Ireland is undertaking a historic debate on abortion and the Eighth Amendment. A prominent voice in this debate will be the Catholic hierarchy. Just last week the Catholic Primate Archbishop Eamon Martin argued that even in instances of rape the Catholic position would be to deny a woman her right to end the pregnancy. He also called for the voices of Catholics to be heard.
On that I agree with him – Catholics must be respected, and their views on the Eighth Amendment should be heard. Where we disagree is on what Catholics might have to say.
The truth is that for years now the majority of Catholics have disagreed with the Church hierarchy on reproductive rights and the health of women, as well as on the role of the secular state. There are Catholics who strongly reject what the hierarchy claims as truth.
The majority of Catholics trust women to grapple with tough moral questions about when and whether to continue a pregnancy, and to make those decisions for themselves.They will not be fooled again with the false equivalencies that ushered in the passage of the Eighth Amendment in 1983.
For more than three decades Catholics have seen how this draconian law has punished and shunned Irish women – how it has forced those with the means to travel abroad for the healthcare they needed.
They have witnessed its very real consequences for the lives of women, including Savita Halappanavar, and know there cannot continue to be more deaths like Savita’s. They feel they must speak out against the immorality of this law.
Archbishop Martin says we should journey with women and support them with what we know is often a tough decision to continue a pregnancy. But to be truly compassionate we must be there for women irrespective of what choice they decide is ethical and right for them.
The state and our local communities should stand ready to support a woman who decides to continue a pregnancy even if she does not have all the answers about how she will provide for that child.
But we should also support the woman who decides she cannot continue a pregnancy and respect her privacy to make that decision responsibly and safely in her own community among her friends and family.
The hierarchy may try to sway Catholic voters into believing that a vote for women’s conscience is wrong. But many good Catholics support a woman’s right to choose because of their faith, not in spite of it.
As reflected in the teachings of St Thomas Aquinas, Catholic teaching puts primacy on developing a good conscience and following it in moral decision-making, even if that means disagreeing with the Church hierarchy.
Many of the hierarchy’s teachings on reproductive rights have not been received by the faithful. For instance, the majority of Catholic women have made conscience-based decisions to use contraception responsibly, and Catholic women have abortions at the same rate as other women. They understand these can be ethical choices.
Armed with the knowledge that conscience is not about imposing beliefs that are out of sync with people’s lives but that it is about allowing the faithful to formulate their own moral positions, Irish Catholics have evolved in their thinking about abortion. They can reconcile the complexities of these weighty matters.
They know you can be a woman who believes she would not have an abortion in any circumstances, but yet can support the right of other women to do so. Or that you have had an abortion and do not want other women to face the restrictions you faced; or that as a man you respect the right of every woman to make her own decision and be author of her own life.
Right to decide
Irish society has evolved greatly in 35 years. A secular society is one that respects freedom of religion and respects freedom from religion. It upholds the right to decide and follow your own beliefs, making your own moral decisions.
Irish Catholics stand by women and trust them to be moral agents of their own lives. It is important that Catholic voices be heard – because so many of us know in our hearts that repealing the Eighth Amendment is the right thing to do.
Jon O’Brien is president of Catholics for Choice, based in Washington DC
This op-ed was originally published in The Irish Times.