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Some thoughts prior to the 8th Amendment Referendum

24 May 2018

Pro ChoiceTomorrow the people of Ireland go to the polls to vote about whether we should repeal the 8th Amendment and allow the government to legislate on abortion. The likely legislation will include abortion with no restrictions up to 12 weeks’ gestation with a waiting time of 72 hours, abortion if the mother’s life, health or mental health is at ’serious risk’ to be agreed by two doctors up to viability (24 weeks’ gestation) and up to full-term for a diagnosed foetal condition which is likely to lead to death during or shortly after birth. I wanted to write down a few fumbling thoughts that may (or may not) help you as you decide to vote.

The challenge I face

Before I do, let me explain the challenge I face and why I haven’t written anything online around the 8th amendment up till now…
  1. I have not quite known how to articulate all the facets of the debate
  2. I am not and never will be a woman carrying a baby that I do not want
  3. My worldview, taught me by my parents, is one that puts ‘welcome and hospitality of all people’ front and centre so I find it hard when, instead of welcoming, embracing and learning from one another (in our disagreements), we stigmatise and distance ourselves from one another. And I feel that communicating online ‘at a distance’ rather than ‘face-to-face’ more often than not hinders us from having a gracious debate and more naturally leads us to demonise those who disagree with us. I hope this blog post will not do that so let me talk about…


It really saddens me that we so quickly distance ourselves from those who take a view divergent to our own, as if our whole identity and meaning in life is wrapped up in whether we vote yes or no on this particular topic.

Pro Life Campign

I hope this post will not cause those who disagree with me to distance themselves from me but rather that we might learn how to talk truthfully yet graciously to one another in our disagreement. I believe a ‘tolerant society’ is one in which we can name and talk about our disagreements whilst ‘tolerating’ each other, not hating each other. I hope we can learn from this referendum what it means to be tolerant.


And let me say a few things about the word ‘compassion,’ which both sides of the debate want to claim for their own. I trust that we will respect and honour one another’s intentions and motivations, that we are all trying to be ‘compassionate’ – whether to the mother who has a crisis pregnancy or to the baby who has a right to live. Let’s at least give each other the benefit of the doubt that we are acting and voting out of compassion, even if we disagree with each others’ ultimate ways of showing compassion.

The value of a human life

Early on in the campaigns I met a lady who had had an abortion earlier in her life. When her mother found out she told her daughter that she herself (the daughter) had been conceived because of rape but her mother did not have her aborted because “she did not believe the value of a human life should be dependent on whether the baby was conceived in violence or in a bed of roses” – that a life is valuable however it starts. A few years later the woman got unexpectedly pregnant again and her then boyfriend put great pressure on her to have an abortion but she refused and eventually lost the boyfriend but kept the baby. This lady’s story aligns with my own view that all human life is valuable whether it’s in the womb or out.

As I see it, the only difference between the baby in the womb and ourselves is time. At conception the baby has all the potentiality for life and at 12 weeks (which is the date that the likely new legislation will allow abortion up until with no restrictions) they have hands and feet like me. They have fingernails like me. They yawn like me and can even suck their thumb like me. They have a unique DNA code like me and they can feel stress just like me. Here is a brilliant video that captures all of this from an ultrasound scan. I think the 8th amendment is in place to protect the lives of the unborn and that is a good thing.

I recently attended a ‘Love Both’ rally at Merrion Square and we heard two people tell stories about those who are alive today because of the 8th amendment. One was a young lady who became pregnant as a teenager and she said she would have had an abortion if it had been readily available as she was so shocked and panicked about being pregnant. But the 8th amendment gave her the time to think and she now has a little girl who would not have been here, were it not for the 8th amendment. The second person was a young man in his 20s whose mother had also wanted and had even gone to the UK to have an abortion but the very existence of the 8th amendment made her stop and think about what she was doing and ultimately not go through with it. He credits his life to the 8th amendment.

Lesser of two evils?

I have not met (correct me if I am wrong) anyone who thinks abortion is a ‘good thing’ – it might be the lesser of two evils and it might be necessary in the extreme and nasty cases of rape or incest but from what I can tell, no-one actually likes the act of abortion or thinks it is a good thing in and of itself.

That leads us to ask the question – why do people have abortions in the first place? As much as I have been able to listen and learn, I have tried to appreciate the arguments on the repeal side, the reasons for changing the 8th amendment seem mostly to do with the hard cases of rape, incest and when the mother’s health is at risk. It is my understanding that the current law in Ireland says that when the life of a pregnant woman is in danger it is possible to be given an abortion or to receive necessary treatment, even if that risks the life of the foetus. So our vote doesn’t affect that issue. With regards to rape and incest, I appreciate these are very challenging situations and we must do more to support women in this situation. However we must face the facts about most abortions. In England and Wales, 1 in 5 babies is currently aborted. This is calculated by looking at the number of live births (in 2016 there were 696,271 live births) and the number of abortions in the same year (190,406 abortions in 2016). This seems to me staggering compared to the 1 in 20 currently in Ireland. England and Wales do not record the specific reasons why women have abortions but of these, 97% come under category ‘C’ which is about injury to the physical or mental health of the mother. When you compare this statistic to the results of an extensive study in the US that compiled estimates of the reasons why women had abortions, they found that less than 1% of abortions were because of fatal foetal abnormalities, less than 0.3% were because of rape, less than 0.03% were because of incest, less than 1% were due to the risk of the physical or mental health of the mother, and over 97% were for other ‘elective’ reasons. If the 8th is removed, we have good reason to expect similar ratios. So given these statistics, this referendum doesn’t seem to be for the hard cases, this referendum is about the 97%.

I appreciate that many women who are in the 97% who have abortions do so because they are fearful of becoming a mother or they cannot see how they will be able to cope going forward or because they feel they don’t have the resources to raise a child, and I imagine that most find it very hard to choose and go through with the abortion itself (in other words it is not an easy or flippant decision) but does that not say more about the way our society supports, cares and provides for mothers? Is the real answer to offer unlimited abortion up to 12 weeks or to find more creative ways to support mothers when they don’t really want an abortion; they just feel they don’t have the capacity for a child? 

I said at the start “I am not and never will be a woman carrying a baby that I do not want” so I appreciate I need to tread carefully here and that my tone may come across as cold and insensitive (that’s what online does!). Maybe some personal testimony will help. A number of years ago Leanne and I, on two separate occasions, have spoken to 2 young women who became pregnant unexpectedly and offered to both care for them and the baby when they were considering an abortion if they wanted it. One of the women had the abortion, the other didn’t, neither took us up on the offer. I am not saying we are heroic for doing that, I am just pointing out different ways we should support and help women who find themselves with an unwanted pregnancy and who think ’there is no other option…no way out’. I want Ireland (I include myself in this!) to come up with a greater vision for how we care for women who have unwanted pregnancies.

Let’s listen and love regardless

These are some jumbled up thoughts that may or may not be helpful as you think about voting tomorrow. For the record, I will not be able to vote tomorrow as I didn’t get my act together quickly enough and my Irish passport has taken so long to come through that I wasn’t able to register by the 8th May (very frustrating for me!). But as you can tell I would lean to the no side. But please hear me, if you vote yes I will trust your motivations are compassionate and you are doing what you think is best for both the mother and the baby. I pray we will not despise each other for our opinions, but learn to understand each others’ motivations and reasons for believing what we believe. If we can do that then I think we will become a tolerant and compassionate society, and better for it.

However Ireland votes tomorrow and whatever the outcome, we all wake up on Saturday 26th May 2018 and will have the same task before us that we have today – working out how we love each other in all our diversity…what a wonderful and challenging prospect that is!

One final comment – to those who have had abortions

One final thing which I have to mention comes back to my introduction about how online discussion more naturally leads us to distance ourselves from one another rather than come together. By posting publicly as to which side of the fence I fall on I am in danger of not only distancing myself from those who vote ‘yes’ tomorrow, but of distancing myself from those women who have had (or will have) an abortion. My guess is that you might feel judged by me. I hope this post will show you that that is not my intention and I am sorry if any turn of phrase has given you that impression. Please forgive me if so. I do not believe any one human being is morally superior to another and I do not believe any one human being is morally inferior to anyone else. I truly believe we were all created equal. And I am greatly inspired by a man who said “‘Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way as you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” I try to follow this advice as best as I can, so I hope that for those who who have or will go through an abortion, you will not feel judged by me but rather, as my parents taught me, you sense a welcome and an acceptance from me no matter what.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. MVJ permalink
    24 May 2018 10:33 pm

    Hi Steve,

    I’ve read your thoughtful response to the referendum and wanted to express my appreciation.

    You’ve tackled a very tough issue in a very sensitive yet forthright manner. As John Stott said, it’s relatively easy to be faithful or contemporary; it’s very difficult to do both. I think you achieved both in your pastoral response.

    I pray for you and value you.

    Blessings, Michael


  2. Tim Larner permalink
    25 May 2018 11:13 am

    Our prayers are with the Irish people today as they express their views. Your carefully chosen words are a thoughtful and wise contribution, and rightly look ahead to the inevitable divisions that will test personal relationships in the aftermath. Thank you for your honesty and compassion.

  3. 28 May 2018 12:37 pm

    Steve, interesting and considered post.

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