Abortion debate lacks clarity of 1983 , says John Bruton

Huge change in values has taken place since abortion referendum, says Mary O’Rourke

John Bruton: “Does the right to human life not extend to humans before birth?”

John Bruton: “Does the right to human life not extend to humans before birth?”


Current debate on abortion in Ireland lacks the clarity that preceded the 1983 referendum, which saw the Eighth Amendment inserted into the Constitution, former Fine Gael taoiseach John Bruton has said.

“The clarity of 1983 is not there in the public mind” now, he said. “In 1983 the Irish people were clear, both those who opposed and supported [the Eighth Amendment]. Those who opposed it did so for reasons of legality or practicality, not philosophically.”

Former Fianna Fáil minister and deputy leader Mary O’Rourke said there had been “ a huge change in values. Very big changes all over the place” in Ireland since 1983. She attributed this to “education and decent jobs”.

Mr Bruton asked: “Does the right to human life not extend to humans before birth?” He said he believed the right to life was “fundamental, in terms of priority. There can be no freedom of speech or bodily integrity without it.”

He described it was “a human rights issue” and said “the right to life is the first right”.

Nowadays the abortion issue was being discussed “without any attempt to agree first principles”, instead of which the approach appeared to be “what can we get a consensus around, not what is right”.

Philosophical side

In 1983 discussion on what was right was based “on common assumptions. Do people now have any common assumptions?” He felt there was a role for the media in exploring the more philosophical side of arguments to establish whether there were such common values.

Asked how this change had taken place since 1983, he replied “I don’t know what has happened, I’m not a social philosopher, but there was a strong faith in the afterlife then. It was widely held then. Now people live in the here and now, and what can be achieved in living this life.”

This was “not new”, he said. “We had the Enlightenment in the 18th century, where reason became most valued. This may have been encouraged by the economic system, which is very individualistic and only values things that can be measured, as by money.”

Mary O’Rourke said abortion “was not countenanced in 1983”.

This had “nothing to do with the Catholic Church. People just regarded abortion as wrong. That is still there, especially in rural areas.”

Where proposed changes by the Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment were concerned, she was “not surprised at all. Basically people felt that trekking to England for women was abhorrent. Often they can’t afford it, and with no backing at home.”