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Breda O’Brien: Referendum result does not override conscience

Anti-abortion medics feel threatened and fearful in a newly intolerant Ireland

Many Junior Cycle students preparing for their State exams will be revising To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

At a crucial point, Scout says to her lawyer father, Atticus, that he must be wrong about his decision to defend a black man accusing of raping a white woman.

When he asks her why she responds that “most folks seem to think that they are right and you are wrong”.

Atticus responds: “They’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”


We are in grave danger of losing that insight in our country. In relation to abortion, we are being told that the repeal of the Eighth has settled the question of abortion and now all good citizens, be they politician or pharmacist, must meekly fall into line.

This was not said in 1983 when an identical landslide victory secured the Eighth Amendment.

As Ronan Scanlan pointed out in a letter to this paper, "Senator Mary Robinson described the 33 per cent No vote as 'very encouraging', the late Adrian Hardiman deemed one-third of the voters 'a very large body of people', and John MacMenamin even called the two-to-one defeat a 'moral victory' for the No side."

Sore losers are uncomfortable: sore winners who seek to obliterate all dissent are dangerous to democracy.

Someone needs to continue to point out, for example, that an egg in a bird’s nest currently has far more legal protection than the unborn child. To damage an egg in a nest at any stage is a crime. To end the life of the unborn child in the womb is allegedly unproblematic up until 12 weeks.

Extreme provisions

Even though the Referendum Commission informed the public that we were not voting on any particular legislation, the passing of the referendum immediately led to politicians declaring that the public have voted for these extreme provisions.

This is despite the fact that an exit poll by RTÉ showed that only 52 per cent of those who voted supported unlimited abortion up to 12 weeks.

Micheál Martin has gone so far as to effectively bar his parliamentary party members from tabling amendments, thereby making a mockery of freedom of conscience.

Mary Lou McDonald has threatened to “square the circle” regarding dissident Sinn Féin TDs, a modern-day version of “Croppies, lie down”.

Politicians seem incapable of distinguishing the function of consensus from the function of conscience.

As a consequence, medical people feel deeply threatened and fearful of their livelihood in a newly intolerant Ireland.

As pointed out by Nuala O’Loan, the conscience provisions in the Heads of the Bill legalising abortion in the Republic appear to be far weaker than the conscience provisions of the UK 1967 Act.

Many who voted Yes will not want to see GPs hounded and prosecuted for their beliefs

The conscientious objection provision in the UK Abortion Act states that, apart from emergency situations, "no person shall be under any duty, whether by contract or by any statutory or other legal requirement, to participate in any treatment authorised by this Act to which he has a conscientious objection".

The Heads of Bill published by the Government provide that medical practitioners, nurses and midwives shall not be obliged to “carry out or assist in the carrying out of” an abortion, a much narrower and weaker formulation.

David Steel, architect of the 1967 Act, wanted a strong conscience clause to make it clear that no-one could be coerced into acting against his or her conscience.


Sadly, the effect of the 1967 conscience clause has been steadily eroded ever since, most notably in the 2014 case of two highly respected Scottish midwives, Mary Doogan and Connie Wood. Their status as conscientious objectors was honoured for decades until two hospitals amalgamated and more abortions were carried out in the labour wards.

As labour ward co-ordinators, they did not wish to delegate, supervise or schedule abortions. They won their case in a lower court but the British Supreme Court found against them, forcing them out of the profession at a time when hospitals were desperately short of experienced midwives.

Nuala O’Loan currently has a Bill going through the House of Lords designed to protect medical professionals like Mary Doogan and Connie Wood and all those who feel stigmatised or forced to abandon medicine because of their consciences.

Simon Harris declared recently that those who refuse to refer for abortion will be dealt with by the "law of the land", a law that he himself will frame.

Is this the future for nurses, midwives, doctors and pharmacists in the Irish medical system?

By and large, GPs are well-regarded. A sizeable minority will want to attend a GP who shares the belief that taking a new human being’s life is wrong.

Likewise, many who voted Yes will not want to see GPs hounded and prosecuted for their beliefs, or forced to emigrate because they cannot facilitate something which they abhor. But in a country which no longer respects conscience and demonises democratic dissent, is the right to choose only to apply to abortion?