Division on abortion necessary to protect human rights, says Bruton

Former taoiseach raises issue of respect for dignity of unborn during address in Kerry

Former taoiseach John Bruton. File photograph: David Sleator/The Irish Times

Former taoiseach John Bruton. File photograph: David Sleator/The Irish Times


The Government’s proposed referendum on repealing the Eighth Amendment will be divisive but sometimes division is necessary in order to protect basic human rights, according to former taoiseach John Bruton.

Mr Bruton said the debate on abortion should be seen primarily in terms of human rights.

Speaking in Cahersiveen where he delivered the keynote address at the Daniel O’Connell Summer School, Mr Bruton said he was in favour of the existing constitutional position which protects the rights of the unborn.

However, he said, there is a tendency in Irish society to presume that there can only be one legitimate view on an issue and that clearly was not the case.

The former Fine Gael leader raised the question of abortion when he suggested that O’Connell’s belief in human dignity, which led him to oppose slavery, would have also led him to oppose abortion.

“One of O’Connell’s great causes, the ending of slavery arose from his belief in the dignity of every defenceless human being ..... – as a society do we respect the dignity of people before they are born as well as we respect it after they are born? At what age do human rights commence and end?” he asked.

“These are not trivial questions or questions of convenience or questions of individual rights – they are questions about the obligations we have to other people that have not yet been born but who are already alive,” said Mr Bruton in his closing remarks at the end of a wide ranging address.

Questioned later by The Irish Times about his comments, Mr Bruton said he was not aware if O’Connell had ever expressed a view on abortion or the right to life of the unborn but he said what he was focussing on was O’Connell’s concern for human dignity.

Value system

“I’m not particularly calling on O’Connell in aid of my views – I’m drawing attention to the value system [that informed him] and O’Connell was a practising Catholic, as I am a practising Catholic, and we believe as Catholics in the sacredness of human life – that’s what I am standing up for.”

Asked if he was not embarking on a dangerous precedent by enlisting a historical figure who never expressed any views on abortion to support one side of a modern debate, Mr Bruton said that if that was the extent of criticism he would face in the debate, he would not be too concerned.

“The campaign could be very divisive but sometimes division is necessary – sometimes values clash and priorities have to chosen ... (but) there is no place for personalised attacks or attacking the person or their right to express their views.

“What we should deal with in this debate is the legitimacy of the view, regardless of who is expressing it – we are all flawed human beings and if you only listened to people who are flawless, you would have nothing to hear.

“My view is that we should look at this through the prism of human rights and for me the primary human right is the right to life and where does that right begin? That’s the question and I think the right to life is superior to most other rights.

“But people can say the right to something else is more important if they want but they need to address that question directly rather than anything else and I think the risk is that we will have a debate where human rights and the right to human life won’t be addressed directly.”