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Paul Vallely: What we can learn from the Irish abortion vote

01 June 2018

It was preceded by a nuanced and civil debate, says Paul Vallely


A poster campaigning for legalised abortion on a building in downtown Dublin, Ireland, last week

A poster campaigning for legalised abortion on a building in downtown Dublin, Ireland, last week

ONE of the remarkable factors about the resounding Irish vote on abortion was the civility with which both sides conducted the debate. It was nuanced and intelligent, despite being filled with passionate intensity. The contrast with the way in which we conduct ourselves over such matters in England was notable.

Canon Giles Fraser found that out to his cost. On Twitter, he announced that, were he Irish, he would definitely vote Yes to liberalise abortion law, and yet he was unconvinced by arguments that “It’s not really a baby.” He was subjected to a barrage of vitriolic abuse from illiberal liberals in response. In Ireland, the arguments were considerably less ideologically polarised.

There, before the vote and after it, it was frequently observed that it was possible to be anti-abortion and still think that a woman had the right to make her own choices. One thought-provoking anti-abortioner unravelled the progressive package deal that bundles together issues such as gay marriage and abortion. The logic of human rights, she suggested, should mean that anyone in favour of gay marriage should be against abortion, since both were about protecting the rights of a minority.

Intriguingly, anti-abortion lobbyists pointed out that some Yes campaigners were using the same argument as was used in the 18th century by those opposed to the abolition of slavery: “If you don’t like slavery you don’t have to have a slave, but why should you stop me from having one?” Replace “slavery” with “abortion”, and it throws up provocative corollaries: if something is deeply wrong, the state should ban it, yet who decides, and on what basis? Why is bigamy illegal but adultery merely immoral?

But perhaps the most interesting example was a piece in The Irish Times which addressed the anti-abortion position of the Catholic Church, whose clerics kept out of the frontline of the debate, leaving it to lay people. In England, the question “Is the foetus a baby?” turns chiefly on the question whether or not the child is wanted. The Irish Times, with greater sophistication, asked questions about personhood.

The absolutist position of the Catholic Church, it pointed out, is comparatively recent. The church Fathers took a different line. St Jerome and St Augustine, and later Aquinas, were concerned with “ensoulment”, the moment when the bundle of foetal cells becomes a person. Aquinas, following Aristotle, asserted that the soul of the foetus was first vegetative, then animal, and only finally human, a position confirmed as Catholic dogma by the Council of Vienne in 1312. In 1591, Pope Gregory XIV ruled that abortion was a mortal sin only where it took place after “quickening”, which, he declared, happened only after 166 days of pregnancy.

It was only in 1869 that Pius IX — the Pope who promulgated the doctrine of papal infallibility — adopted Rome’s current stance as a consequence of the new dogma of the Immaculate Conception, which declared that Mary had been free from sin “in the first instant of her conception”. How intriguing that the current Catholic position on abortion grows out of Marian theology rather than ontological ethics.

All of this offers more food for thought than is usually evident on this subject on this side of the Irish Sea.

Read Andrew Brown on how the press covered the historic vote

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