My contribution this morning to the Irish parliamentary hearings on abortion law

Jane Donnelly and I were witnesses today at the Irish parliamentary hearings on abortion law, along with representatives of six Irish religions. Here is my opening contribution to the session.

There is also a video version of this here.

The 1983 amendment

We are here because the 1983 amendment has constrained our public ethics.

We should not need three days of parliamentary hearings to discuss how the law should allow a doctor in a hospital to save the life of a dying woman.

That is the absolute minimum rock-bottom ethical standard that we should automatically expect from our healthcare system.

The ABC case requires you to vindicate this right. It does not require you to limit yourself to only doing this.

Please do not ignore the suffering of pregnant women whose health is at risk, who are victims of rape or incest, or whose foetus has fatal abnormalities.

Please recommend removing the 1983 amendment, so that you can democratically decide on appropriate laws for the people of Ireland today.

Freedom of conscience

As atheists, we ask that you respect our human right to freedom of conscience.

As atheists, we each form our own individual ethical beliefs, including on abortion, but one belief does unite us: we do not get our morality from gods.

And so our laws should not be based on what other people believe that the creator of the universe is telling them to impose on us.

‘The creator’

For example, Cardinal Brady has explicitly told you that, while acting as our legislators, you should remember that the right to life is conferred on us by ‘the creator’.

Please think about the enormity of that claim, the lack of evidence to support it, and its irrelevance to your deliberations and duties as lawmakers.

Because even if you believe that there is a creator, as many of you do, there is no pathway from believing this to taking any particular ethical position.

You cannot argue that the universe had a beginning, therefore it must have had a creator, therefore you cannot legislate for abortion.

There is no cause and effect between these ideas.

We do not get our morality from religion, we apply our natural morality to religion.

Secular ethics

So what is Atheist Ireland asking you to do?

Whatever laws you pass, please base them on human rights and compassion, and on applying reason to empirical evidence, and not on religious doctrines.

Please respect that individual ethical decisions should be made on the basis of personal autonomy and individual conscience, while not infringing on the rights of others.

Please respect that individual ethical decisions about pregnancy should be made by a pregnant woman in consultation with her medical team.

Human Rights

Please also consider these human rights issues.

In X, the Court said that the risk to life must be be ‘real and substantial’ but it need not be ‘inevitable or immediate’.

In ABC, the Court said that that obtaining an abortion abroad constitutes a significant psychological burden on pregnant women.

In D, the Irish Government said that it is an open question as to whether a pregnant woman with a fatal foetal abnormality has a right to an abortion.

Ireland is obliged, under various international conventions, to respect the equal right of women to health and to physical and psychological integrity.

The 1983 amendment is incompatible with our human rights obligations, and it discriminates against women on the grounds of physical and mental health.

Threat of suicide

Finally, the X case has already ruled that a suicidal woman has a right to an abortion in Ireland. You have a duty to legislate for that right.

Please don’t pass a restrictive law that assumes that pregnant women are lying, or you run the risk of another tragedy.

A suicidal woman may be denied an abortion, she may commit suicide, there may be public outrage, and the law may be changed. But it would be too late for that woman.

It took a raped teenage child to establish the right to an abortion in Ireland. It has taken the death of a miscarrying woman to bring about these hearings.

Please stop this unethical pattern of lawmaking by response to personal tragedies.


Please do not limit yourselves to the minimal possible response to X and ABCD and the Expert Group.

Please legislate comprehensively based on human rights and compassion.

Please respect the right of religious people to believe in their gods, and to act in accordance with their own religious values, but not to impose their own religious values on pregnant women who do not share those religious values.

My contribution this morning to the Irish parliamentary hearings on abortion law

9 thoughts on “My contribution this morning to the Irish parliamentary hearings on abortion law

  1. I can’t believe in this day and age that there are people who would try to argue around suicide as a real threat to life. It is no doubt a real threat to life.

    Excellent opening statement, but I fear that your well formed opening statement and argument may fall on the deaf ears of either cowardly or backward politicians.

  2. Cal, I think you can download it from the website.

    Also, someone may have recorded it while it was being broadcast.

    We’ll find out sometime today or tomorrow.

  3. It is apt to quote an English judge (and, incidentally, devout Anglican) , Sir John Laws LJ, in the Court of Appeal’s decision in Relate v. McFarlane, 2010:-

    But the conferment of any legal protection or preference upon a particular substantive moral position on the ground only that it is espoused by the adherents of a particular faith, however long its tradition, however rich its culture, is deeply unprincipled. It imposes compulsory law, not to advance the general good on objective grounds, but to give effect to the force of subjective opinion. This must be so, since in the eye of everyone save the believer religious faith is necessarily subjective, being incommunicable by any kind of proof or evidence. It may of course be true; but the ascertainment of such a truth lies beyond the means by which laws are made in a reasonable society. Therefore it lies only in the heart of the believer, who is alone bound by it. No one else is or can be so bound, unless by his own free choice he accepts its claims.

    The promulgation of law for the protection of a position held purely on religious grounds cannot therefore be justified. It is irrational, as preferring the subjective over the objective. But it is also divisive, capricious and arbitrary. We do not live in a society where all the people share uniform religious beliefs. The precepts of any one religion – any belief system – cannot, by force of their religious origins, sound any louder in the general law than the precepts of any other. If they did, those out in the cold would be less than citizens; and our constitution would be on the way to a theocracy, which is of necessity autocratic. The law of a theocracy is dictated without option to the people, not made by their judges and governments. The individual conscience is free to accept such dictated law; but the State, if its people are to be free, has the burdensome duty of thinking for itself.

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