WORLD

Shattering traditions

Abortion divides a Roman Catholic nation

ANDREW PHILLIPS June 1 1992
WORLD

Shattering traditions

Abortion divides a Roman Catholic nation

ANDREW PHILLIPS June 1 1992

Shattering traditions

WORLD

IRELAND

Abortion divides a Roman Catholic nation

For Caroline Simons, jumping into Ireland’s most controversial debate was a matter of both professional interest and personal experience. As a lawyer in Dublin, Simons took a special interest in the ruling last March by Ireland’s Supreme Court that effectively legalized abortion under some circumstances. As a mother, she had another, less detached motive. During her first pregnancy, Simons developed life-threatening complications that, she said, would have made her a prime candidate for an abortion if the procedure had been legal in Ireland at the time. Instead, her daughter Katherine was bom nine weeks premature, and survived. “Now she’s a healthy four-year-old,” said Simons, who is 32 and a supporter of a group called the Pro-Life Campaign, which is fighting to restore Ireland’s total ban on abortions. “It makes you realize that we don’t want an abortion culture here.”

Feelings on abortion, the most explosive issue in Ireland, are running especially high as the Irish prepare to vote in a referendum on June 18. Officially, they are to decide whether to ratify the treaty on closer European union that was negotiated among the 12 European Community states in the Dutch town of Maastricht last December. But in Ireland, a country that, more than any other, has written strict Roman Catholic standards of sexual morality into its laws, arguments over the treaty have become entangled with renewed controversy over abortion. Both anti-abortion groups and those promoting women’s right to choose for themselves are urging voters to reject the treaty. And to further complicate matters, a sex scandal has dealt the biggest blow in decades to the credibility of the Catholic church, Ireland’s traditional moral arbiter.

On May 7, the popular Bishop of Galway, 65year-old Eamonn Casey, suddenly resigned his

post and left Ireland for the United States. Over the next few days, Ireland remained spellbound as a 44-year-old American woman, Anne Murphy, told an initially skeptical Irish press the graphic details of her “magical” affair with Casey in 1973. She became pregnant and the next year had a baby boy, Peter, who is now 17. Murphy recounted how Casey tried to persuade her to give the baby up for adoption. When that faded, he sent her monthly child-support payments and then a final sum of $132,250 in 1990.

Casey, whose current whereabouts are unknown, eventually issued a statement confirming Murphy’s story.

The bishop acknowledged that Peter was his son, and admitted using church funds to pay off his onetime mistress, although he claimed to have repaid the money. “I have sinned grievously against God, His church, and the clergy and people,” he said in the statement, which ended with a plaintive “Pray for me.”

Casey’s fall from grace hit Ireland, 95 percent of whose 3.5 million people are Catholic, like an ecclesiastical earthquake. Commenta-

tors called it the greatest blow to the moral authority of the church in a century. Scandal in the church is nothing new, but for most Irish people it was something that happened in the United States or even the Vatican, but not at home. “We’ve built up this image of holy Catholic Ireland, of a rigid Roman Catholicism controlled from the centre,” noted Sean Freyne, professor of theology at Dublin’s Trinity College and a former priest himself. “And now a bishop—the holy of holies—has fallen.”

For the bishops and Ireland’s powerful antiabortion movement, the timing of the scandal could not have been worse. In April, the bishops declared that abortion is the most important issue facing Ireland, and they noted pointedly that “the right to life of the unborn does not seem to be on the government agenda.” But since the Casey affair broke, they have said nothing publicly about the issue. And most analysts maintain that the scandal will make it easier for the conservative government of Prime Minister Albert Reynolds to resist church pressure to reimpose a total ban on abortion. Senior churchmen, too, acknowledge that the affair has hurt them. “We’re going to have to be a humbler church,” said Bishop Brendan Comiskey.

Ireland’s latest debate over abortion is its most intense since 1983, when, in a bitterly fought referendum, voters approved by a 2-to1 margin a constitutional amendment giving equal rights to the life of a pregnant woman and of her unborn child. That effectively outlawed abortions in Ireland and also made it illegal to distribute information, such as the names and addresses of abortion clinics in England, that might lead a woman to seek an abortion.

Despite those restrictions, pro-choice groups continued to circulate such information clandestinely, and an estimated 7,000 Irish

women travel to England each year to end their pregnancies. When the Maastricht treaty was negotiated last fall, anti-abortion groups voiced fears that European law might eventually over-

ride Ireland’s prohibition on abortion. The Irish government, sensitive to their concerns, attached a “protocol” to the agreement stating that nothing in it would affect the country’s anti-abortion amendment.

With those fears mollified, the issue appeared to be settled. But it was reignited in February, when a 14-year-old Dublin girl claimed that she had been raped by her best friend’s father. The Irish government obtained a court order barring her from going to England for an abortion but, in late February, the Supreme Court overturned that order on the grounds that the girl had a right to travel.

Four of the five judges, however, went much further in striking down the travel ban. Because the girl had threatened suicide, they wrote, her right to life took precedence over that of her fetus—and that she had a right to an abortion in Ireland. The girl subsequently had an abortion in England. Anti-abortion groups were outraged. “The judges equated the definite death of the child with a possibility—the threat of suicide by the girl,” said veteran antiabortion campaigner Mary Lucey. “To me, that’s not an equation at all.” And Simons, the Dublin lawyer, said: “The judgment was flawed in many ways.”

As a result, anti-abortion groups are now urging Irish voters to defeat the Maastricht treaty on June 18. They argue that it would, in effect, give the protection of European law to the Supreme Court’s controversial interpretation of Ireland’s pro-life constitutional amendment. They formed the Pro-Life Campaign under the leadership of a strongly anti-abortion senator, Desmond Hanafin, and staged noisy demonstrations outside the Irish parliament, or Dáil, in Dublin while the referendum legislation was being debated inside. Ironically, pro-choice groups are also campaigning for a “no” vote on

June 18 because they believe that the Maastricht treaty would, in fact, entrench the antiabortion laws.

Reynolds’s government is caught in the mid-

dle. It says that voters should defer the abortion debate and judge the treaty on its own merits. Instead, it has promised another referendum in November on the right to have access to information on abortion, and on the right to travel—which would effectively allow women to get an abortion outside the country. Reynolds has cited figures showing that Ireland, one of the EC’s poorest states, receives about she times as much from the community as it contributes. Rejecting the treaty, he said recently, would be “economic lunacy.”

In fact, the treaty will probably be approved by a comfortable margin; polls show that about 60 per cent of voters support it. The polls also indicate a major shift of opinion on abortion. The dramatic case of the 14-year-old girl forced even many voters who oppose abortion in principle to face up to the need to change the law. In a recent survey by The Irish Times, fully 80 per cent of voters said that abortion should be permitted under some circumstances, although only 16 per cent said that it should be available without any restrictions. “People were forced to look at individual cases, not general principles,” said Ursula Barry, a leader of a group campaigning for repeal of the anti-abortion amendment. “They aren’t looking at it in black-and-white terms anymore.” So far, at least, the debate has been intense but calm. But pro-choice groups are worried by the emergence of a new, militant group among the anti-abortion forces. Called Youth Defence, it was founded in late February by seven Dublin students and now claims more than 5,000 members. Its leaders have shirked the comparatively moderate approach of mainstream antiabortion groups in favor of shock tactics such as distributing photos of aborted fetuses and shouting epithets like “baby murderer” at opponents. Their leaflets describe abortion as “war on youth” and claim that “the abortion racket is controlled and financed by millionaires” like the Rockefellers and the New York City-based Ford Foundation. Inspired by American anti-abortion groups, they argue that abortion should be banned on human rights grounds rather than because of the Catholic church’s anti-abortion stance. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re Catholic, Buddhist or whatever—you don’t kill babies,” says the group’s determined 21-year-old chairman, Niamh Nie Mhathuna.

The debate is likely to intensify as the June 18 referendum date approaches. Youth Defence’s militant young leaders say that they will escalate their campaign with demonstrations and pickets outside the homes of pro-choice politicians. But the promise of a second referendum in the fall, with abortion the sole topic, means that the current controversy is only a I skirmish in what is almost sure to be a long, hot S battle. In that November vote, Irish voters will 5be able to pass judgment on abortion without 5 having to weigh their moral principles against the economic advantages of closer ties with the European Community. As a result, notes prochoice campaigner Barry, “that’s when the crunch will come.”

ANDREW PHILLIPS in Dublin