Mater hospital’s principled position on abortion defines the cultural divide

Opinion: The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill was an ideological ‘present’ by Fine Gael to Labour

Were a government to punish a medical institution for declining to implement a law repugnant to its ethos – by, for example, withdrawing State subventions or tax breaks – wouldn’t citizens who shared that institution’s ethical outlook have a moral right to withhold their taxes until such bullying ceased?

In other words, Mater hospital board member Fr Kevin Doran may have raised more than one provocative hare in suggesting the hospital "cannot comply" with the provision of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act because its ethos forbids abortions. The hospital, part-owned by the Sisters of Mercy and managed independently of the Health Service Executive by its own board of governors, is one of 25 named in the legislation as "appropriate institutions" where abortions "may" take place.

This is being presented in the media as, yet again, a power struggle between church and State. But this is a secondary aspect, since the principle at stake may conceivably extend to other categories of ethos. Moreover, it is not Catholicism that defines the cultural divide about abortion but something far deeper.

St Vincent’s hospital, another “Catholic” hospital listed as an “appropriate institution” in the legislation, has said it will “as always, be following the law of the land”. But the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act is no ordinary law. What it proposes is not, for example, like changing the maximum speed limit. It introduces something fundamentally repugnant to the thinking of many Irish people, including many who are not Catholic.

For any sentient person, the abortion question is central to the perception of what a human life is and is worth. Even many who disagree with the pro-choice position accept the integrity of someone who supports “abortion rights” on the basis of a certain view of when human life begins. Pro-life advocates decide the question otherwise but I have never encountered anyone who decided simply on account of being a Catholic.

Catholic teaching holds essentially that abortion amounts to the killing of a human life, although this may in certain circumstances be unavoidable and therefore permissible as the lesser of evils. (The Mater will continue to extend care on this basis.) But the Catholic position is the distillation of a fundamental moral perception: a repugnance of killing. It is not, for example, the statement of an ideological tenet or some arbitrary and arcane rule to which the church demands adherence.

Eminently reasonable position
Liberal agitators present the Catholic standpoint as unreasonable, reactionary and incoherent. But opposition to abortion is an eminently reasonable position, with the same entitlement to he heard as such as, for example, opposition to the death penalty, which liberals regard as self-evidently reasonable.

Fr Doran has raised the issue in the context of a Catholic hospital defending its specific ethos. Really, though, what’s at stake is the right to hold in conscience a different view, to dissent from even the majority on an issue fundamental to the understanding of human reality at the most essential level. An obligation to obey “the law of the land”, then, cannot be the end of the matter.

The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill was, in effect, an ideological "present" by Fine Gael to its junior coalition partner, the Labour Party. The legislation had no context in any urgent public need and was not canvassed before the electorate. Public representatives were denied freedom of conscience to oppose it, and those who persisted in their dissent were ruthlessly punished. Its passage was effected with the assistance of assiduous media bullying and cultural intimidation. It is a law, therefore, that has been railroaded into place, over the heads of at least a sizeable minority of the population, citizens who have every right to claim they have been disenfranchised.

In other contexts we have seen instances of radical new provisions which go against the most basic instincts of human beings being pushed through in a similar bullying fashion by regimes brooking no dissent to their ideological agendas. There have been numerous instances in other jurisdictions of public officials who disagreed fundamentally with homosexual marriages or adoptions by homosexual couples being forced to comply with such innovations or lose their employment. I know of a university in the United States that fears the imminent introduction of homosexual marriage will mean it will be forced to allow such marriages to take place in its on-campus cathedral or lose state funding and tax concessions.

This will very likely be the next stage of the abortion wars here also, with hospital and doctors informed that, whatever their personal principles they must obey the “law of the land”. But this will raise the issue of the moral entitlement of those whose most fundamental outlooks on human reality are now being ignored and overridden by the reigning ideologues. For who in conscience would pay taxes to support the deliberate killing of innocent human beings?