Martin says politicians must have free vote for abortion bill
THE country's top Catholic prelate has intervened in the abortion debate on the eve of a major pro-life rally in Dublin, calling publicly for the first time for a free vote to be extended to all legislators voting on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill.
Speaking exclusively to the Irish Independent ahead of today's pro-life vigil, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin called on the Government to do away with the party whip on what he said was "a matter of conscience".
He warned the Coalition that no politician should "be forced to vote against their conscience." The Primate of Ireland also appealed to the Government not to take "disciplinary action against a person who exercises their right of conscience."
His call follows an appeal by the Conference of Religious of Ireland (CORI) for a free vote as well as the option for legislators to abstain from a legislative process which they said could introduce abortion to Ireland.
In a statement issued yesterday, CORI, which represents 138 religious orders in the country, said that refusal to afford these rights to politicians was "the hallmark of a totalitarian regime".
Outlining its reasons for opposing the proposed Heads of Bill, CORI said it allowed for the intentional killing of the unborn child when the mother's life is deemed to be in danger.
"Currently, medical treatment of mothers whose lives are in danger, including surgery, therapy and medication is ethically permissible even if this results in the unintended death of an unborn child", which the religious organisation said was different to abortion.
It also claimed that there is no evidence that an abortion is an intervention that reduces suicide.
Faith-based and other healthcare institutions that don't want to facilitate the practice of abortion because of their ethos must neither be forced to compromise that ethos nor penalised because of their moral stance, CORI said.
But Taoiseach Enda Kenny defended the Coalition's decision to impose the whip.
"What we're doing here is clarifying legislation, clarifying the position as far as women and their lives are concerned and the lives of the unborn.
"We're not introducing anything new here, we're staying entirely within the constitution, providing legal certainty and clarification that was required under the ABC case," he said.
"Members of the Government and the government parties will be expected to support what the Government position here is. And that's the position. I disagree with CORI and their view that this is totalitarianism."
Archbishop Martin is to preside over a prayer vigil at Westland Row Church ahead of today's pro-life vigil in Dublin.
He said abortion was one of the fundamental issues on which the church has a clear teaching.
"The Church's pro-life position is about the dignity of every person. There is a value on all human life and that that must be respected. That is the position of the church everywhere in the world. That is the bottom line," said Archbishop Martin.
He also signalled his concern over the effectiveness and transparency of the recent parliamentary commission's hearings on abortion.
Noting that "a considerable amount of difference" had emerged between the medical and legal opinion at the hearings on questions such as suicidal ideation, the archbishop called for a full publication of the reasoning behind any judgements made.
Asked about calls for the excommunication of Catholic politicians who vote for abortion legislation, as advocated by Cardinal Raymond Burke and other American prelates, Archbishop Martin responded:
"If you look at the numbers of people who have been formally excommunicated in the US, it is minimal."
Describing excommunication as a very technical thing, he said the important thing was to create "a wide consensus around pro-life issues" and "a pro-life culture" rather than going after politicians to excommunicate them.
Meanwhile, the Council of Europe, which monitors enforcement of rulings from the European Court of Human Rights, has welcomed government plans to enact abortion legislation. COE ministers said they had noted with satisfaction the "significant progress" made by Ireland to implement the A,B,C ruling.
Comment: Fidelma Healy Eames