The Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children last week concluded three days of hearings from various experts and interest groups on the issue of abortion.
The committee heard from the main Church groups in the first session of the day on Thursday morning. It later heard submissions from advocacy groups on each side of the debate.
Chair of the committee Jerry Buttimer said that the committee would now begin to compile the report that it will submit to Government for the drafting of the heads of a bill.
Representing the Catholic Church, Bishop Christopher Jones of Elphin said that the only way the difficulties posed by the X case judgment can be addressed is by a new referendum.
Bishop Jones told the committee that the Supreme Court ruling allowing the risk of suicide as grounds for abortion was unsound, as was any legislation giving it force.
Bishop Jones said that it is not necessary to legislate for the X case to ensure that women in Ireland receive all the life-saving treatment they need during pregnancy, and that other options are available to the Government that do not involve legislating for abortion.
“These include the option of appropriate guidelines, which continue to exclude the direct and intentional killing of the unborn, or a referendum to overturn the X case judgment.”
Addressing the judgment of the Supreme Court in the X case, Bishop Jones said current research indicates that suicidal ideation rarely relates to a single cause and that abortion itself can lead to suicidal ideation and mental health difficulties.
“You cannot morally equate the possible but preventable death of one person with the deliberate and intentional destruction of the life of a different, totally innocent person,” he said.
“It is our view that giving sufficient professional support and care should be the priority in response to suicidal ideation in pregnancy. Taking the life of another innocent person, with absolutely no guarantee that it will remove suicidal thoughts and the real possibility that it may make the situation worse, can never be regarded as a humane or morally appropriate response.”
Bishop Jones said that assurances that legislation will limit abortion to very specific circumstances are unreliable, and “any such limitations will inevitably become subject to challenge in the courts”.
In addition, he said “The right to life does not depend on our physical or mental state. It does not depend on our religious faith. It is a natural and inviolable right that no individual, no majority and no State can ever create, modify or destroy.”
Bishop Jones continued to say the Church wants to see mothers and their unborn children receive all the medical care and life-saving treatment they need during pregnancy, and “there is nothing in current Irish law, in current medical guidelines or in Catholic ethics that prevents such treatment from being given”.
“The Catholic Church recognises a vital moral distinction between medical intervention to save the life of a mother and abortion. Abortion, understood as the direct and intentional killing of an unborn child in the womb, is never morally permissible,” the bishop said.
Church of Ireland
However, Church of Ireland Archbishop Michael Jackson said the current position was very unclear and he welcomed the Government’s decision to legislate.
Although emphasising the right to life of the unborn, Archbishop Jackson acknowledged that there are exceptional cases of “strict and undeniable medical necessity” where abortion is and should be an option.
The archbishop told the committee there is a variety of opinion within the Church of Ireland on what constitutes ‘exceptional cases’ but agreed that it includes circumstances where the continuation of the pregnancy “poses a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother”.
Archbishop Jackson’s view was echoed by Heidi Good of the Methodist Church, who elaborated further on the issue. According to Ms Good, the Methodist Church takes the view that termination should be available to a mother in four circumstances.
“First, where the mother’s life is at risk; second, where there is risk of grave risk of serious injury to her physical or mental health; third, in cases of gross abnormality where it is incapable of survival; finally, in cases of rape or incest.”
Ms Good also said “we believe the mental welfare of the mother must be taken into consideration and included in the forthcoming legislation. If her medical team deem that suicide is a real concern, then we believe it can be treated”.
However, she continued; “if after appropriate and thorough psychiatric assessment suicide remains a real possibility, we believe they must be allowed to consider termination as a part of that treatment”.
Dr Roy Patton, representing the Presbyterian Church in Ireland said “the first responsibility of government is the protection of human life, care for the weak and vulnerable. That includes the unborn child.”
According to Dr Patton, “it is not necessary to engage in metaphysical or theological debate on the status of the embryo and personhood. The embryo should be treated as a person.”
Speaking also on behalf of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, Dr Trevor Morrow said it is “wrong to allow a mother to die and it is wrong to take the life of a child, but in such circumstances, it may be necessary to choose what is least wrong – that is, the lesser evil”.
Meanwhile, Dr Ali Selim of the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland said that we cannot give a green light to victims of rape that says they can go for an abortion.
However, he said “where psychological problems and, likewise, physical problems, are considered by medical doctors and they decide the only alternative to come out of the situation is abortion, I would support that”.
Rabbi Zalman Lent said that from a Jewish point of view, in all cases, “the decision to terminate a pregnancy would be a last resort after all other avenues to save both mother and child had been explored”.
“In cases of rape or incest, where carrying to term could cause life-threatening mental health issues for the mother, the same criteria would apply and a termination may be permitted,” Rabbi Lent said.
Micheal Nugent of Atheist Ireland said that if there was concern about a line being crossed through legislation for suicide, that line had already been crossed because of the X case.
Abortion was legal, he contended, and told the hearing the job of politicians was to legislate for it.