Catholic hospitals and abortion


A chara, – Dr Don O’Leary (Letters, May 20th) writes that I seem “unaware of the obvious contradiction – the Catholic ethos in this context is incompatible with democracy. The Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Bill 2018 was passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas and signed into law by our democratically elected president, Michael D Higgins, in 2018. All this was done on the basis of a referendum which provided a clear mandate for change. Therefore, it is undemocratic to insist that the Catholic ethos should take precedence over secular law in this jurisdiction.”

There is no contradiction. Democracy is not the tyranny of the majority. It does not ride roughshod over minorities. Neither the change in the Constitution nor the 2018 Act obliges everybody to participate in the termination of pregnancy.

I do not insist that the Catholic ethos should take precedence over secular law. The Catholic ethos in this context is not incompatible with democracy. It is important for democracy that the right of conscientious objection be respected. To do otherwise is undemocratic.

Under the Eighth Amendment of 1983, abortion was not legal in this State. But the amendment also gave a specific guarantee that the State would enact measures to respect, defend and vindicate the right to life of mother and unborn child (“na mbeo gan breith”). The State did not honour that constitutional guarantee. In this, the State acted undemocratically.

We must now hold the State to account that it does not do so again. – Is mise,



Dublin 16.

Sir, – Dr Don O’Leary writes that because the Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy Bill 2018 was democratically signed into law by President Higgins in 2019, it is undemocratic to insist that the Catholic ethos in Catholic hospitals should take precedence over secular law in Ireland. But there are important considerations in addition to democratic principles to be taken into account in this matter. The Catholic Church teaches that abortion is grievously wrong and therefore a Catholic hospital that carries out abortions is an outright contradiction in terms.

To make it illegal for Catholic hospitals to refuse to carry out abortions, as some people call for, would force the church to withdraw from the hospital system. This would cause serious disruption to an already shaky healthcare infrastructure, would represent a full frontal assault on the principle of freedom of conscience and would open an ugly chasm between church and State in a country where 78.3 per cent of the population identified as Catholics in the 2016 census.

However, I concede that the current situation does call for some rationalisation. Abortion is now legally available in the Irish health service and I am not aware that this availability is seriously restricted.

But, insofar as the refusal of Catholic hospitals to perform abortions is constricting this abortion service, surely it should be possible to come to an agreement with Catholic hospitals that they will, for example, take on some extra responsibilities, in lieu of providing an abortion service, thereby freeing up capacity in those hospitals that do provide abortion services. Such a compromise would serve both democracy and freedom of conscience. – Yours, etc,



Sir, – Dr Thomas Finegan (Letters, May 20th) argues that respect for the value of integrity explains both why it would be wrong to require an atheist president-elect to take a religious oath and why publicly funded hospitals controlled by religious orders should not be required to provide abortion services. According to him, those who oppose the latter while supporting the former fail to appreciate that “freedom of conscience cuts both ways”.

It is of course true that atheists and theists alike have interests in integrity and in being able to live by the lights of their own consciences. However, Dr Finegan glosses over three important differences between these cases. First, no one else would be burdened by a non-religious oath being made available to future presidents-elect, while allowing hospitals to refuse to provide abortions makes it more difficult for women to access necessary medical treatment. Second, it is the integrity of individuals that matters, morally speaking, and not that of institutions such as hospitals. Third, religious oaths are exclusionary and undermine equality of opportunity, since non-believers who are unwilling to lie are disbarred from holding an important office. By contrast, requiring publicly funded hospitals to provide a full range of services would only have modest effects on the employment opportunities of religious doctors and nurses (and ones that could be offset by providing for an individual right to conscientious objection). – Yours, etc,


Senior Lecturer

in Political Theory,

University of Limerick.