In 1983 these words were added to the Constitution of the Republic of Ireland:
“The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.”
This paragraph, called the 8th amendment or Article 40.3.3, effectively prohibits abortion except in exceptional circumstances to save the life of the mother.
In May or June of this year, another referendum will be held on repealing the 8th amendment. To some, the amendment is a relic of harsh times and needs to be jettisoned to allow for a woman’s right to choose. To others, the 8th amendment is a humane piece of law which has saved the lives of at least 100,000 babies since 1983.
The Irish government has indicated its intention, if the referendum passes, to legalise abortion for any reason within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and in certain cases after that limit. Those arguing against such a change point to Great Britain where nearly 9 million babies have been aborted since 1967 when abortion was legalised (supposedly only in very restricted cases). Pro-repeal campaigners also look to the UK mainland, but they point out that thousands of Irish women already cross the Irish Sea every year for terminations.
The issues involved in the abortion debate may seem complex, but at the heart of the discussion is a simple, profound question: is the human embryo a person with rights or not? If the foetus is simply ‘a clump of cells’ or ‘a piece of tissue’ then why not remove and dispose of it? But if it is a real human being then it deserves the protection that any child would enjoy.
How to decide? Scripture and Science both shed light on the question, and are in agreement. The Bible tells us that unborn babies are human beings. Take, for example, Luke 1:39-45 where the pregnant Mary and Elizabeth meet each other and Elizabeth says, “the baby in my womb leaped for joy” at the sound of Mary’s greeting. Not only is this a remarkable picture of the unborn John the Baptist having emotions and reacting to events, but the Greek word used here for “baby” (brephos) is also used by Luke to refer to the newborn baby Jesus (2:16) and to the infants who were brought to the Lord to be blessed (18:15). No distinction is made between pre-born, new-born and infant children.
Science confirms what Scripture asserts. Modern biology shows that the foetus has its own distinct DNA from the moment of conception and ultrasound studies reveal how the baby’s intricate organs and features develop in the first few weeks of life, and how the child moves and reacts to stimuli from an early stage. Even some pro-choice campaigners now admit that abortion involves the taking of a real human life.
Every Irish citizen with a vote will have to make up their own mind on whether they want Ireland to continue to offer constitutional protection to the unborn, or whether they hope for a situation like that in GB. Our own Archbishops have spelled out that the tradition of the Church of Ireland would reject unrestricted access to abortion. Without the 8th amendment, it is hard to see how we can avoid being faced with exactly that.