But the question arises as to whether there could be a successful constitutional challenge to this legislation on the grounds that it was either too lax or too restrictive. It was Professor Whyte’s opinion that such a challenge would not succeed and therefore would be unlikely to happen.

He also looked at what type of legal regime for abortion the government might adopt on foot of repeal, and in his opinion it was likely to be a ‘relatively permissive’ one.

Participants from the floor posed some probing questions for the legal academic, including the case of Savita Halappanavar. Were the doctors hampered by unclear law regarding the legality of giving her a termination? Professor Whyte said the law was clear in this regard that she could have been given the required abortion, and follow up legislation in 2013, on foot of this case, further clarified attendant issues.

A ‘Yes’ vote will mean the removal of a ‘right’ from the constitution. Professor Whyte said he had been looking at other constitutions around the world and could find no instance where this had happened before. He believes that this removal in the Irish situation could actually have repercussions for the protection of the unborn in the future given that not only is its right to life no longer constitutionally guaranteed, but it has also been deliberately removed by democratic vote. This deliberate removal, he argued, could be a factor of significance for judges in the future, if determining on issues around the status of the unborn.

For further information on the three sessions in Gardiner St, along with articles and reflections, click here.

(Photo, left to right: Fr Richard Dwyer SJ, Gardiner St Parish, with Ann-Marie Lee and Sr Deirdre Twomey).