Faith Matters

Every human life a gift: Defending the pro-life amendment

When focussing on the fundamental right to life, this is not a time to be shy and retiring, says Bishop Kevin Doran

Bishop of Elphin Dr Kevin Doran

The Second World War, which touched every continent in the world, ended just 70 years ago. While it lasted, the principal focus for many ordinary people was simply to survive. Within months of the ending of the war, however, people had begun to reflect in a more organised way on the many crimes against humanity - and particularly against non-combatants - which had not just happened during the war, but which in many cases were part of the ideology behind the war.

While the finger of blame was pointed for the most part in the direction of Hitler's Germany, the reality is that the racist and anti-semitic ideology which was so central to the Nazi war effort was also present in many other countries, on both sides of the conflict.

Almost immediately, the case was made for the development of a Charter of Human Rights. Three years later, in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, drafted by representatives with different legal and cultural backgrounds from all regions of the world, was solemnly proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris.

One of the first articles is that "everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person". That is the basis for the exercise of any other right.

In the Middle Ages and, even right up to the nineteenth century, there were huge gaps in our understanding of fertilisation and pregnancy. Developments in biology and embryology over the last hundred years have provided us with scientific proof of what women always new instinctively, namely that, during pregnancy, a new human being is present, whose distinct identity is already complete once fertilisation has taken place.

What happens during those nine months of pregnancy is of vital importance, just like what happens in the pre-school years and in the years of primary school. There is a continuous development from fertilisation to birth, from birth to adult life and from there to natural death.

It is sad and terribly inconsistent that, in a world which places such a huge emphasis on equality, organisations such as the United Nations and Amnesty International, which have done so much to promote human rights, should actively seek to set aside the right to life of the unborn child.

People of all faiths and of none are committed to human rights. But faith gives us a particular perspective on the meaning of human life and helps us to see life as a gift that we have received from God. This begins, I think, with understanding that our own life is a gift from God, rather than just some kind of random occurrence. If we can understand our own lives in that way, then I think it is easier to see other people, including the elderly, the unborn, the poor and people with disability as gifts from God.

Pope Francis has this to say: "A child is a human being of immense worth and may never be used for one's own benefit. So it matters little whether this new life is convenient for you, whether it has features that please you, or whether it fits into your plans and aspirations."

Children with life-limiting conditions are being used, shamelessly, by certain activists in the media and by some politicians as a pretext for liberalising the law on abortion.

From an ethical point of view, the situation of a child with a life-threatening illness is quite similar to that of an adult in the advanced stages of motor-neurone disease. If abortion were to be considered acceptable in the case of unborn children with life-limiting conditions, then we would have to accept, logically, that euthanasia would also be the norm for any person in the advanced stages of motor-neurone disease, Parkinson's, or indeed cancer. By contrast, the response of a civilised society is to offer palliative care which includes, warmth, tenderness, nutrition and hydration, as well as the appropriate management of pain.

In 1983, many people in Ireland began to realise that, if neighbouring democratic societies, which were otherwise considered to be civilised, had nonetheless legislated for abortion, this could just as easily happen in Ireland. This realisation was what led to the proposal to include a pro-life amendment in the Irish Constitution. I became involved in that campaign, because I believe that the right to life is the most fundamental of all human rights and I believe that every life is a gift from God.

Looking back now, I have no hesitation in saying that we got it right. I am convinced that thousands of lives have been saved and, notwithstanding the large numbers who travelled to England over the years, a great number of women were culturally supported in not choosing abortion.

There are, of course, pregnancies which present significant difficulties for all sorts of reasons, emotional, medical and economic, but "hard cases do not make good law".

Nobody could be unaware of the fact that there is a campaign underway to repeal the pro-life amendment.

There is a story told about a teenage girl who was behaving a bit strangely at home. Her mother was a bit suspicious as to what was going on and asked straight out if she were pregnant. The girl replied "just a little bit". There is, of course, no such thing as being just a little bit pregnant and, in much the same way, there is no such thing as a little abortion. Every abortion is the taking of an innocent human life.

The government has proposed the establishment of a citizens' convention to make recommendations on what should be done about the pro-life amendment. This is nothing more than a smokescreen, by means of which the government wants to distance itself from the political consequences, by pointing the finger towards some other group.

Past experience would suggest that people often wait to see what will happen. People hope that the bishops will do something - and of course we will, but the bishops only have influence as leaders of a faith community if it is clear that the faith community is also actively committed. People hope that family and life or one of the other pro-life groups will do something - and of course they will. The most important thing of all is for pro-life people to arm themselves with the facts and to talk to their neighbours, just as you would about the All Ireland or the weather. This is not a time to be shy and retiring.

:: Taken from an address by Bishop of Elphin Kevin Doran at an event organised by Family and Life in Athlone, Co Westmeath.

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