It was a classic “have you stopped beating your wife?” moment. Cardinal Seán Brady was asked by RTÉ if the Catholic Church would excommunicate politicians who voted for the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill. He responded that although politicians had a “solemn duty” to oppose it because it would result in “direct intentional killing”, the bishops had not considered excommunication. Inevitably, somewhat unfairly, the headlines eschewed the rest of the cardinal’s and bishops’ statements to suggest that he had not denied excommunication would be possible.
In truth, although some US bishops have wielded the threat against politicians, notably Joe Biden and John Kerry, it has not been something they have indulged in this side of the Atlantic. And in the US the bishops’ conference decided to leave it to individual bishops. Such a policy in Ireland would be likely only to solicit sympathy for those targeted.
The bishops’ statement on the Bill, however, deserves scrutiny. Like any citizen they have a perfect right to express their views, and vigorously – what we might object to is the privileged access that was a feature of past times.
First and foremost, perversely, and contrary to the view shared by the Government, the major parties, our own Supreme Court, and the European Court of Human Rights, the bishops take issue with any necessity for legislation at all, insisting that the Bill is “... unnecessary to ensure that women receive the lifesaving treatment they need during pregnancy”. All that is required, they say, are new Medical Council guidelines – or/and a new referendum. But the assertion of a view does not make it so.
The statement describes the Bill as a “directly and morally unacceptable change to Irish law”. Yet by putting into statute form the current legal position, as expressed in the X case, including provision for suicidal ideation, it can not be said to constitute a significant “change to Irish law”.
The bishops also complain that “the Bill appears to impose a duty on Catholic hospitals to provide abortions. This would be totally unacceptable and has serious implications for the existing legal and Constitutional arrangements that respect the legitimate autonomy and religious ethos of faith-based institutions.”
Yet none of the 19 maternity units in the State – 16 of them HSE-run, the remainder being the three Dublin voluntary maternity hospitals – where, the Bill provides, terminations will normally take place, is a “Catholic hospital”.
And while the Bill provides that in emergency cases terminations may be performed in locations other than maternity units, such cases would presumably be classified by Catholic doctors as indirect terminations necessary to save a mother’s life. The issue of Catholic hospitals being denied a conscientious right to opt out simply does not arise.