Open letter to Bishop John Buckley from the Cork Women’s Right to Choose Group (CWRCG)
Issued on 16th December 2012 (The second anniversary of the 2010 ruling in Ireland v A, B, and C).
We were interested to see the published text of your Pastoral Letter, read at masses on 8th and 9th December (http://www.corkandross.org/news.jsp?newsID=898).
We respect your right to express the moral position of your Church. We feel, however, that it is important to seek further elucidation of a number of points for the following reasons:
1. The letter was released into the public domain and appears to be a political as much as a pastoral statement on abortion. It refers to abortion in the context of the Lisbon Treaty debate, expresses political opinions on how the state should proceed in light of the European Court of Human Rights judgement of 16th December 2010 and implies criticism of the report of the Expert Group on this issue. Indeed, it suggests that there was a failure of that group to consider ‘the moral dimensions’.
2. Press coverage of the letter might be read as suggesting that it clarified the position of the Roman Catholic Church regarding intervention to save the life of a woman and that this position might be more favourable to women’s interests than previously understood. The headline in the Cork Evening Echo, for example, read ‘Bishop backs mother’s right to life’ while that in the Irish Independent read ‘Saving a mum’s life isn’t same as abortion – bishop’.
By contrast, statements in the letter appear to reflect the same teaching as pertained in 1983 and that was used to promote a prohibition on abortion. For example, it refers to ‘our responsibility as a society to defend and promote the equal right to life of a pregnant mother and defenceless child in her womb when the life of either of these persons is at risk. They have an equal right to life’ [Our emphasis].
Your letter does refer to the validity of ‘medical treatment’ when a woman is ‘seriously ill’ and implies that such treatment is ‘morally permissible, provided that every effort has been made to save the life of both the mother and her baby.’ It rejects the definition of such treatments as ‘abortion’ when they result in termination of pregnancy. [Interestingly, the 1861 criminal legislation uses the word ‘miscarriage’ rather than ‘abortion’.]
To a lay person, you appear to be saying that, according to Roman Catholic teachings, there are justifiable and unjustifiable abortions, ‘indirect’ and ‘direct’ abortions.
Given current debates on whether legislation is necessary to clarify the constitutional position, it would be useful to have further information on the Catholic Church’s position, as outlined in your Pastoral Letter. For example, the use of the words ‘seriously ill’ appears to allow for such treatments in a wider range of circumstances than are provided for in the Supreme Court interpretation of the constitutional position.
Its judgement specifically excluded terminations to protect a woman’s health and it is generally understood that intervention is permissible only in cases of ‘real and substantial risk’ to her life.
Given this apparent difference between the point you made and the strictures of the currently understood legal position, again as lay people, we believe it is important to have further information on the kinds of cases you consider might involve ‘morally permissible’ termination.
The traditionally quoted examples of indirect abortion are cases of cancer of the uterus discovered during pregnancy and ectopic pregnancy, in which the removal of the womb or fallopian tubes are deemed actions that, to draw on your own words, do not ‘directly and intentionally seek to end the life of the unborn baby’, though it is clear from the outset that they will do so. More recently we have heard that cancer treatment that may result in the death of a foetus is also permissible, though not termination of pregnancy before beginning such treatment.
With respect, many people would consider such a distinction to be verbal casuism and that its moral validity is open to argument. In either case, the same end result is predictable when a decision is made either to begin a cancer treatment that may result in the death of the foetus or to terminate a pregnancy before beginning such treatment.
The intention and desire when either choice is made is, however, to save the life of the woman or preserve her health, and both are eminently moral objectives.
For our organisation, clearly, the final decision in any case must be made according to the informed conscience of the woman involved. There are, however, disagreements among many Irish, and Irish resident, persons concerning the range or instances of abortions that might be ‘justified’. There is a current debate on whether or not legislation is required to clarify the legal circumstances when abortion is permissible.
Our primary request is this: In order that the meaning of your Pastoral Letter can be fully understood in the public domain, we would be grateful for public clarification of the range of cases you consider might fall within this category of indirect, rather than direct, abortion you refer to and whether it is wider than the three examples referred to above. In addition, given the numbers of women who have spoken publicly of their own experiences (since the news broke of Savita Halappanavar’s death) does the Church consider such intervention justifiable in a case of prolonged miscarriage of a non-viable foetus?
Issued on behalf of the CWRCG by:
About Cork Women’s Right to Choose Group
The group was established in the late 1990s. Four members gave oral evidence to the All-party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution whose report on abortion was published in November 2000. The group participated in the summer 2001 visit to Ireland of Rebecca Gomperts’ Women on Waves project and was affiliated to the Alliance for a No Vote during the 2001-2002 referendum campaign. It has organised public meetings and made submissions to a range of bodies including the UN CEDAW committee. In summer 2012 it affiliated to the newly formed Pro-Choice Alliance Cork and in December 2012 sent delegates to the Dublin meeting at which a new campaigning alliance was formed.