• Home
  • Blog
  • Sinister echoes: Ireland's abortion bill tramples on conscience

Sinister echoes: Ireland's abortion bill tramples on conscience

It would require the wisdom of Solomon to select the single most objectionable provision from an ethical perspective from the mass of moral repugnances that is the abortion bill currently before the Oireachtas. There is, however, one that above all that carries with it historical overtones of the most disturbing sort: I refer to the section that obliges named hospitals (including those operating under a Catholic auspices) to provide abortions on pain of losing their public funding.

I shall make some preliminary contemporary observations on this provision, before coming to the principal, historically-informed, section of this paper. First, this provision has nothing to do with decisions in either the X or C cases, neither of which made any reference to the system of health finance. Second, the provision is, in fact, an amendment to the original draft heads of the bill, and was only made public shortly after midnight on the day that the report into the death of Savita Halappanavar was released – which timing ensured that the full ramifications of this new, and lethal, provision were lost to public discussion. Thirdly, the focus here is on the impact of the proposal on Catholic hospitals in Ireland, both because they form the overwhelming bulk of the voluntary hospitals covered by the legislation, and because the opposition of the institutional Catholic church to the bill is predicated on the belief that its provisions indeed amount to the state legislating for the provision of abortion.

The effect of this section of the bill may be simply stated: Catholic maternity hospitals in Ireland must cease to be Catholic, in the sense of having their practises informed by a Catholic ethos, or cease to exist. The significance of the provision may also be simply stated: it is an act of naked democratic totalitarianism. It is the expression of a philosophical viewpoint that the state, by virtue of the fact that it has the power to take money from civil society, is entitled to force institutions that underpin that civil society to violate their basic principles in any way the state dictates as a condition for the receipt of what is, in effect, civil society’s own money.

One can go further: it embodies the idea that the democratic state can dictate to society what is and is not permissible, using the coercive power of public funding to enforce its will – even with regard to institutions such as Catholic hospitals and the religious orders that run them that predate the creation of the state itself (and which, in the case of the said hospitals, are among the safest in the world). In effect it seeks to make civil society a tool of the state.

The use of the word ‘totalitarianism’ in this sense may jar with some people, who are used to employing the term solely in the context of the communist and fascist dictatorships that were established across Europe in the 1920s and 30s, and which (in vitiated Communist form) persisted behind the Iron Curtain until 1989. The idea that a democratic state could be totalitarian may seem, to some, to be a contradiction in terms, perhaps even ludicrous.

It is important to appreciate that this is not the case, and that all forms of government, all states, even the most democratic ones, do possess just such totalitarian potential. It was precisely for this reason that post-war western European democratic governments of all political outlooks were so reluctant to enforce legislation against conscience, given the then all-too-recent memories of the unspeakable horrors that had arisen from enforcing such an approach from 1917 to 1945 (horrors which were to continue in central and eastern Europe for decades to come). It is no coincidence that the Christian democratic tradition was particularly strong in those countries – most notably Germany – that had recently experienced totalitarian dictatorships. Statesmen such as Konrad Adenauer, first Chancellor of West Germany after World War II, and others of his generation, had bitter personal experience of the consequences of allowing society to be placed at the service of the state, and of allowing conscience – individual and collective – to be subsumed by the exigencies of public policy. The result was a vibrant European-wide political tradition that emphasised the limits of the state, and the rights of individual and of other social units such as the family, religious organisations, and other structures and institutions, to be free from state dictation. (To go off on a brief, if relevant, tangent, one of most disturbing perversions of the noble concept of human rights – the advocacy of which should be a vital tool to defend individuals against the excesses of state power – has been the recent tendency on the part of some human rights advocates to seek to curtail the application of conscience in the public sphere in the very name of ‘human rights’).

Both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, the two largest political parties in this state, have traditionally subscribed to this Christian democratic philosophy, even if the exigencies of party politics has meant that both have been keener to emphasise their differences than their similarities. 

One of the proudest achievements in the history of the Fianna Fáil party is the 1937 constitution – passed precisely at the time when the totalitarian dictatorships mentioned above were becoming increasingly the norm across Europe. To his undying credit de Valera in the constitution went ‘the other way’, and embodied Christian democratic precepts in the body politic a full decade before Adenauer and others followed suit. This constitution provided for a limited parliamentary democracy, an independent judiciary, and a ‘small’ state that respected the rights of the constituent elements of society, including (for the purposes this discussion) religious bodies – even if, as is now abundantly clear, both the state and those religious bodies themselves were guilty of, in practice and at times, riding roughshod over the rights of some of the most vulnerable members of Irish society.

Fine Gael, by virtue of being in government for less time than Fianna Fáil, and having always had to operate in a coalition environment, does not have something like the constitution to which it can point as the distillation of its philosophy of government, but that is not to say that the party’s tradition has not also been overwhelmingly an honourable Christian democratic one. With rare exceptions that were explicable in the circumstances of the time (notably with regard to certain provisions of emergency legislation arising out of the troubles of Northern Ireland) the party, in government, has, until now, consciously respected the boundaries between state and society and viewed the latter as possessing superior and anterior rights to the former.

It is for this reason that the provision of the abortion bill in question is so disturbing from a historical perspective, because it calls to mind the disturbed circumstances of the foundation of the party in the 1930s, and the brief interlude in that decade when it manifested totalitarian sympathies. There are, of course, huge differences between then and now: in place of the über-Catholicism of Eoin O’Duffy and his fascist-leaning minions there are elements in the modern party that are openly, indeed forcefully, anti-clerical and liberal (in that curiously Irish statist way that is the antithesis of the continental, individualist liberal tradition). There is, however, this disquieting continuity between the two eras: that in both certain party ideologues view the state as having the power and right to control society, and see the autonomy of social structures and institutions, and the right to private and institutional conscience – two of the most distinctive and valuable contributions of the Christian democratic tradition to modern European politics – are just so much useless, indeed dangerous, baggage.

One can posit a broader context, one that is linked to the contemporary debate (if a one-sided monologue can be so categorised) about the virtues of ‘separation of church and state’ in Ireland. The intellectual pedigree of both this debate in general, and the proposed amendment under discussion here in particular, can be traced back to the principles of secularisme and laïcité that are part of the French republican tradition – a philosophy that positively revels in hostility towards organised religion. Such elements have, until recently, been almost entirely absent from the Irish republican tradition – with the result, I would argue, that that Irish tradition has been the more authentically republican of the two, in that it has been more firmly grounded historically in the lived experiences and values of the people in whose name political authority is derived and the state constructed. The French republican tradition, of course, has many virtues to commend it, and the Enlightenment principles of liberté, fraternité and égalité are some of the touchstones of a civilised society – but historians point to an intellectual tradition of much darker hue, one that is also derived from Enlightenment thought. This is the philosophy that accepts no limit to the malleability of man, given suitable social conditions to be engineered under state auspices. This view stresses that inherited, and irrational, social structures are the principal cause of man’s inadequacies and society’s failings, and thus the liquidation of those obstacles (human and institutional) are the necessary precursor to the realisation of the full potential of each individual and the perfection of human society (based on the afore-mentioned Enlightenment principles). This policy of liquidating existing social structures and institutions – of which the most important is, and was, the Roman Catholic church – is, therefore, a civic and ethical imperative to be performed not with regret but with (if I may be pardoned the expression) evangelical fervour and glee – with the type of catastrophic and inhuman results that were all too apparent during the French Revolution.

This repressive, intolerant, secular, totalitarian republican tradition has spawned many offspring over the course of the subsequent 200-plus years, from Marxism to National Socialism. It is, whether its sponsors admit it or not, or if they are consciously aware of it or not, the motive force behind the amendment under discussion here. If the bill is enacted in its current form this single clause will have achieved one of the secularists’ prime goals (one that, I believe, underlies the entire abortion debate): to prevent Catholic principles being applied to the area of maternity care. The effect will be to massively enhance the power of the state to engage in the type of social engineering that is the antithesis of the Christian democratic tradition to which Fine Gael has heretofore subscribed, and in theory, at least, still does.

If one is under an illusions as to what the inevitable consequences will be for patient care of applying a statist approach to maternity provision in Ireland, one need only look across the Irish Sea, and the furore regarding the monumental scale of abuse perpetrated under the auspices of the National Health Service that is being progressively revealed. The most recent of many scandals involves Furness General Hospital, run by the Morecombe Bay NHS Trust. So deadly was the threat posed to expectant mothers and their unborn children in this hospital (as in others) that it was, with great care and deliberation, covered up by the Care Quality Commission – the very government agency whose job it is to maintain standards of care in hospitals, and uncover abuses! That one branch of the British state-run health sector covered up for the lethal failings of another should come as no great surprise – but it should certainly serve as a warning against Ireland going down the same route.

One can make reference to other disturbing historical parallels suggested by the amendment. The provision is nothing more than a form of institutional ‘souperism’, that vile practice evident during the Great Famine, whereby the starving were fed by certain proselytising groups on condition that they renounced their Catholic faith. The proposed amendment is this vile practice writ large, and with state sponsorship. Are we to face a future whereby Catholic maternity (and, presumably soon enough, general) hospitals will be obliged to abandon their religious ethos – an ethos that has produced one of the safest systems in the world – in return for funds that are needed by these hospitals if they are to continue provide this world-class healthcare to other members of the public, who are the ones (not the state) who generate these funds in the first place?

One can cite another historical precedent – the penal laws of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Such laws were designed to eradicate Catholicism as a public force in Ireland, but they did not, because they could not, oblige Catholics to cease practising their religion (though they sought to make such practise as difficult as possible). 

The provision of the abortion bill discussed here goes well beyond the public sphere, and intrudes into (indeed tramples over) the realm of religious practise and belief itself – it obliges Catholic hospitals, and the staff working in them, to violate church teaching on the sanctity of human life, and the rights of the unborn child, as a condition of continuing in existence. It is sectarian, in the basest sense of the term.

There is, of course, a further twist – for if Catholic hospitals are forced to perform abortions in the circumstances outlined in the bill, by virtue of being faced with closure and the denial of service (frequently life-saving service) to other patients, there is nothing that they can do if subsequently the call goes up in certain quarters for abortions to be performed on demand in the same hospitals.

The provision is, to repeat and to conclude, totalitarian in nature. It is being proposed not by some recognisably ‘nasty’ left or right wing junta or dictatorship, but by a democratically elected government, which is dominated by a party that sees itself as subscribing to a Christian democrat outlook – and the proposal is all the more abhorrent because of it.



Gabriel Doherty is a Historian and University Lecturer


back to blog