- Alan Smith considers the impact of the Irish abortion referendum
The most important thing to remember about the Irish Republic’s referendum on abortion is that voting, whether in referendums or elections, does not settle moral arguments. It merely helps to determine what the law of the state will be.
The article in the Irish constitution that is to be replaced is based on natural law. The medical fact that an individual human life is a continuum from conception to natural death and the teaching that innocent human life should be protected led in 1983 to the constitutional amendment that the life of the mother and the life of the unborn child should both be valued.
The removal of this article from the constitution is based on human rights law. Apparently an unborn child up to 12 weeks gestation is not human. Whether the change proposed in Ireland will produce greater equality for born females is arguable. What is virtually certain is that one place it will produce equality is in the womb. Given that approximately 50% of unborn children are female, then approximately 50% of those aborted under 12 weeks’ gestation will be female, except that, in cultures where the birth of a boy is preferred to the birth of a girl, then the proportion of females aborted could be higher.
The significance of the 12-week limit is uncertain. There is no basis in medical science for asserting that at 12 weeks a foetus becomes human. It may be that the period was chosen to make the killing of the unborn child easier or it may have been thought that a 12-week limit is what the electoral market will currently bear.
The clash between natural law and human rights law could be the major culture struggle of our time. Natural law develops slowly as the physical sciences offer new insights. A good example is provided by the subject of abortion. Medieval thinkers were handicapped by the fact that the biology of pregnancy had not progressed further than Aristotle’s conjecture that the soul of the foetus was first vegetative, than animal, and then human. The last stage, when the foetus becomes human, was described as ‘ensoulment’—when the human soul entered the body. Pope Pius IX adopted Rome’s present position in 1869.
But natural law is not automatically introduced into state law. Rather, any developments in natural law are considered and then introduced into state law if the change can be justified.
On the other hand, human rights law starts with a declaration of human rights. This can be very useful, as in post-war Europe when most European states had experienced oppressive regimes and could benefit from a general understanding of how states ought to behave. The problem starts when a declaration of human rights in very general terms is given the status of statute law and it is left to the judicial system to interpret the result which, of course, is done in the light of the opinions of the dominant classes. Their interpretations are then given a status which cannot be changed by parliaments. The result is an ever-decreasing power of parliaments that represent the views of the people to pass laws of which the people approve. It is not at all clear that any two systems of human rights law, developing at different times in different places, would be essentially the same.
Meanwhile, there are the expected calls from British politicians waving the human rights banner for the law in Northern Ireland to be changed to be in line with what the law in the Republic will be. Here the problem becomes political. The paradox is that the party in Northern Ireland that most closely supports the social teaching of the Roman Catholic Church is the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which draws its support mainly from the Protestant community – although there is statistical evidence that it also draws support from thinking Catholics (as opposed to tribal Catholics.) Theresa May knows that, for her to continue as prime minister, she relies on the support of the DUP, who would oppose an extension of abortion to Northern Ireland. She should also take note of the proportion of Conservative and Unionist Party members and voters in Great Britain who would prefer the views on pro-life issues of the DUP to those of some of her ministers.
Meanwhile, we should not regard the recent referendum result as a lost cause any more than we should regard the referendum result in 1983 as a gained cause. We in the pro-life movement shall continue to hold to our belief in the sanctity of innocent human life from conception to natural death and, like the Gods of the Copybook Headings, at appropriate times we shall limp up to explain it once more.