The campaign to “Repeal the 8th” – that is, the bit of the Irish constitution that explicitly gives protection to the unborn child – is well under way, long before the general election is announced in which the issue may well play a part. It’s already apparent that the coverage of the issue is going to be as wildly skewed as the one on gay marriage was. And there’s not much more skewed than the Amnesty bid to influence the vote which features a quite astonishing advertisement fronted by the actor Liam Neeson, who recently adopted US citizenship.
This extraordinary propaganda exercise features first a black-and-white image of Ireland, with a mist-shrouded, deserted church, a “cruel ghost” which, Neeson says, brings “suffering and even death to the women whose live it touches”. The ghost, he says, is “feared by politicians, this is the ghost of paper and ink. A spirit that lives in a constitution written for a different time. It is the shadow of a country we hoped we’d left behind. Ireland doesn’t have to be chained to its past. It’s time to lay this ghost to rest.”
To show just what a difference this would make, the picture then breaks into colour. Without the church, it seems, contemporary Ireland will be full of brightness and life. So, “repeal the 8th”.
There are umpteen things to say about this blatant bit of propaganda besides the obvious one, which is that fair-minded people, whether religious or not, should decline to back the organisation until it withdraws the ad. The landscape that it shows is, in fact, shaped by Christianity. Whether in the Burren or Glendalough, every bit of rural Ireland is marked by aspects of the faith, from holy wells, Mass rocks and deserted ancient churches to the tiny stone hermitages of the early monks. A secularised Irish landscape would be a barren, denuded one.
But the really brazen thing about the campaign is its attempt to identify the abortion issue as a Catholic construct. It is certainly the case that the Church opposes the repeal of the Eighth Amendment and it is certainly true that many anti-abortion campaigns will be advertised and promoted within parishes. But this is not – Î repeat not – to say that the issue is a Catholic one.
In September I had the pleasure of attending a conference organised by the Irish pro-life movement. The gist of my talk was that abortion is not a religious issue, at least no more so than any other moral question. I mean, if I were to lose my faith in the night, in the morning I’d still be anti-abortion. A regard for prenatal human life is not unique to Christians.
I noted that the most eloquent and influential pro-lifer in Britain is the journalist Dominic Lawson, who happens to be Jewish by background and atheist by conviction. If Ireland has any similarly fluent and intelligent pro-life Jewish atheists now is the time for them to surface.
It’s sad that the Irish Church can’t enter this fraught debate, lest it put people off
The original campaign to introduce the Eighth Amendment to the constitution was indeed promoted by by the bishops, but that was a generation ago. Now it’s generally recognised that the involvement of the Church on the issue would be actually unhelpful, confusing the issue – as we saw in the Amnesty propaganda broadcast – with more generalised anti-clericalism.
In one way it’s desperately sad that in a still Catholic country the Church is unable to contribute its moral insight to this fraught debate, lest it put people off. But, you know, this is in one way what we’ve been told for years to want: a lay-led church. Or rather, Catholics contributing to a public debate in their own right.
A generation ago, Catholics would have waited for the bishops to articulate the obvious moral problems with legalising abortion. Now, they must do it themselves.
And they can: I honestly don’t know how many of the speakers at that conference go to church, but what I do know is that their arguments were such that could be shared by anyone. These were articulate, committed individuals, many of them young women. In a way, this is a hopeful moment for the Church and those who seek to protect the unborn.
FOR what it’s worth, the Church didn’t always have the approach to prenatal life that it does now. In the time when it shared the Aristotelian view that during the course of gestation the foetus moved only gradually towards humanity in its final trimester, abortion was seen differently. It’s the knowledge of the development of the embryo from conception onwards which we owe to science that allows us to insist that the foetus is human too. On that basis we can argue with anyone, Amnesty included.
Melanie McDonagh is comment editor of the London Evening Standard
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