After Repeal Whither Now?

Last Friday’s vote in the South came after lengthy campaigning from both sides. Nobody was predicting such a landslide for repeal, with many of the projections indicating that it would be close. It would be foolish to think that we in the North will not be affected by this outcome given that a number of campaigners have now set their sights on NI’s pro-life laws. The DUP have quickly come out to re-affirm their pro-life stance and their defence of life, not only that both the secretary of state Karen Bradley and NIO minster Lord Duncan have publicly stated in the past that abortion is a devolved matter, and a large proportion of conservatives MPs have expressed the view that Westminster should not undermine devolution in NI by imposing abortion on us (https://bothlivesmatter.org/72-of-conservative-mps-reject-undermining-of-devolution-to-impose-abortion-on-northern-ireland). If we look to the most recent vote in the assembly on the mater in 2016, 59 – 40 MLAs voted against abortion in cases of so called fatal foetal abnormality, and an even greater majority, 64 – 30, voted against abortion in cases of rape and incest: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-35546399. Not only that, the feeling of some voters in the south that a yes vote was a way of casting off the Catholic identity of Ireland is not a view that is widely held here in the North, since the pro-life position here is clearly held across the communities. All in all, despite the pressure on NI to introduce abortion, it will not be a straightforward affair to get rid of NI’s pro-life laws.

Nevertheless, we cannot but be disappointed at the result of the referendum: disappointed that the unborn child now has no constitutional protection, and disappointed that many saw this as a good thing for society. A society needs to be measured by how it treats its most vulnerable; as Plato argues through the mouth of Socrates in the first book of the Republic – might is not right, and justice is the stronger acting for the good of the weaker. The unborn child is the most vulnerable person in society; removing any constitutional protection from it then is not a cause for celebration.

In the wake of the referendum, many Irish people who are still convinced that the child has a right to life and so must be protected will be thinking about what to do now.  In light of this, perhaps a 5th/6th Century monk and a 20th/21st Century philosopher can help. In his book After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre makes the argument that modern moral philosophy is living in a post-apocalyptic age wherein the terminology that is used no longer means what it used to mean. Modern moral philosophers speak of goodness, virtue, vice etc, but they give to these terms a meaning that is artificial and in significant contrast to the earlier philosophers who used the same. Thus, there is often no resolution of moral arguments because there is no common agreement on the realities to which the terms refer. At the end of the book, having given an account of the virtues and carving out a space for them in modern moral philosophy, MacIntyre considers some challenges to his approach. In one poignant paragraph he writes:

‘It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead often not recognizing fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St Benedict’.

Now a lot has been said about the so-called Benedict option given the book by the same name by Rod Dreher as a way for Christians to live in a post-Christian nation. I do not wish to go into the depths that Dreher goes into; rather I want to capture something of the flavour of this option for Benedict, and present it in a form that is not overtly religious, but which can apply to those whose moral and political position may have once been in the ascendancy but is now in the minority – such is arguably the position of pro-life supporters in the south.

The Benedict option is really quite simple and follows certain features of the rule of life laid down by St Benedict for his monks. The idea is that a community is formed with a common culture and ethos, and that this is a stable community working where it is to perfect itself. Unlike the later Dominican and Franciscan Friars of the middle ages, the monks did not travel out to spread the Gospel or perform works of charity. They remained stable in their monastery and slowly grew in perfection in their form of life. By sanctifying themselves their place exuded sanctity and soon many were drawn to the monasteries in order to participate somewhat in that sanctity. As Newman describes the phenomenon: ‘The new work which he [Benedict] helped to create was a growth rather than a structure. Silent men were observed about the country, or discovered in the forest, digging, clearing and building; and other silent men, not seen, were sitting in the cold cloister, tiring their eyes and keeping their attention on the stretch, while they painfully copied and recopied the manuscripts which they had saved. There was no one who contended or cried out, or drew attention to what was going on, but by degrees the woody swamp became a hermitage, a religious house, a farm, an abbey, a village, a seminary, a school of learning and a city’.

What does all this have to do with us in 21st Century Ireland? And how does it relate to the pro-life movement?

The pro-life position is not an essentially religious position, as evidenced by the many atheist pro-life groups. One does not have to believe in God in order to know basic principles of the natural law that would not justify the killing of innocent people. Nevertheless, the pro-life movement can learn something from Benedict and his monks. The monks did not seek to ascend to a majority status by an aggressive exporting of their values; rather, they became holy, people heard of their holiness, and their holiness spread.

Similarly the pro-life movement is now in the minority in the south and does not hold the position that it once did; as has been indicated in the media recently, the pro-life position is now in a similar state as the pro-choice position in 80s Ireland.  None of this means that what was once true – that it’s not ok to kill the unborn – is no longer true. It simply means that a significant number of people are not convinced of this truth.

Given all of this, perhaps we may now reflect on the Benedict option. Instead of seeking to erect a structure, perhaps the pro-life movement should focus on growth and attracting people through their growth. To do this, it must fortify itself and like the Benedictine monks, appear to the world as a strong stable community, cultivated naturally amongst those who are pro-life and spread through the natural and universal appeal of the right to life. In effect, the pro-choice movement did this with their defeat in the referendum in the 80s; they gathered themselves, developed their message, and gradually worked away behind the scenes so that incrementally over the years their position gathered momentum.

Whilst every county except Donegal voted for repeal, there were still significant numbers of pro-life voters in every county. The pro-life message has reached all parts of the country and still resonates. The task of fortifying and stabilising that community of supporters will not be a difficult one, and it is a task that must be done so that there can be strong pro-life opposition to the abortion legislation that is being planned for the south. But beyond issues of politics and legislation, the pro-life position needs to be born again in people all over Ireland, and a way of doing that may be the Benedictine way of establishing a strong community stable in their ethos and culture which attracts people towards it. If people can see that the pro-life position is one that is genuinely concerned about the lives of both mother and baby (as of course it is), that it sees something better for society than abortion, and that it is not an artificially constructed position with no life in it, then those who were not pro-life (and not principally hostile to being pro-life) will see that position as a genuine alternative to be taken seriously.

Dr Gaven Kerr


“Don’t tell me it isn’t a baby!”

Mary Lewis BL writes an open letter to Nell McCafferty on abortion (https://twitter.com/ClaireByrneLive/status/958124430768484352):

Dear Nell,

I was deeply struck by your recent reflections on the upcoming referendum on the proposal to repeal the 8th amendment. I am a Northern woman of strong views like yourself, but with no vote, just a voice on this important issue for our entire country, North and South.

You call abortion “cruel, crass and stupid”. I agree with you that abortion is no solution to a crisis pregnancy. Women definitely deserve better from government, family, and medical professionals. The baby, as a human being, also deserves better than instant death.  I agree too, that economic priority has not been given to young people wishing to start off in life and that the homelessness crisis is a national scandal.  You put it well in describing how “there was no room at the inn” for many of these women who seek abortion. I too wonder why this referendum was given precedence over tackling the homelessness crisis and the perennial defects in the health service. All of us should be putting our efforts into remedying these first, before spending time and money removing the only legal protection left to unborn Irish babies (alive, but not yet born – (‘na mbeo gan breith’). Some might cynically suggest that there is method in the Government’s priorities, since through legislating for abortion, the government ultimately reduces the population. What if the estimated 100,000 lives saved by the 8th amendment since 1983, had been aborted instead?

I was particularly touched by the conversation you had in 1983 with your mother which changed your language on abortion. Her straightforward remark about your miscarried sibling: “Don’t tell me it isn’t a baby!” could well be repeated this week, to remind voters what they are voting on. Will the Irish people do away with rights currently provided under the Constitution to the voiceless unborn or will they choose to dispense with these rights altogether? Will you? You are only a few steps away. There is still time to re-assess that Yes vote, and vote No.

In voting No you would be generously considering the rights of all, not just one privileged group. No-one needs to be “put through the wringer” if they have a diagnosis or rather prognosis, of a life limiting condition. Instead, the love of perinatal hospice care here in Ireland is a kinder solution for the parents and children in these heartrending situations. This is a service which the government could offer cheaply, without disrupting the two patient model of pregnancy, which is so in keeping with that phrase you love: “Blessed is the fruit of thy womb…”.

So go for it, Nell, do the women and babies of Ireland a favour, in this gravest of moments and take the next logical step to what your heart is telling you.

Thank you for taking the time to consider these thoughts as we stand on the threshold of the most important referendum in decades for our entire land.

Kind regards,

Mary Lewis


Conscience, Abortion, and the SDLP

As is now well known, last weekend the SDLP voted in favour of two motions: (i) to allow a conscience vote on abortion and (ii) to retain the pro-life party policy. Just a few days after this, the party leader Colum Eastwood came out in favour of repeal in the referendum in the south citing concern about difficult situations. There are number of things to observe here.

How we are to take the retention of the SDLP’s pro-life policy whilst at the same time endorsing a conscience vote on the matter of abortion? At best we can say that the SDLP as a party will not campaign for abortion. But at the same time, how can the SDLP support the pro-life position as party policy if those who are not pro-life and do not support pro-life measures are permitted to campaign and vote on policies inconsistent with the right to life? Whilst these issues may not have any effect on the pro-life position of the majority of the party members, it means that SDLP public representatives can, without impediment, endorse positions inconsistent with the pro-life party policy.

Given that the majority of members of the SDLP are pro-life, one may not be too concerned with its adopting a conscience position on abortion. However, what is of concern is party leader Colum Eastwood coming out in favour of repeal in the south and seeking a law change for difficult situations whilst at the same time calling himself pro-life (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-44198421). To be clear, to be pro-life in this context means to defend the right to life of those who have such a right. All human beings have such a right as stipulated by both the Universal Declaration of human rights, the European Convention, and good old rational thinking. Is Mr Eastwood’s position consistent with defending the right to life of all those who have such a right? Let’s consider the matter.

Mr Eastwood speaks of difficult situations that families and doctors are put in because of restrictions in law, and he would like to see that changed. But the law up here (and the case is similar in the south) is that it is lawful to perform an operation in Northern Ireland for the termination of a pregnancy, where: (i) it is necessary to preserve the life of a woman; or (ii) there is a risk of real and serious adverse effect on her physical or mental health, which is either long term or permanent. Not only is this consistent with the law, it is consistent with respecting the right to life of the unborn since the principle of double effect allows for an action to be undertaken the consequence but not direct intention of which is something that is morally problematic. Hence a woman can receive treatments the consequence but not direct intention of which is the ending of the life of the unborn; in such cases we are not working to end the life of the unborn, but to treat the mother. The law here (and in the south) has a balance between the right to life of the mother and of the unborn child.

Now Mr Eastwood wants to see the law changed in order to deal with difficult situations. These situations cannot be those in which the mother’s life is at risk or there is a real and serious risk to her mental/physical health, since these are already dealt with in the law. Thus, it follows that Mr Eastwood would like to see the law changed to allow for abortion in cases where the mother’s life is not at risk and she does not face a real and serious risk to her mental/physical health, long term or permanent. But this is inconsistent with protecting the right to life of the unborn, since in cases where the mother’s life is not at risk or there is not a serious risk to her mental/physical health, no measures need be taken which have the consequence but not the direct intention of ending the life of the unborn. In those cases, if we take measures to end the life of the unborn, we are doing so with the direct intention of ending the child’s life, not treating the mother. And this clearly violates the right to life of the unborn and cannot be adopted by anybody who is pro-life.

Mr Eastwood has the task of squaring the circle of being pro-life and allowing for the direct and intentional ending of life for someone who has a right to life. Whether he can square the circle is Mr Eastwood’s affair (I don’t think he can), but what is clear is that his position is confused and that his thinking on this matter does not merit to be called pro-life.

Dr Gaven Kerr




Sex Slavery and Anna’s Story

The Belfast Telegraph has recently featured the story of a woman who for the purposes of the story is named Anna. Anna was a victim of sex trafficking. She was kidnapped from London and brought to Galway in Ireland where she was used as a sex slave. She was then moved to Belfast, and it was whilst in Belfast that she escaped from her captors, eventually helping to bring some of them to justice. The details of the story can be read here including details of the book in which her story is documented: https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/life/features/belfast-sex-slave-if-i-asked-for-food-i-was-beaten-if-i-tried-to-sleep-i-was-raped-36902724.html. It should be noted that even from the details of the Belfast Telegraph story, Anna’s ordeal is quite shocking.

Anna represents the plight of many women who are forced into sex slavery. In the story in the Belfast Telegraph it is noted that after she had escaped in Belfast she did not have very much support in terms of services for women in her situation. She felt that she had to make politicians aware of the reality of life as a sex slave, a reality that she lived through. Anna met with Lord Morrow who at the time had proposed a private members bill to help deal with human trafficking by making life harder for the traffickers, and she also met later with then First Minister Peter Robinson.

Lord Morrow’s bill was opposed by Amnesty International, not on the principle of protecting trafficked women, but on the principle that the bill proposed to make it illegal to pay for the sexual services of a prostitute (https://www.amnesty.org.uk/press-releases/northern-ireland-amnesty-responds-private-members-bill-tackle-human-trafficking). Amnesty International argued that it confused sex trafficking with the payment of services of a prostitute, and that by confusing the two there was a risk of diverting resources away from tackling trafficking.

But such a fine grained and arbitrary distinction stands at odds with Anna’s experience, since she was kidnapped and sold into sex slavery precisely because people were willing to pay for sex. Moreover, Anna notes in the Belfast Telegraph story that sex trafficking is a big business with people making a fortune selling women’s bodies – if traffickers did not think that people would pay for sex with their victims, they would not be trafficking the victims for that purpose! Once one permits the principle that it is acceptable to pay for sex, then the person providing the services ceases to be viewed as a person and becomes something of use for the one paying.

Outside of the human trafficking situation, one may wish to argue that a woman selling her body for sex is no different than an employee selling his or her time and indeed body to an employer for a job that needs done. Indeed, one may argue that sex is just another job that needs done and women who have not been trafficked but freely chosen to engage in such an endeavour should be allowed to charge for it.

However, the problem with viewing the work of sex as just any other kind of work where there is a legitimate employer-employee relationship is as follows. The employee does not sell himself in return for wages; the employee sells his time and skills for which he is rewarded. Thus the employer values the time and skills of the employee more than he (the employer) values his own money, and the employee values the employer’s money more than he (the employee) values his time and skill. But crucially the employee is not selling himself. The prostitute is selling herself, because sex is something that is done with one’s body, and a person is an embodied being. Persons are not minds floating around independently of bodies; persons, human persons at least, are bodily things. Thus, when one engages in sex, the person is engaged and gives himself or herself to the other. That is why sex is such a personal encounter, because it represents two people at their most intimate and personal. By buying sex and selling it, a person becomes a commodity and no longer treated as an end in herself, but as a means to an end. The buying and selling of sex then depersonalises the one selling it, and treats that person as something less than human.

So there is a major difference between an employer/employee relationship and one wherein sex is for sale. The latter depersonalises one of the people involved whereas the former does not. Given the depersonalisation involved in the paying for sex, the one who sells sex comes to be viewed as less than human but a mere object for use. And since that person is now envisaged as an object for use, it’s not too much of a leap for a very poorly formed character to deny that person any sort of say in how he or she is used – and therein is the root of the trafficker’s mindset. Thus, it is right and just that in tackling human trafficking, one also tackles the paying for sex, because it is out of the latter that people become objects and ultimately can be bought and sold.

Blog, Media

No Excuse for Denying Facts about Abortion

The discussion on abortion on Last week’s BBC NI top table show with Stephen Nolan was noteworthy for a number of reasons (https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b09yn0n9/the-top-table-series-2-episode-3). While passionate exchanges are to be expected on such an emotive issue as abortion the pro -choice contributors displayed a staggering lack of knowledge as regards the gestational development of unborn babies and a blatant disregard for facts. One young man on the panel aggressively asserted that the unborn are not human and are completely incapable of experiencing any pain or suffering while in the womb throughout all nine months of pregnancy. This is spectacularly untrue. A cursory glance at a basic biology book on foetal development highlights the fact that brain waves are detectable between weeks 5 and 6. By week 8 every organ is in place. By 11 weeks brain, lungs, liver, and kidney are fully formed. Indeed there has for a number of years been discussion in medical circles regarding the appropriateness of providing analgesia for unborn babies at around 24 weeks during the abortion procedure. This is now discouraged due to perceived risks to maternal healthcare that such analgesia could affect. The fact however that there is an acknowledgement of pain inflicted on an unborn baby during an abortion procedure by medical professionals is surely both revealing and highly disturbing.

As stated on the show, it is one thing to deny that unborn babies have no human rights but based on impressive modern ultrasound technology which effectively gives us a window to the womb, to assert that pre-born babies are not in any way human is plainly absurd.

Another established fact that was readily dismissed by the pro-choice commentators on the programme was the lifesaving impact that our abortion law here in N.I has had. As the Both Lives Matter research has revealed, at least 100,000 people are alive today because of our restrictive abortion laws. This statistic was famously upheld by the Advertising Standards agency as a realistic estimate following complaints by the pro-choice lobby. According to the Amnesty representative however this is simply a myth.

While passionate exchanges and differences of opinion are to be expected on such an emotive topic as abortion there is surely no excuse for denying facts.

Tracy Harkin