“An unacceptable definition of abortion”

“An unacceptable definition of abortion”

Haig, Robin

Dear Editor,

I write regarding David Quinn’s article concerning the abortion referendum in Ireland (HLR Winter/Summer 2002). As Chairman of [the Association of Lawyers for the Defence of the Unborn], which comprises over 3,000 members, including many in Ireland, I was first contacted about the proposed referendum by an English ALDU member, who has connections in Ireland. In October 2001, a matter of only a few days after the draft law had been published, he wrote to me pointing out that the main objection to the proposed new law was “an unacceptable definition of ‘abortion.'” He added, “It is unfortunate that some of the leaders of the Pro-life campaign in Ireland have supported the Government’s proposals. Few seem to see the dangers involved in the new definition of abortion.”

Mr. Justice Rory O’Hanlon, a former Irish High Court judge and a very well known and experienced pro-lifer in Ireland, did see the dangers and described the proposed law as “the most serious attack yet witnessed on the integrity of our Constitution”

So, pro-life opposition to the Irish referendum proposals was not something extraordinary. In reality, what was extraordinary was that any pro-lifer could contemplate voting for those referendum proposals.

The referendum proposed the introduction into the Irish law of the Protection of Human Life in Pregnancy Bill 2002 (the Bill). What this Bill proposed went much further than just political compromise. Moral compromises were undoubtedly required if the Bill was to be accepted and become law. For example:

* The Bill would have introduced into Irish law a definition of abortion as applying to the intentional killing of unborn human life “after implantation.”1 As a purely factual definition, this is untrue; it is not a legal fiction or some such legal device, it is a lie. No one should be asked to vote for a lie. In a private letter, written weeks before the referendum had taken place, Mr. Justice O’Hanlon referred to this particular provision with the warning, “This seems to me to leave the way open for many undesirable practices’.”

* The clause in the Bill containing this false definition began with the words, “In this Act” and it was claimed, therefore, that this definition was limited to be used in the context of this new law alone. In practice, however, what this law would have done, had it been approved in the referendum, would have been to enshrine this false definition of abortion in Irish law. This was undoubtedly introduced to smooth the path for the introduction of the abortifacient “morning-after” pill. It is no coincidence that in September and October 2001 the Irish Medicines Board was considering an application to licence the morning-after pill in Ireland. Approval to the m.a.p. was duly given on the mendacious ground that the m.a.p. is a contraceptive, not an abortifacient, and in regard to the licence application the Medical Director of the Irish Medicines Board on 23rd October 2001, advised the Board that “The proposed referendum on abortion helps to clarify the issue in that it proposes to define an abortion as occurring after implantation of a fertilised egg.”2

There is no acknowledgement here that this definition was intended only to be applied in the narrow confines of that specific law. And yet this statement was made only 3 weeks after the Bill was published, 6 months before the referendum was due to take place and long before the law might have come into force, a law which will not now ever come into force.

In his article, Mr. Quinn states that the proposed new law “could not have withdrawn protection from unborn life pre-implantation even if it had wanted to” but, as the above example shows, it has already been used to do exactly that. This false definition of abortion was never going to be limited to the circumstances “In this Act,” but had been introduced to be used, as here, to legitimise the killing of and experimentation upon human embryos.

* The new law would have repealed3 the Offences against the Person Act 1861, which is the underlying law (subject to the Irish Constitution) which prohibits abortion in Ireland. Much was said to down-play the significance of this change-the 1861 Act was said to be an anachronism and it was said that the Constitution contains other protective measures. The same 1861 Act still applies also in the United Kingdom and especially in Northern Ireland where the Abortion Act 1967 does not apply at all. The Abortion Act has largely undermined the 1861 Act in the remainder of the U.K. but not in Northern Ireland and pro-lifers in Northern Ireland were rightly concerned at proposals to repeal the Act in the Irish Republic. The repeal of the Act would have had symbolic connotations in the whole of the U.K and indeed in many parts of the former British Empire where laws based upon the 1861 Act still apply.

* The law would have allowed abortion to be carried out by doctors where “in the reasonable opinion of the practitioner [it is] necessary to prevent a real and substantial risk of loss of the woman’s life other than by self destruction.”4 It was established in English law as long ago as 19395 that saving a woman’s life was (in the context of abortion) interpreted by the Courts to mean preventing her from becoming “a physical or mental wreck,” in other words a much wider interpretation than simply preventing her death. There is every reason to suspect that a similar interpretation would be given in Ireland.

* What is more, the new law would have required the medical practitioner to form his opinion acting “in good faith.”6 That phrase, which occurs in the U.K. Abortion Act, is the reason, above almost all other reasons, why we have abortion on demand in the U.K. However stupid, foolish, even negligent the doctor may be shown to have been in reaching his opinion, it is almost impossible to challenge the doctor’s assertion that it was given in good faith. This provision in the proposed new law would have given Irish doctors wide powers of interpretation to decide whether or not, in their opinion, an abortion was justified. Abortionists would have leapt through this open door with glee.

* The Bill would have enshrined in Irish statute law the right for Irish women to travel abroad to have abortions.7 Whether or not this provision would have made any practical difference to what is actually happening (Irish women are already travelling abroad for abortions), there seems to be no good reason why this provision should have been included in the Bill nor why any pro-lifer should be expected to vote for it.

What was being demanded was not compromise but concessions. No one who supported the referendum has ever explained why these concessions had to be made at all. Why not simply change the law to close the loophole which had apparently been opened by the X case and which appeared to allow abortions in Ireland if the pregnant woman claimed that she would commit suicide? Pro-life opponents of the referendum did not insist upon “perfection” in the legislation, as has been claimed, but they were not willing to accept concessions, such as those I have mentioned above.

Paragraph 73 of Evangelium Vitae would not, as it is claimed, have justified a “Yes” vote in the referendum. In that paragraph, the Pope writes that “an elected official, whose personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by [a pro-abortion law].” (Emphasis in the original.)8 But this is not the situation which pertained in Ireland. First, it was every eligible member of the Irish population who was being asked to vote, not just an elected official. Secondly, the Bill was not merely limiting the harm done by a pro-abortion law (i.e., the X-case judgement), it was introducing a whole raft of new provisions as I have mentioned above, provisions which would certainly have increased the harm of abortion.

In truth, therefore, the rejection of the referendum, far from being a disaster, was a resounding success. The Irish people have not yet escaped the depredation of the culture of death but they have rejected its lies. All people of goodwill, whether they voted Yes or No, must seize the opportunity to build on this success and work together to further the culture of life.

Yours sincerely,

Robin Haig, Chairman


1. Clause 1 (1) of the Bill.

2. Note to the Irish Medicines Board from the Medical Director prior to Board meeting of 31 October 2001.

3. Clause 6 of the Bill.

4. Clause 1 (2) of the Bill.

5. R. V. Bourne [1939] 1K.B. 687.

6. Clause 1 (3) of the Bill.

7. Clause 4 of the Bill.

8. Evangelium Vitae 73.

Robin Haig is Chairman of the Association of Lawyers for the Defense of the Unborn in London. The Association was founded in May 1978 and has over 3000 members.

Copyright Human Life Foundation, Incorporated Fall 2002

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