Doctors should not be forced to ‘aid and abet’ abortions, says John Bruton

Former taoiseach believes asking physicians who oppose terminations to refer patients is unnecessary

Former taoiseach John Bruton was critical of Minister for Health Simon Harris’ speech to the Dáil following the result of the referendum. File photograph: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Former taoiseach John Bruton was critical of Minister for Health Simon Harris’ speech to the Dáil following the result of the referendum. File photograph: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg


Former taoiseach John Bruton has said doctors opposed to abortion should not be forced to refer women seeking terminations to other physicians.

Mr Bruton, in a speech to the Pro Life Education dinner in the Clayton Hotel, Dublin, on Saturday night, said he feared anti-abortion doctors would be “targeted” by those who wanted to “catch them out”.

The Bill proposed by Minister for Health Simon Harris to introduce and regulate abortions requires a doctor who has a conscientious objection to carrying out the procedure to “make arrangements to transfer the care” of the woman to another doctor.

“This is aiding and abetting the abortion, and there is no conscience clause here either,” said Mr Bruton. “Given the amount of information on the internet, or likely to be available there in future, I believe this transfer requirement is unnecessary.

“Those seeking an abortion can find a doctor who will do it, without forcing a doctor, who objects to abortion, to aid and abet them.

“I fear that doctors who are known to oppose abortion will be targeted under this clause by people wishing to catch them out and put them under threat of criminal prosecution because of their religious or human rights beliefs.

“Rather than place this burden on doctors who believe abortion is wrong, it would be more sensible to publish an affirmative list of those who have no conscientious objection to doing abortions.”

Mr Bruton also laid out a series of suggestions for how the anti-abortion movement ought to proceed following the defeat of its campaign to retain the Eighth Amendment.

Reflecting on the referendum, Mr Bruton said there was “no engagement” by proponents of repeal “with the question of when life begins, with when a human life should be recognised as a person, and hence when it ought to acquire human rights”.

He said: “That question was too difficult, too profound, so it was effectively ignored in the preparation of the abortion referendum, in the Citizens’ Assembly, the Oireachtas committee, and the Dáil and Seanad debates.”

Mr Bruton was also sharply critical of Mr Harris’s speech to the Dáil following the result of the referendum. “The reaction of those who won the referendum was not always magnanimous, or respectful of the pluralist nature of Irish society and Irish values,” he said.

“For example the Minister for Health, speaking in the Dáil after the referendum, did not seem to me to display the balance, and attentiveness to other points of view, that one would like to see in someone who will be deciding on the detailed content of the Termination of Pregnancy Bill.

“He spoke of the referendum result inaugurating what he called ‘a brighter Ireland’. It will not be a bright Ireland for the little babies who will have their lives ended before being allowed to see the light of a single Irish day.

“He spoke of the referendum meaning that we are ‘maturing into a tolerant, non-judgemental, inclusive Republic’. The Minister’s own speech was rather judgmental, and not particularly tolerant of those who sincerely disagree with him on the issue of abortion.

“I hope that this was just elation, in the immediate aftermath of winning a political battle, and that he will now show tolerance and inclusiveness, when considering amendments to the legislation he has proposed.”

‘Supportive environment’

Mr Bruton argued that following defeat in the referendum, the anti-abortion movement must now “create a supportive environment for life”.

“Now that the law is being changed, and the criminal law will no longer be a factor deterring abortion, we have to consider other ways of avoiding the abortion of Irish babies,” he said.

“We must work to building a climate of opinion, within families and in the wider public, that will support women in making the courageous decision to allow their child to be born. We must create a supportive environment for life.

“Creating a supportive environment will also involve solving the housing crisis, because the non-availability of affordable housing is a deterrent to bringing a new life into the world.

“Creating a supportive environment for new life will also involve giving greater recognition to the cost of rearing children in both our welfare and our tax codes. Children are recognised in the welfare system, but not in the tax code.

“The child tax allowance was abolished many years ago, while the tax allowance or tax credit for adults living in the same household has been steadily increased. That was perverse.

“Creating a supportive environment for life will also involve making sure that adoption is made as accessible as possible to those who feel they cannot keep their baby.”

Mr Bruton also argued that the clause to provide abortions on mental health grounds was “very loose ground”.

“It will be permissible to end the life of what is deemed a non-viable baby at any stage in the pregnancy, if allowing the baby to be born would pose a risk of serious harm to the mental health of the child’s mother,” he said.

“This is a very loose ground for ending a life. It involves the doctors in making a prediction about the future mental health of the mother after the baby might have been born.

“Whatever about adjudicating about present mental health, deciding about future mental health is completely speculative. And on the basis of that speculation, a baby’s life is to be ended.”