By far, the most slippery phrase in Irish politics is “issues of conscience”. We regularly hear that TDs should be allowed a free vote on “issues of conscience”. We all know straight-away that “issues of conscience” doesn’t mean – say – votes on money bills, which can have calamitous effects upon the lives of our most vulnerable citizens.
We all know that “issues of conscience” doesn’t cover cutting funding to homelessness services, or rape crisis centres or special needs assistance.
We all know that “issues of conscience” doesn’t cover shouting down left-wing TDs asking how a supposedly neutral country can blithely facilitate the greatest military empire the Earth has ever known as its war-planes refuel at Shannon.
We all know what Lucinda Creighton meant when she decreed that the now-unlamented Renua Ireland would afford their dreamed-of TDs a free vote on “issues of conscience”.
We all know that in Irish politics, “issues of conscience” always means kowtowing to a particularly Victorian strain of Catholicism which desires above all else control over women’s bodies. It’s always meant that, ever since – at least – Dev allowed Archbishop McQuaid to ghost-write the Constitution.
“Issues of conscience” meant control over women’s bodies in 1951 when Health Minister Noel Browne championed in the Mother and Child Scheme. Browne proposed that mothers receive free maternity care and their children get free medical care to the age of 16. The Catholic Church feared it would lead to contraception and abortion.
Faced with Church opposition, Fine Gael Taoiseach John A Costello indicated he could not support Browne. Browne resigned. Addressing the Dáil, Costello stated that, in matters of “faith and morals”, he and his government would take their lead from the Catholic Church, pledging “our complete obedience and allegiance” to the Church.
“I am an Irishman second, I am a Catholic first,” the Taoiseach declared, “and I accept without qualification in all respects the teaching of the hierarchy and the church to which I belong.”
“Issues of conscience” meant control over women’s bodies in 1974 when Fine Gael Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave voted against his own government on contraception. That was in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling that the ban on married persons importing contraceptives was unconstitutional.
Justice Minister Paddy Cooney introduced legislation to allow married couples to access contraception, but – when it came to the vote – the Taoiseach crossed the floor without warning and voted against his own government. The legislation fell.
By way of context, three years earlier, the so-called “Contraception Train” had rolled into Connolly Station, carrying members of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement. They had travelled to Belfast and purchased over-the-counter contraception and brought it back to the Republic.
In a brilliantly apocalyptic pronouncement, Bishop Ryan of Clonfert said of the Contraceptive Train “… never before, and certainly not since Penal Times, was the Catholic heritage of Ireland subjected to so many insidious onslaughts on the pretext of conscience, civil rights and women’s liberation.”
“Issues of conscience” raised its head in the Dáil last week, just as it does every time anyone tries to untangle the Gordian knot that is the Eighth Amendment.
This time, three Independent Alliance ministers, Shane Ross, John Halligan and Finian McGrath, chose to vote for Mick Wallace’s repackaging of Clare Daly’s 2015 Private Member’s Bill to allow for terminations in the case of fatal foetal abnormalities, despite the clear advice from the Attorney General that the Bill was unconstitutional.
Dismissing the AG’s advice as “simply an opinion”, the Independents ignored Article 30.1 of the Constitution, which states the AG is the advisor to the Government on legal matters; Article 15.4 which states the Oireachtas may not enact any law repugnant to the Constitution; and Article 28.4.2 which states the Cabinet shall act as a collective authority.
Wallace’s Bill was defeated but it served to keep the Eighth Amendment firmly on the news agenda. Although I am personally sympathetic to the Independents’ stance on what they see as an “issue of conscience”, I think it’s absolutely bananas that Ministers think they can pick and choose the bits of the Constitution they like, and I think this situation is a sign of exactly how weak both the Taoiseach and the Government are.
This, coming in a very bad week for Enda Kenny, helped kick-start the first public rumblings of discontent among Fine Gael TDs about the Taoiseach’s retirement plans. It would be ironic indeed if the Eighth Amendment, for which Kenny campaigned so vigorously in 1983, proved his political downfall.
It is thirty-three years since Catholic fundamentalists got their hands on our Constitution and planted their Eighth Amendment as a bulwark against the oncoming tide of liberalism. There was absolutely zero chance of abortion being legalised in Ireland but this was the ultimate “issue of conscience” and the ultimate means of control over women’s bodies.
This would be their easy victory and from there, they would fight the good fight against contraception, divorce and the legalisation of homosexuality.
The religious fundamentalists lost every other battle of their holy war but they left us with an unholy mess with which we are still grappling. They are directly responsible for the endless alphabet soup of tragedy that gave us A,B,C,D,P,X and Y.
The Eighth gave us Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution, which states that mother and unborn have equal rights to life and the State will vindicate those rights where practicable. In effect, a woman, a sentient person, is reduced in value to the same worth under Irish law as a days-old cluster of cells within her.
Thus, a teenage rape victim refugee can be denied an abortion and can be forced to stay pregnant against her will until such time as the pregnancy is (barely) on the cusp of viability outside of the womb and she can then be carved open by C-section. As happened to Ms Y.
Thus the very meaning of life and the very meaning of death can be twisted and reduced to the stuff of nightmares because doctors fear prosecution for murder if they allow a brain-dead pregnant woman a natural death. As happened to Ms P.
Thus Irish women – ten a day – are forced to travel abroad for terminations. More women access abortifacients online – itself a crime – and endanger their own health by doing so.
Thus a woman can die in agony, screaming for mercy, as happened to Savita Halappanavar.
Thus Liverpool Women’s Hospital sees – every week – two to four Irish women carrying desperately-wanted babies who are suffering from fatal foetal abnormalities and who won’t survive. Costs of transportation, accommodation and treatment can be between €3,500 and €6,000. Master of the Rotunda Hospital, Professor Fergal Malone, estimates that 70% of those diagnosed with fatal foetal abnormality in 2015 chose to travel. Not all of those who do not travel do so by choice.
Resisting calls to repeal the Eighth Amendment, this Government instead kicked the can via a Citizen’s Assembly which won’t report back until at least the end of next year, by which stage anyone who watches the News thinks this Government will have long-since fallen.
Anyway, as Cork East TD Sean Sherlock put it: “We already have a citizen’s assembly. It’s called Dáil Eireann.”
A Red C poll in March showed that 87% support wider access to abortion. 73% supported a referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment. We need leadership from our politicians and we need it urgently. We need a referendum to repeal the Eighth and we need our legislators to legislate.
The Eighth Amendment was foisted on supine politicians by religious fundamentalists and voted for by 850,000 people. The youngest of those voters is in their fifties now.
A referendum, if ever there was one, really is an issue of conscience.