Catholic hierarchy still on a learning curve in dealing with abortion

Rite & Reason: A poor view of women paints a picture of them wanting abortions on lifestyle whims

Abortion Rights Campaign postcard sent to members of the Oireachtas. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

Abortion Rights Campaign postcard sent to members of the Oireachtas. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy


The Roman Catholic hierarchy has formally stated its position on abortion by declaring definitively that the direct and intentional killing of the unborn is immoral. Yet, my dog-eared old Maynooth textbook tells me otherwise.

Abortion is there defined as the expulsion of a living but non-viable foetus from the womb. The expulsion is then further defined as direct abortion, if the means used are such as to kill the foetus by the very nature of the act; as in craniotomy, for example.

But it is indirect abortion, if the means used have as their immediate and direct effect the prior purpose of protecting the life of the mother; even if it is clearly foreseen that the act will result in the expulsion of a not yet viable foetus.

Hence the first legal rule: “Indirect abortion is permissible for sufficiently grave reasons.”

Next, taking the example of the induction of premature labour as a case of indirect abortion, my trusty old textbook informs me: “if the means used (eg induction of premature labour) have as their immediate and direct effect the health of the mother, although it is foreseen that this means the expulsion of the foetus”, then, the second, more precise legal formulation reads: “The induction of premature labour and indirect abortion are permissible for sufficiently grave reasons.”

This legal ruling might have been written specifically for the tragic Halappanavar case. Especially since no hard and fast distinction between threats to the health and threats to the life of the mother is entertained.

Death’s door
Instead, the emphasis is on threats to the health of the mother that may be so gravely serious, that they may be foreseen to threaten her very life. And the obvious difference this makes to justifying a medical intervention is this: that the termination does not have to wait until the woman is at death’s very door, when it may be too late; as in the case of the gravest and imminent threat of sepsis, for example, that could be prevented or treated earlier. It is not just the right, it is the inalienable duty of our Government to legislate, and most crucially in matters most critical for life, and death.

No other authority – and certainly not one that, although it has performed quite credibly in its textbook legislation for abortion, but has performed so poorly on the ethics of contraception, and on the moral and legal rules for dealing with an abusive clergy – can avoid the impression that it is still on a learning curve in applying its own legislation on abortion; as it pleaded already when it finally took responsibility for clerical abuse.

Suicidal ideation does of course pose a particular set of problems for abortion legislation. It is a deadly force that brutally invades the centre of consciousness and conscience, and by its name and nature it directly threatens the lives of those it infects with the dark desire for self-destruction.

So that the invitation to those who want to end a pregnancy to approach relevant medical experts for a full diagnosis of their case should open up the more promising possibility for the suicidal to consider other ways forward, made easier by the assurance that if the unfortunate woman cannot tame her suicidal ideation so as to contemplate any other way forward, the abortion may proceed; thereby offering a possibility of which most of those who suffer from suicidal ideation never avail.

Cause of relief
Since the causes of suicidal ideation are so inscrutable for those already dead, and pose a further burden of grief for loved ones, it should be a cause of relief that someone may come forward and tell confidentially what the actual cause of their suicidal ideation is.

It is, of course, impossible to rule out the prospect of some women abusing the claim to be suicidal in order to be allowed to abort for other reasons. But as the relevant principle in jurisdiction has it: the abuse of a law by some does not take away the right of others to use that law; and we would have to have a very poor view of women to paint a picture of exponentially increasing numbers of them wanting abortions on lifestyle whims.

James P Mackey is visiting professor at the school of religions and theology at
TCD, and Thomas Chalmers professor emeritus of
theology at the University
of Edinburgh

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