independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

Martina Devlin: For the record – it's possible to be pro-choice and in favour of life

SO, a cardinal and three archbishops have ridden out in unison to defend unborn babies. They deserve a respectful hearing: all voices should be heard in this important debate. Now let's listen to what female archbishops have to say about it.

What, there aren't any? Then let some female Catholic bishops step forward. That's a blow, there don't appear to be any of them. In which case, female priests will have to do. My goodness, none of them in the Catholic Church either. Something of a pattern emerging.

Remind me again why anyone should be guided by this irredeemably male-only institution on the subject of women's health? I see, habit. Fortunately, habits can be broken, especially bad ones such as too tight a relationship between church and state.

Any other reason to be led by those four churchmen regarding the Government's intention to respect the wishes of the majority, and introduce limited abortion rights?

Faith, perhaps – a church steers its flock on matters of conscience. The Catholic congregation includes members of the Government, vulnerable to pressure.

Faith is a wonderful gift, and people with religious convictions are entitled to lead their lives according to those beliefs. But it's unreasonable to impose their ethical framework on everybody, including anyone who doesn't happen to share it. Isn't it enough for those who believe abortion to be wrong, under every set of conditions, to refuse to have a termination? Why must everybody be bound by their rules?

Still, the debate matters greatly, and all of us – from prince of the church to pauper – share the right to advance opposing views. Preferably without using highly emotive language, such as suggesting that defining strictly-controlled circumstances for abortion is choosing to "licence the direct and intentional killing of the innocent baby in the womb".

That comes from the three archbishops and Cardinal Sean Brady, by the way.

Archbishops and bishops alike have mobilised swiftly, and the indications are that this debate will be a rancorous one. No holds barred. Bishop of Kilmore Leo O'Reilly, one of the rapid response team, was on 'Morning Ireland' yesterday quoting the Pope's "culture of death" description of abortion.

The Catholic hierarchy may not have the legions of shock troops it once commanded, but it is never to be underestimated. Christmas sermons will have many a TD shifting uncomfortably in his or her pew. The threat of suicide grounds included in the proposed legislation bothers some backbenchers, and leaves them vulnerable to crozier pressure to examine their consciences – code for time to jump overboard.

Clergy are acting entirely properly in urging an abortion veto on their parishioners. But they overstep their prerogative when they attempt to thwart the Government's decision to legislate.

After all, abortion isn't going to become mandatory for pregnant women. The Catholic Church can continue using pulpit and pamphlet to promote its code of conduct with believers.

But it has no legitimacy to hinder the democratic process.

And appeals to TDs' consciences only serve as a reminder of how highly selective is the Catholic hierarchy's interpretation of morality – especially in circumstances relating to protection of church interests.

Do they imagine we have forgotten about the doctrine of mental reservation already? That was Cardinal Connell's explanation for his misleading answers about the use of diocesan funds to compensate clerical abuse victims.

Clerical abusers formed a tiny percentage of priests. But the cover-up was systemic. It is not irrelevant to mention the Catholic Church's abysmal and morally repugnant record on this issue, because it goes to the heart of its credibility.

Listening to any prince of the church pontificate here is like taking a lecture on pension restraint from a recently retired government minister, or having a senior banker wag his finger about financial prudence.

Since Savita Halappanavar's death, Fine Gael backbench TDs have been on the receiving end of an intensive pro-life campaign with formatted postcards, letters and voicemail messages directed to their offices. It is now likely to be accelerated.

BUT I have learned about a dirty tricks element involving identity theft. Cork Fine Gael TD Jerry Buttimer discovered that not all of the postcards he received were genuine.

"In a few cases where we got postcards and replied to them, one or two people came back saying they didn't write to me in the first place," said Mr Buttimer, chair of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children, due to begin hearings on abortion early next month.

"They said: 'I never posted you one of those cards' and they hadn't given consent for their names and addresses to be used." He urged a "calm and dignified" debate.

But the signs so far don't look promising, with inflammatory suggestions from pro-lifers that the unborn are being deliberately targeted. For the record, it is possible to be both pro-choice and in favour of life.

As for the Catholic Church, in the vanguard of the pro-life campaign, if its views on anything are to be given consideration, including abortion, it needs to stop relying solely on that unrepresentative corps of elderly male prelates.

Wasting the talents of bright, able women by confining them to tea-making duties leaves it looking ridiculous. It only has itself to blame when increasing numbers of people fail to listen to its message.

www.martinadevlin.com

Irish Independent

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